Battling Burnout

Edition: December 2008 - Vol 16 Number 12
Article#: 3076
Author: Dr. Edward Wright

Few would argue that times are stressful for the Med-Surg sales rep. Declining market conditions and increasing cost concerns are contributing to fewer purchases of medical supplies; yet, companies seldom look to reduce sales quotas. Several new studies document the increasing amount of stress upon the sales rep (Lewin and Sager, 2008) as well as the link between work related stress and employee burnout (Daniels and Harris, 2005).

Sales rep turnover is a significant concern among selling organizations, and emotional exhaustion and burnout are important contributors to turnover (Babakus et al. 1999; Boles et al. 1997, Sing et al. 1997). Any turnover has adverse consequences, but perhaps none more severe than those due to burnout - that mental state defined as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishments (Maslach and Jackson, 1981). Common symptoms of burnout include dread at the prospect of returning to work, increased absenteeism, and withdrawal. Along with these symptoms comes deteriorating performance that can often lead to job loss. Burnout victims not only lose their jobs, but frequently damage their marriages, family, personal, and professional relationships. It is a problem worth guarding against.

Is sales rep burnout an issue in healthcare distribution? Several seasoned professionals weighed in:

"I wouldn't say there is a burnout issue out there, but the demands placed on reps continue to rise. It takes a special person to be up to the volume of tasks our customers ask of reps and technology has created an environment where all issues require immediate resolution

- Scott Glanzman, Vice President, McKesson Medical-Surgical

Turnover and burnout in our industry may be mitigated by the fact that we have an opportunity to sell and be successful with new products. There is always something new to sell in this industry. That can't be said in every industry. When you look at the overall tenure in our industry on both the manufacturing and distribution side, it is pretty impressive."

- John Moran, Senior Vice President, Welch Allyn, Inc.

"We are imperfect human beings. All of us are going to trip up on occasion. A lot of this comes from the worry of … will I meet my sales goal … will I do a great job at this meeting or presentation… will I follow up on that large list of pending issue? Then the stress starts to build from the increased demands.

Our job as a sales manager is to help prepare the reps for those predictable situations. This comes from experience and knowing that the more prepared and then rehearsed the situation is, the less stress the reps will feel. We should try and manage to help the reps build on their strengths and help them also identify the weaknesses that could lead to overdue stress and burnout. It is also important that as managers we continue to find creative, fun and innovative coaching and sales management ideas and methods!"


- Mike Kuna, West Coast Regional Sales Manager, Mdmark

Turnover rates

Citing the "2007 Distributor Financial Performance Survey," Seth Hale of the Health Industry Distributors Association (HIDA) reports current annual turnover rates of 13 percent among distributor sales reps who call upon physician offices and 16 percent among long-term care sales reps. While these numbers seem low on first blush, the data suggests that 25 to 30 percent of current distributor sales reps have two or less years of experience. Given the current economic downturn in the industry and the prospects for 2009, pressure upon sales reps is likely to increase.

Coping with stress

Most people experience periods of high stress in their lives without any negative effects. However, when high stress becomes a chronic day-to-day situation, it often becomes harmful. Those working in people-oriented professions - and especially in sales - have the highest vulnerability (Low et al., 2001). Social support from significant others (a friend, a family member, or a mentor) has been shown to help someone deal with stress (Thoits, 1986). This usually comes in the form of positive, emotional support in the form of empathy, recognition, and approval messages.

Another effective aid to dealing with stress is receiving problem-solving advice from a trusted, knowledgeable colleague. Med-Surg sales reps are often in the type of stress situations that can lead to chronic stress conditions and burnout. Helpful, useful advice for dealing with day-to-day problems not only encourages the sufferer emotionally, but can help alleviate the stress entirely. Studies of sales reps in other industries demonstrate that sales managers are in a key position for providing this type of support to their colleagues (Lee and Ashforth, 1993).

The role of the sales manager

Given that sales managers are often highly successful individual contributors who have moved into management, this makes them uniquely qualified to help sales reps mitigate the harmful effects of stress. Sales managers not only can provide positive, empathetic feedback but can also make constructive suggestions as someone who has been there. That can be enormously encouraging to a young sales rep facing tough times.

"If the rep is truly facing a burnout situation, then I do think it is very important for the sales manager to get involved as a leader," says Moran. "Is it a personal issue? A customer service issue with many of his or her accounts? Are objectives unattainable?"

"I agree with the sales management approach of building a team up not down," says Kuna. "My objective as a manager is to help build a team (sales family) that I can support with one of my roles being similar to that 6th man on the basketball bench. We are all treated equal. The rep today wants respect, help, freedom and praise. This is a big key to building a strong team that is motivated to help one another reach their goals and objectives."

As the industry prepares for the tough times projected ahead, the role of the sales manager as a steward of the sales team becomes more pronounced. Helping others cope with the increasing demands of the job and its inherent stresses will not only reduce turnover and retraining, it can also prevent sales rep burnout. Saving careers might never show up on your resume, but it will certainly be a big part of your industry reputation.

Edward Wright received his Ph.D. in Management from Case Western University. He holds an MBA from Wake Forest University and a B.S. in Business Administration from UNC - Chapel Hill. Wright is a past professor of Marketing in the MBA program at LeMoyne College and the inventor/co-inventor of several patents related to medical devices. You can reach him at (919) 654-2300, ext. 363