Burnout

Claims adjusters are subject to high work loads and the stress that goes with them. But how do you mitigate the stress in order to be not just a productive but a healthy human being? Michael Moss, a human resources consultant with American International Talent Acquisition Inc., gives the following advice.

Do you know this guy (or gal)?

He is a claims adjuster working for the Crayfish Group. He is a really dedicated worker. Every morning, the pile of claim files seems higher than it did yesterday morning. He never goes on vacation, because the number of files on desk seems to double when he returns. He’s been fighting a lot with his wife. He never spends time with his kids. He is putting on weight … and drinking a little too much. Every two years he finds another adjuster job for a little more money and the hope of a lighter case load. He isn’t sure about his future. His company is monitoring him, and he knows he is being scrutinized. He hates Monday mornings and can’t wait until Friday. He is under the gun, working late hours, and he is starting to feel that his life is spinning out of control. He got into this business to help people, but as time goes on he is exposed to fraud, difficult customer interactions, strict legal requirements and attorneys who talk down to him. He is so done … he is fried!

You don’t need to go to medical school to be able to diagnose “claims adjuster burnout” in this guy. So what exactly do we mean by “burnout”? According to a group of physicians who study doctor burnout and published their results in the Aug. 20, 2012, issue of the  Archives of Internal Medicine, it is a syndrome characterized by:

• a loss of enthusiasm for work (emotional exhaustion),

• feelings of cynicism about one’s job and purpose, and

• a low sense of personal accomplishment.

On a personal level, adjusters with burnout can experience family problems, broken relationships, problematic involvement with alcohol and other drugs, and even thoughts of suicide.

In the workplace, burnout can also adversely impact upon his or her professionalism and the quality of the work product, increase the risk of errors and omissions, and potentially result in significant monetary losses to the company. Burnout also promotes dissatisfaction with one’s job, raises anxieties concerning job security and can even force the claims adjuster into an early retirement.

In many ways, burnout affects the claims adjuster, his or her family, his or her co-workers, and the company for whom he or she works.

Interestingly, it may be the most dedicated claims adjusters who are at the greatest risk to suffer from “burnout.” It is the loyal, enthusiastic, hard-working, mission critical employees on the team that are the most likely to become “fried” in the workplace environment. In most cases, it’s all about how the employee reacts to the workplace stresses associated with doing the job correctly and in a timely fashion.

Understanding stress in the workplace

Our general understanding of stress began in 1936 with the work of Dr. Hans Selye. In fact, Dr. Selye coined the term stress and he differentiated between the stressors, those things that produce stress, and the stress itself which is the response or reaction to those stressors. Having a pile of unreviewed claims on your desk that are due this Friday is a stressor. Your reaction to that pile of claims on your desk is your stress response, and that can vary quite a bit depending upon your health, work history, coping ability and background emotional state.

Interestingly, Dr. Selye also showed that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Our stress responses can motivate us, enhance our attention, make us more efficient, and generally bring out the best performance in the workplace. Dr. Selye called this type of stress, eustress or good stress.

He noted that persistent stress that is not resolved through coping or adaptation should be known as distress, and may lead to anxiety, withdrawal, depressive behavior and poor performance (also known as “burnout”). In contrast, if stress enhances one’s functioning it may be considered eustress, and this can be a pretty good thing.

In order to illustrate, there is a story about the famous actress Helen Hayes, who had terrible stage fright before every performance. While her anxieties in anticipation of her stage performances put her in distress or a state of bad stress, once on stage she gave award-winning performances that were personally gratifying, as well as awarding her public acclaim.

The point is that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. If the individual has strong coping skills, distress can be turned into eustress and performance in the workplace can be enhanced rather than diminished regardless of the pressure placed upon them.

 

Healthy habits to avoid burnout

What can the harried claims adjuster do to keep from burning out?

There are two major components to keeping workplace stressors from resulting in distress and burnout. The first involves maintenance of a healthy, balanced lifestyle so that you are physically and emotionally capable of adapting to workplace stressors. If you start the workday tired, uncomfortable and emotionally out of sorts, it will hard to cope with the stressors regularly piled on in the workplace. Here are some key points:

• Get plenty of sleep and maintain a consistent sleep-wake schedule even on weekends. The hormone systems in your body associated with stress responses have an internal biological clock that is synchronized to your sleep-wake cycle. Maintain a strong sleep-wake cycle and you keep your biological coping systems healthy and active.

• Eat well and avoid a “roller coaster” in blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar is a potent biological stressor that can activate the same stress response system in your body as having a pile of unreviewed claims on your desk. Don’t skip meals. Have breakfast with some protein in it. Protein helps stabilize your blood sugar. Have lunch, even if you are under time pressures. Take it easy on the sugars and animal fats, but focus more on high-protein foods for lunch. You won’t be ready for a nap at 3 p.m., and you will work more efficiently with stable blood sugar levels in your brain.

• Don’t resort to alcohol as a stress reliever. The body recognizes alcohol (and other drugs) as biological stressors. After all, they are chemicals that don’t normally belong in the body, and the body recognizes them as foreign invaders. Add the workplace stressors on top of alcohol-related stressors, and you have the recipe for a body that can’t cope. Impaired coping will push you into a state of distress and burnout rather than productive adaptation and good stress.

• Exercise and sports are activities that typically involve physical and mental stressors and good stress responses. Engaging in these activities regularly conditions your stress response system so that regular participation “inoculates” you against the bad stress responses (that is, distress and burnout) and increases your ability to generate positive stress responses (productivity and positive mood states).

Stress management techniques

These techniques provide a variety of positive coping behaviors that can be used when experiencing a stressful workplace situation. The concept here is to change a distress response to a eustress response when confronted with workplace stressors. In general, they work best in someone with the aforementioned healthy habits (“a healthy body and a healthy mind”). However, they can also be helpful to reduce bad stress responses even in the case of someone suffering from ill health.

Meditation: Meditation is the term used to cover a wide variety of techniques employed to alter consciousness and attention in order to achieve some type of benefit. Frequently, that benefit involves relaxation, promoting internal energy, creating an enhancement of concentration, developing a sense of well-being or promoting positive mood states. It traditionally has been used in the context of religious belief systems that may also improve the individual’s ability to cope with stressors in the environment. Meditation is typically “low tech”; however, there are techniques such as biofeedback that share many of the characteristics and benefits of meditation but use high-tech equipment.

Relaxation training: Several techniques have been developed that share the benefits of meditation but are grounded in contemporary science. These include Benson’s Relaxation Response and Progressive Muscle Relaxation, a widely used procedure today that was originally developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobson in 1939.

Yoga and tai chi: Yoga is a widely popular type of physical, mental and spiritual discipline that originated in ancient India. It combines the advantages of meditative techniques with physical exercise and healthy habits. Tai chi originated in China and is based on Taoist philosophy. It is a system of “moving meditation” that also enhances mental concentration while building internal energy (“chi”). Like yoga, it is a popular body-mind approach to coping with a wide variety of stressors.

 

Will changing jobs help burnout?

First, it is true that some workplace environments are so toxic that the only way to reduce these occupational stresses to change venues. I have seen many unhappy, burned-out employees become happier and more productive in a different job in a new workplace environment.

However, changing positions is not a panacea. I’ve seen some of my more burned-out candidates take their distress reactions with them to their new places of employment, and after a few short months in the new job they show all the signs and symptoms of job burnout that led them to make a move in the first place.

So it is hard to make blanket statements about the benefits of job change on burnout. It is a complex issue where there is an interaction between the person and job environment.

The work of claims adjusters is highly pressured and requires a unique skill set. I like to focus on individual factors such as acquiring healthy habits and learning stress management techniques before I recommend a workplace change, because this is a high-stressor business, and no matter you are, much of your occupational happiness depends on you.