Burnout: “What a Star—What a Jerk”

The character, Andy Zimmerman, in Cliffe’s (2001) fictitious hypothetical is obviously intelligent and hard-working; however, he appears to be suffering from “burnout”. Korczak, Huber, and Kister (2010) describe the contemporary definition of burnout as essentially equated to work-related syndrome, which is characterized by “emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation [sic] or cynicism and reduced professional efficacy” (p. 3); however, the authors acknowledge a plethora of symptoms, definitions, and theories in the literature and call for standardization for improved diagnosis and research. Maslach and Leiter (2010) describe burnout as “[reflecting] an uneasy relationship between people

and their work” (p. 44). In the case of Andy Zimmerman, it appears that he has depersonalized his work, evidenced by his egoism and rage towards his co-workers. Also, from reading the fictitious account, assumptions can be made: 1) Andy Zimmerman did not start his job by acting in such manner; therefore, this is a change that Jane Epstein would not be privy, and 2) Andy Zimmerman may feel that his work is falling from his own personal standard and finds blame in others, which goes towards his egoism. In all, these might account for some level of reduced professional efficacy. However, as Korczak et al. discuss, there is no valid diagnostic criteria of burnout and application is difficult as burnout has strong correlation with depression and alexithymia (see footnote 1), each of which could contribute to Andy Zimmerman’s attitudes and outbursts.

Employees who are suffering burnout or other psychosocial maladies have a negative and detrimental effect on other co-workers (Maslach and Leiter, 2010; Korczak, Huber, & Kister, 2010). In the case of Andy Zimmerman, his relationship with his work environment is certainly reducing the efficacy of others. Is it possible that Andy Zimmerman’s tirades are the only reason that he is the top performer? Could it be that culling inappropriate behavior would more than make up for the loss of one man’s productivity?

According to Fallon and McConnell (2007), many employees that are suffering personal problems to the degree that they interfere with work are able to benefit from managers pointing out how their work has been suffering, but employees that are identified as possibly suffering from burnout syndrome (or, any major personal problem that adversely effects work) should be referred to the employee assistance program, if at all possible. Fallon and McConnell go further to state, and rightly so, that managers should not give advice on personal matters but only provide a means of rectifying professional performance. Managers are poorly equipped to handle counseling of a personal nature. Instead, Fallon and McConnell demonstrate the utility of the progressive discipline model to both educate an employee about his or her responsibilities and allow him or her to rectify the situation. Unfortunately, however, behavior problems sometime end with termination, though “experts note that when an employee is released for a serious infraction, the problem has been corrected by removing its cause” (Fallon & McConnell, 2007, p. 260).

In regards to Jane Epstein’s troubles with Andy Zimmerman, double standards of employee conduct cannot exist (Fallon & McConnell, 2007). Jane must do something to quell the growing rift within her department. First, Jane must document everything in regards to Andy (Fallon & McConnell, 2007). This, most of all, will support the premise that Jane used all possible solutions before considering termination. Next, Jane should ensure that Andy understands that the behavior will not be tolerated any longer. This could, perhaps, be coupled with a statement referencing the employee assistance program or other route of anger management counseling. Finally, Jane might consider that the work being performed is not well matched for Andy. Mismatched work is a significant cause of burnout, and if this is suspected, Jane could discuss the potential for professional growth with Andy, which might alleviate the outbursts (“Don’t take your people for granted,” 2010; Maslach & Leiter, 2010). Finally, if Andy continues to fail to conform to the department policies, he must be terminated. Jane needs to view her responsibilities to the department over any she might feel towards a single employee (Fallon & McConnell, 2007).


Cliffe, S. (2001). What a star — what a jerk. Harvard Business Review, 79(8), 37–48.

Don’t take your people for granted. (2010). Healthcare Executive, 25(4), 40.

Fallon, L. F. & McConnell, C. R. (2007). Human resource management in health care: principles and practice. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Hosoi, M., Molton, I. R., Jensen, M. P., Ehde, D. M., Amtmann, S., O’Brien, S., … Kubo, C. (2010). Relationships among alexithymia and pain intensity, pain interference, and vitality in persons with neuromuscular disease: Considering the effect of negative affectivity. Pain, 149(2): 273–277. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2010.02.012

Korczak, D., Huber, B., & Kister, C. (2010). Differential diagnostic of the burnout syndrome. GMS Health Technology Assessment, 6, 1-9. doi:10.3205/hta000087

Maslach, C. & Leiter, M. P. (2010). Reversing burnout: How to rekindle your passion for work. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 38(4), 91-96. doi:10.1109/EMR.2010.5645760


1. Alexithymia is defined as a lack of emotional awareness and the inability to identify or label emotions, which is demonstrated by difficulty identifying and describing feelings and difficulty with externally-oriented thinking (Hosoi et al., 2010).

2. In response to Cliffe’s (2001) “What a Star—What a Jerk”:

  • Mary Rowe calls on Jane to show laissez-faire leadership in which she does nothing directly but tries to “work with Andy” to come to a workable solution, relying on upper management to provide discipline. In the writing, Jane has already approached Andy and discussed his attitudes towards his co-workers; however, the positive result of this conversation was short-lived, and Andy reverted to his tactics of ill-temperment and hostility. In my opinion, these attitudes have no place in the workplace, and Jane should be adamant about this point before Andy directs his rage towards her, further undermining her authority.
  • Chuck McKenzie, however, makes some good points on how to work with Andy (so long as there is actual value in Andy remaining employed with TechiCo). Mr. McKenzie calls for some innovative changes in the organizational structure to separate Andy from the rest of the team, capitalizing on increased productivity all around. Additionally, creating a specialized team of high performers might alleviate burnout (if, in fact, that is what Andy is suffering) and demonstrate to Jane’s superiors that there are ways to isolate and reward top performers while tolerating average performers. Before doing anything, as Mr. McKenzie points out, Jane needs to become a leader and stop acting like a manager.
  • While Kathy Jordan elucidates more of the same philosophy as Chuck McKenzie in regards to leadership, she advocates trust and positivity between Jane and Andy. I feel that trust and positivity are a product of a viable working relationship and are more goals than standards. Ms. Jordan is right, however, that Jane must prove her mettle in a very short time.
  • Finally, James Waldroop provides some real insight into how Jane might best lead and mold Andy into a star employee. Either that, or Jane has started the time table for Andy’s departure. All in all, leaders need followers, and leaders cultivate followers; however, if a subordinate does not wish to follow, then the leader cannot lead or cultivate. In this case, the relationship has failed.