The term burnout often is used incorrectly to describe everything from exhaustion to hating your job but those who have studied the subject say it encompasses specific criteria and unfortunately is extremely difficult from which to recover Thinkstock

The term burnout often is used incorrectly to describe everything from exhaustion to hating your job, but those who have studied the subject say it encompasses specific criteria and, unfortunately, is extremely difficult from which to recover. (Thinkstock)

Driver burnout: It's not just about being tired

George woke up in his cab one morning and didn't feel like driving. "I was exhausted, so I just sat all day in the TA and drank coffee, played some video games. I told my dispatcher that I had been throwing up and couldn't drive. I didn't like lying, and it made me feel like a deadbeat, but I didn't have a choice. I was so tired. Truth be told, I didn't really give a crap about the load anymore, or the job. Nothing really mattered."

The third-year driver, who asked that his real name not be used, wasn't just tired, bored or unhappy about his job, he probably was suffering from 'burnout,' a difference that eludes and confounds both drivers and their companies – even some doctors –  but is a serious and explicit malady from which recovery is more than a solid night's sleep away. While the term burnout often is used incorrectly to describe everything from exhaustion to hating your job, those who have studied the subject say it encompasses specific criteria and, unfortunately, is extremely difficult from which to recover. Many sufferers must quit their jobs to do so.

Nobody knows how much industry turnover is attributable to burnout, but driving a truck almost seems like a job made to order for the problem.

Michael Leiter, who recently joined the faculty at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, has been researching burnout for 30 years. He is one of the editors-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal Burnout Research. According to Leiter, the current research shows that burnout has three components.

The first is physical and mental exhaustion. "Some people say burnout is just exhaustion, which is silly, since you could just call it exhaustion,” he explained. “It's clearly more than that, but exhaustion is definitely a piece of it. Exhaustion is when you say 'I feel tired when I start my work day.' Feeling tired at the end of your work day is not so bad, but when you feel tired at the beginning, it means that it's chronic. You're not really getting the rest and recovery you need, so that's one dimension, but still it's exhaustion. It's not burnout."

The second is cynicism about the job and distancing yourself from it. "For example," said Leiter, "you used to think you had a neat job, but now you say, 'I really don't give a damn anymore,' and part of that is often tied with being miffed at management for interfering with things. You find yourself saying, 'I just want to get away from this.' It's a kind of distancing and cynicism."

The third component is losing confidence in your abilities and skill. "Your sense of efficacy drops," Leiter said. "Ideally, you once felt like you were doing important work, and were good at it, but with burnout, you start doubting whether your work is important and that you're good at it." This combination of exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of efficacy defines burnout."

When told of these criteria for burnout driver George said, "Yes. I felt all of this."

Leiter added: "What we find with people who are burned out is that they're concerned about workload and having too many demands, but they also are just really frustrated with everything about the job. They don't like the management of it. They don't like the pay.  Everything seems unfair, and they say things like: 'People are just really unpleasant to me, I don't like these people at all, and everything about this job is...  I don't like it at all."

Truck driver burnout
Current research shows burnout has three components: physical and mental exhaustion, cynicism about the job, and losing confidence in your abilities and skills. (Thinkstock)

Burnout is a relatively new concept, having been identified by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, who coined the phrase based on his work at free clinics and therapeutic communities. In 1980, he published “Burn Out: The High Cost of High Achievement.” What it is and how to survive it, a book that became a standard reference on the topic. Much of his ideas survive, but his original 12-stage rubric of burnout has been pared down to three criteria. "It isn't quite so organized in that way, and the data doesn't really support it so much. It was a good early try to make sense out of it, but I don't really subscribe to that [the 12 stages]," said Leiter.

Vishwanath Baba, professor of management and chair, human resources and management at DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who studies stress and burnout, agrees.

"The first symptom of burnout is exhaustion,” he noted. “You’re tired and oftentimes you're not merely physically tired but mentally tired. It is what I call emotional exhaustion. That is the first sign of burnout.”

When you're emotionally exhausted, he added, you're not able to provide the kind of service or attention that your work demands. You depersonalize the people you're working for and your customers. Then you start feeling guilty about it. "You think, 'I’m supposed to be good at this, but I don’t think I’m good at it anymore.' Self-doubt starts seeping in."

To Baba and others who research the issue, it's more effective and easier to deal with the causes of burnout before they occur. He is adamant about this. "My attitude is that it's much better to deal with the stress and the antecedents of stress, rather than treating burnout. It is already quite late when you start feeling burnout. When a manager sees burnout in a person, the best strategy is to reassign them." He added: "Take them away from the work environment and reassign."

He admits that this isn’t easy for carrier managers to do. Baba, who has presented his findings on driver stress to trucking industry stakeholders, says that managers can help by seeing early indications of burnout in drivers and taking action. "Burnout is an end state. It doesn't happen overnight."

The most important signs for managers to look for are drivers dragging their feet on assignments, being negative about everything and reluctance about doing the job. There are several remedies that managers can employ. The first is to increase a driver's resources such as more time to do the job and the training to deal with it. "As a manager, you need to make sure that the demands you place upon your workers are reasonable. I always tell managers to build a little slack time in designing work for their people." Again, it's not an easy fix for drivers.

Baba added: "Be realistic in terms of what resources are needed and make sure workers have those resources, including intellectual resources. If someone doesn’t know how to do certain things, provide training. Make sure they have equipment that is working and in good shape… in other words, try to minimize their stress level."

He noted that dispatchers and managers need to appreciate that not all drivers are the same. Some can handle what's thrown at them and others cannot. "Instead of treating them all as an undifferentiated mass, take a look at these [troubled] people and ask them, 'What is the problem?' Try to start a conversation. "

Leiter and Baba concur that social networks, phone conversations and other interactions can help prevent burnout if drivers are willing to reach out. "It's difficult for a truck driver [because they're alone most of the day] but strong, supportive relationships to the people at work and outside work can make a very big difference. They say people don't quit a job; they quit a boss, but they also quit a team, so when you have other people that you're connecting with, these relationships are as valuable as they can be."

As for George, he quit driving and now works in construction. "I just didn't want to drive anymore. I hated it. It didn't bring me the joy or money I expected. My attitude is way better now about everything."  

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