Burn Out

Dear Management Doctor:

I recently came across a study that suggests one of the biggest complaints employees have is, "They are not sufficiently recognized by their organizations for the work they do... When employees don't feel the organization respects and values them, they tend to experience higher levels of burnout." The paper is titled, What Makes the Job Tough? The Influence of Organizational Respect on Burnout in Human Services. While this study is of employees in health care, I think there may be parallels in other service sectors including local government.

Most interesting to me was:

  • Perceived disrespect for individuals may be particularly problematic; because it is not just the demands of the job, or the personality of the employee that drives burnout. The organizational environment, good versus poor management, in the form of organizational respect, may therefore have a clear and critical role in stemming burnout.
  • Respect can be a powerful signal to individuals regarding their standing, not only as employees but as people. As information comes from a variety of sources, one's perceptions of respect and disrespect are not only based on how one views one's own treatment, but also how others are treated. For example, when team members see someone else on the team being treated unfairly, they alter their own perceptions of the fairness of the team. Likewise, the extent to which others are treated can influence an individual's own perceptions of respect.
  • Being a longer-tenured employee significantly correlated with higher burnout and withdrawal behaviors. From a managerial perspective, withdrawal behaviors are perhaps more important than turnover because withdrawal may be the response taken by employees who do not have high quality job alternatives.
What are your thoughts about employee recognition and burn out? What role do large and small local governments or planning organizations have in minimizing burn out for their employees vs. what responsibility do employees have in managing their own levels of job interest and commitment?

Thank you.

Todd Tucker, AICP
Town of Frederick, Colorado

Dear Todd,

You raise some very interesting points. I believe that both the employee and the organization have a responsibility concerning job interest and commitment. Let’s look at each one.

  • The employee always has a personal responsibility for his/her job interest and commitment. It does no good to say – poor me – and passively not address issues in the organization. However, if issues can’t be resolved the employee’s choice is either to move on or be stagnated in their current situation. Isn’t life too short for that? Recent studies show that the number one reason employees leave their organizations is that they can’t stand their boss or the organization.
  • The organization has a responsibility because they want employees who are turned on, productive and not burned out. They do this by finding employees who fit the local and organizational environment; they empower them, train them and give them recognition. If they allow employees to burn out and have low commitment but yet retain the employee, both the employee and the organization suffer.
I believe this situation is the same for both large and small local governments and planning organizations. Is it a problem? You bet. We see it all the time in our consulting practice.

Don’t let the fire go out.

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

Would it be possible to get a copy of the paper “What Makes the Job Tough? The Influence of Organizational Respect on Burnout in Human Service” that is referenced in this column? Thanks very much!

David German
James City, Virginia

Click here to read the paper, "What Makes the Job Tough? The Influence of Organizational Respect on Burnout in Human Service.”


Kouzes and Pozner's book, Encouraging the Heart deals with this very topic and includes simple applications to try. Employees are worth the effort and they do appreciate reward and recognition.

Celeste Deardorff
City of Lakeland, Florida


I'm working for a planning and engineering firm with nearly 1,000 employees in six western states. Our top management believes that the company cannot survive without satisfied employees. The company’s philosophy is, "We find outstanding professionals and give them the freedom and support to do what they do best."

More than lip service, the company lives its words. While hourly employees are, of course, paid for overtime, even salaried employees are paid straight time for each hour worked. The company pays 100% of the employees’ benefits, including dependent coverage, so that employees do not have to make health insurance decisions based on cost rather than on a program that works for them.

The firm spends literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in training through its in-house "university." The next course being offered in a teleconference setting is, "Balancing work and home." Other classes are rotated around the various office locations on a regular basis. Employees enrolled in a class have all expenses paid by the firm.

Each fall, the company uses an independent outside auditor to conduct anonymous surveys of all employees – and all employees participate. The goal is to achieve a 90% job satisfaction rate. If there are problem areas — such as occurred this year on a couple of issues — top management moves immediately to correct the situation.

This same approach can work in local government – if staff is respected by elected officials. If I recall about 10 or 15 years ago, the City Manager in Visalia had an innovative approach to employee empowerment.

It is interesting to observe other industries and their treatment of employees. The Ritz hotel chain empowers every employee from housekeepers and busboys to top management with the ability to spend a fairly good sum of money to ensure a guest is satisfied on their own judgment. When the Ritz won the Malcom Baldridge award some years ago, the amount was $2,000. Those employees felt trusted and respected.

Sometimes it's just the little things that make a Difference – a quick off-the-laser certificate for a job well done. Recognizing staff member achievements at Board or Council meetings. One mayor I know has any employee receiving a certificate for a training class or a professional license, PE, AICP, ICBO, and other organizations, receive that certificate at a brief ceremony in a council meeting. Everyone in the audience of course applauds, but it's a good feeling for the staff member.

Just a couple of ways employees can be respected – some with costs, some with caring.

Eric Jay Toll
David Evans and Associates, Inc.
Phoenix, Arizona