Preventing Burnout: Learning About the "Whys" of Job Satisfaction

The practice of "headhunting" became popular after World War II when many executive and professional jobs went unfilled due to a tremendous expansion of the economy. At the time, employers used third-party "hired guns" to steer potential employees toward their corporation's greener pastures. Occasionally, I still run into a manager who thinks of headhunting as this old "gumshoe" approach, where key employees are lured behind potted palms to discuss wild offers of impressive stature and dramatic salary increases.

But things have definitely changed. Recruiters are now more like talent scouts, sorting through large numbers of available people. And one of the most important things a recruiter must learn is what makes an individual happy in his or her work.

After studying employment issues for a number of years, I've come to the conclusion that staying happy with one employer is a difficult task. Some people change jobs every few years as religiously as they put on new steel-belted radials. To avoid those changes, employers have found that it is important to recognize how dissatisfaction begins and learn how to prevent it. No matter what you call the resulting problems -- "plateauing" and "burnout" are two current terms -- most job dissatisfaction among scientists originates from their need for a continuous diet of new professional experiences.

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If It Isn't "Show Me the Money," What Is It?

I would strongly suggest that you think about what keeps you challenged and happy, even before you consider an anticipated job move. Have you thought about how you feel about job satisfaction? If you are currently in a postdoc or just getting out of grad school, you might believe that job satisfaction is related to eating steaks instead of macaroni and cheese on a regular basis. But once you get out off the grad school/postdoc treadmill, money is not the major determining factor of job satisfaction. (In fact, I can recall very few situations in which companies lost their best scientists simply as a result of salary.)

When an employee resigns, exit interviews are typically scheduled for the last day of work. In these interviews with the boss and the human resources department, the outgoing employee is asked about the reasons for the departure. The most common responses are "a lack of challenge," or that the former employee "just needed something more." (These reasons are certainly hazier than the old "had an offer I couldn't refuse" response.) It frustrates many managers because they realize that they might have been able to do something to retain the employee.

Scientists don't easily leave a job they like for money reasons. Instead, they most often leave jobs because their "Challenge/Mastery Shuttle" has gotten out of whack.

The Challenge/Mastery Shuttle

Olympic athlete and sports psychologist Robert Kriegel, who wrote the book "Inner Skiing," believes all individuals who have perfected their skills in one area (whether on the ski slope or in the lab) deal with the "Challenge/Mastery Shuttle." To the scientist, the "Shuttle" refers to the daily switch between new learning experiences and areas of personal mastery. For example, a microbiologist who loves to cultivate new and unusual organisms also spends a certain amount of time each day involved in running mundane assays as the company expert. Here, time on the job is spent in two areas, requiring a fine balance between the excitement of something new and the use of skills that have been mastered.

Kriegel's work describes several "zones" that we work in during the course of a day. The zones include the "challenge zone" and the "mastery zone." Some people seem to prefer the constantly changing, risk-taking atmosphere of the challenge zone, while others enjoy the benefits of the studied approach to mastering a particular skill. For most people, however, a mixture of the two appears best. Kriegel describes this as "the ability to shuttle between new challenges and areas of mastery."

When you have an imbalance between the two zones, you experience difficulties. Some questions to ask yourself: How do you feel about your ideal workday? Do you see yourself enjoying a continual mix of new challenges, or perhaps digging further into your particular area of mastery? These are points to investigate in any new job opportunity offered to you.

Industry Can Have Nonstop Challenges

Many biotechnology companies place so much emphasis on getting new products through the pipeline and into the marketplace that they create a nonstop challenge zone for their employees. This is unexplored territory for most scientists, who find that these challenges can result in a lot of pressure. Creative scientists enjoy the learning process, but if challenges continue without respite, they have no opportunity to develop their personal areas of mastery. This leads them into what Kriegel calls the "panic zone."

The panic zone is an uncomfortable place to find yourself. Unfortunately, many organizations that push their people through rapid change find their staff in the panic zone more often than anyone would like. The panic zone lies at one extreme of the job satisfaction scale and allows too little time for employee "mastery." Too many daily challenges -- leading to the panic zone -- can be one of the key reasons behind employee resignations.

But what happens if you find yourself with too much time spent in your area of personal mastery? This is the opposite end of the scale from the panic zone, and Robert Kriegel refers to it as the "drone zone." Kriegel believes that too much emphasis on mastery of a particular skill can lead to a sudden and quite unexpected feeling of job dissatisfaction stemming from boredom. Although it can sometimes feel great to exchange the rapids of the panic zone for the slower waters of mastering a particular scientific technique, the opportunity to shuttle between challenge and mastery keeps a job interesting.

Self Analysis Can Help

Here are a few questions to help you decide in advance what kind of a working environment you would need in order to keep your job satisfaction at the highest level possible:

  • What are the new areas you want to add to your on-the-job experience?
  • What areas have you already developed into a high level of personal expertise?
  • What is the right mix of these two, expressed as a percentage of your working hours?

Job satisfaction is a sense of personal growth most often measured by the challenges and "learning situations" experienced, combined with time to allow you to settle into specific areas of personal mastery. People who have spent years developing a specific area of expertise need a chance to keep those skills fine-tuned. But they also need to learn something new throughout each stage of their career. So take the time to figure out what you like doing and why. And try to plan your next career move around it. This is the Challenge/Mastery Shuttle at work!

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