Burnout is a huge problem for help desk pros and is a contributing factor for high turnover rates in the industry. According to a survey conducted by the Incoming Calls Management Institute (ICMI), one of the top five causes of turnover in call centers was “handling complaints and problems all day.”

The long hours, frustrating technologies, intolerant users, and other such stresses often contribute to support tech burnout, but they may not necessarily be the primary cause. Read on to learn the symptoms and likely origins of burnout so you can learn to identify (and possibly remedy) such problems.

Trying to stay on top
Although burnout can occur in any individual, it’s most often seen in the top performers of an organization. Individuals who are the first to explore a new area, solve a nagging problem, or chart uncharted territories are most susceptible. They have the greatest expectations and are always trying to bridge the gap between the realms of possibility and reality.

Stress is one of the defining attributes of these star performers. They strive to be better, to improve their surroundings, or to reach the ever-elusive goal of being successful (which is usually never achieved because stars are never successful enough). People who are driven in this way can drive themselves into burnout because they are incapable of recognizing the signs of stress, adapting their behavior, and most important, changing their attitudes.

Feeling powerless
Another big stress that can lead to burnout for support pros is feeling powerless to resolve recurring problems. Whether that recurring problem is a superior who won’t listen, a user base that “never learns,” or technology challenges that are never mastered, the result is the same. The true stress is the tension created by the need to solve problems or change the current reality and the perceived inability to do so.

Burnout manifests itself in many ways. For some people, burnout causes them to shut down and become apathetic. In others, it brings about self-destructive behavior. Individuals who are under too much stress may strike out without thinking, become angry with coworkers, or just make silly mistakes because they’re not thinking clearly. They may eventually start to shirk responsibilities, seeking the path of least resistance in everything they do.

My personal symptoms of burnout usually are manifested in an inability to concentrate. I turn up the music in my headphones or in my private office to deafening levels. The goal is to drown out the random thoughts that try to break my concentration. Sometimes it makes me unable to enjoy my usual pastimes. I flit between computer games and other activities that I usually enjoy, looking for a relief that will not come.

Here are some telltale signs that you or your staff may be experiencing burnout:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • General apathy, particularly in business-related issues
  • Lack of interest in socializing
  • Inability to have fun
  • Feeling like nothing ever happens
  • Feelings of stagnation
  • Feeling that no one cares
  • Feeling that everything is wrong or is not working out; an overall negative attitude

Because burnout affects people so differently, it can often be difficult to diagnose. The key is not in recognizing specific symptoms, but in recognizing that something is different and that the change is negative.

You can learn to be cognizant of your own mental state, and can then try to cut off the stress before it takes root. I identify apathy and an inability to concentrate as signs of impending burnout. If possible—and sometimes it’s not—I try to schedule extra “me” time. I go to a movie, play a game, schedule a trip that I want to take, or plan other activities that take me out of the situations that have led to these feelings.

Finding the cause
If you feel as though you have some of the symptoms of burnout, the next challenge is to identify its cause. This is a challenge because it’s rarely what people believe it to be. Most people assume that they are burned out because of the hours they are working or a lack of sleep. But the defining factors are often the areas in which one perceives there is no improvement or progress.

One of the ways to ferret out the cause is to start a list of things that are improving. Try to identify areas in need of improvement or attention. Start by defining every aspect of work life, home life, and personal growth. Leave no stone unturned.

If you’re a manager who has noticed burnout symptoms in your staff, work with the group (or individual) to create such a list. Creating this list can temporarily reduce the impact of burnout by focusing on areas that are positive and/or improving. At some point, you’ll identify an area in which there is stagnation. Perhaps you’ll even find more than one. Make a note of these areas and continue your list until you’ve completed it.

The areas of stagnation are the likely causes of the burnout. You probably stumbled across them in no particular order, so now put the list in order of importance. The items at the top of this list are the probable causes of your burnout.

Sometimes, the simple act of identifying such problem areas goes a long way toward remedying them. Understanding the cause of your burnout may rob it of some, but not all, of its power to control you or your staff.

More about burnout

Look for a follow-up article next week with tips for derailing burnout.