Fatigue or burn-out?

It is no doubt that auditing requires an enormous amount of energy to demonstrate the right skills -both on technical and soft level- before, during and after the audit. Needless to mention the amount of travelling an auditor would be managing throughout his/her own auditing career.

I remember once, after one of my audits in the UK, I was stuck in Frankfurt airport, missing my connecting flight back home. I was coming from London, and my visa for Schengen countries had expired a day before landing in Schengen territory. I hadn’t had time to apply for the new one due to my heavy schedule and my appointment with the visa office was planned one day after my return. All the shops and the lounges were closed by the time I arrived in the airport and for the reason “not having a valid visa”, I was not allowed to be put in one of the nice hotels in town – as per the courtesy procedure by the travelling company. I was so tired that I’d laid the two blankets the airline company had given me and slept on the floor in one of the waiting halls, together with a few other citizens of developing countries.

I traveled to many different parts of the planet as an auditor, breathtaking places for good and not very good reasons. During my entire auditing career, I heard my colleagues saying how lucky I am to have the opportunity to visit different countries, cities, towns, and sometimes tiny little villages with a few small houses and a dormatory from the plant. Have I enjoyed travelling? Looking back, I can say I did, but I admit there were times that it was just too much when for example, I had to share my hotel room with a small gray mice family, resulting in “no sleep” during the entire week, or when I had to spend a day in my room due to stomach problems after tasting delicious local cuisine, or when I got lost and had to stop by a local bar at midnight to ask the directions for the hotel I was booked to stay for the week. Allright, I might have been a little scared when I had a few very sincere gentilmen, putting their arms around my shoulder while describing the way to the hotel.

The most difficult part of auditing however is not travelling or getting exhausted, or the sub-standard accomodation or the “not very appetizing” food you need to deal with. I believe the most difficult part of auditing is to understand when you need to give yourself a break. Physical fatigue when combined with the pressure during the audits can result in demotivation and depression, taking all the taste out of your life. Freudenberger (1974) is the first professional who used the term
“Burn-out” (*) to describe similar situation, a point at which it is rather difficult to repair the damage completely. Most of the times you need help from your colleagues and managers to diagnose the symptoms.

The study on burn-out evolved with time and research from other experts. Maslach and Jackson (1980s) have defined burn-out as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that occured among individuals who work with people in some capacity. They later have introduced a widely used measure for burn-out which is known as Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual. The scale has 22 items that measure the 3 aspects of burn-out:
exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment (*).

One of the most critical check points for the managers of the auditing functions, is the level of exhaustion. I observe many of the function heads are monitoring the performance of auditors based on a few good objectives. How are auditors in terms of planning and performing the audit? Are they managing the process well and have the right jugdement over risk? Are they technically capable? Do they have the right soft skills i.e. pressure proof, good communicator, leader, well organized, agile. Are they capable of writing high quality audit reports? These are all very important and need to be checked with no doubt. However, if the exhaustion of an auditor is not surfaced, it will have bigger impact to the individual and the function in the longer run.

There are powerful tools available to monitor the fatigue inside the department, but there are some other ways to be hands-on, as the managers of the function:

• Discuss, agree and confirm with the auditors the schedule at the beginning of the planning and at defined intervals i.e. as part of of team meetings, reviews
• Understand and appreciate the procedures and complexities of visa process applied for the individual (don’t make estimations based on your visa needs)
• Create an open environment for them to share their problems and concerns, particularly by encouraging them to talk about any remarkable experience after audits (this can be done via a short form to be filled as part of the overall process)
• Be flexible. Let them do tasks with less effort once you see the first signals of fatigue.
• Ask their future plans and their will to continue as an auditor, make this an essential part of performance discussions.

Fatigue or burn-out? They are not the same but the path between the two is short. Act accordingly.

(*) Handbook of Organizational Behaviour, Revised and Expanded, 2000;
RJ Burke, AM Richardson

By Tülay Kahraman
July 25, 2020

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