"Is your job your life? If so, go get a life," advises business doctoral student Rita Shea–Van Fossen. It's not advice she hands out cavalierly or without empathy, but nonetheless it's her prescription to prevent real workplace burnout. Shea–Van Fossen is conducting research into how workplace burnout develops. "There has been very little theory for what's happening; burnout's not well understood," she says.



  • Is your job priority #1?
  • Does work pull you away from what is most important in your life?
  • Do your friends and family think you are overly engaged with your work?
  • Are you young, right out of college, and gung-ho?
  • Do you have vacation time banked and not taken? Or, worse, have you lost vacation time because you felt you couldn't take it?

Illustration by Scott Matthews

This second careerist doesn't derive her interest in burnout from her own work-life experiences, although she admits to times of exhaustion during her 18 years at Coopers & Lybrand, the Sands Hotel and Casino, and the Red Cross of Philadelphia as their CFO. Among her fellow business academics, "burnout" means something very specific.

"Burnout is a long-term process. In our common vernacular, we use 'burned out' to mean tired, which it doesn't. It's much more than a bad day at the office," she explains. "With burnout, there's emotional exhaustion, cynicism/depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment." The current research shows that personality is not a big factor in burnout and that burnout is more about the environment than the individual. But Shea–Van Fossen is not convinced. "If that's the case, then why don't I have one company where everybody's stressed and another where everybody is fine?"




Shea–Van Fossen
competing at the
NASTAR racecourse in
Vail, Colorado, last January.

She believes the key lies in the individual's sense of priorities. Burnout, she suspects, happens to folks who place work above all else." The workplace is not perfect. At some point, you're going to come across roadblocks. If you can't be successful at the most important thing in your life, you are going to burnout eventually." Burnout also occurs when work takes over, causing a person to spend less time on those things that really matter to him or her. So if her hypotheses pan out, how might business thinking change? "Businesses need people to get the work done. Many organizations don't realize what they are doing to their people, especially their best people, because the person who gets burned out in many cases may be their best worker, someone who is really engaged—maybe too engaged." Some solutions for at-risk employees: vacation, a sabbatical, or a prohibition on overtime. "Businesses need to think of employees as more than just those robots that are going to work, work, work for them."

Rita Shea–Van Fossen will complete her dissertation and her first full marathon in 2007.