Surviving Burnout

Last Updated May 10, 2007 1:01 PM EDT

Job burnout can occur for a number of reasons, and it doesn't happen overnight. If you are finding it increasingly difficult just to get up and go to work every day, you may be experiencing some form of stress-induced burnout. In fact, your dread of work can become so strong that you think of little else. If you feel that you are beginning to burn out, your first step is to be honest with yourself and make a decision to take action. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

What You Need to KnowWhat is job burnout?

Burnout is an extreme reaction to stress at work. When you are exposed to stress, your body reacts by producing hormonal changes. These reactions can be divided into three stages of response, which are not specific to particular stress types and can build over time.

  • Shock and counter-shock: your body responds to perceived stress with various hormonal changes that increase your respiration and heart rate. These changes can be sudden, but you may not notice them if you are concentrating on the task at hand. If stress continues, your body increases hormone production to cope, and the downward spiral continues.
  • Resistance: your body is equipped with a number of ways to resist stress, and one of these is by releasing additional hormones that dampen the effects of the shock. This adaptation allows you to cope with prolonged stress.
  • Exhaustion: if stress continues unabated, your reserves of hormones drop, increasing the risk of serious illness
What contributes to job burnout?

Burnout is typically caused by an imbalance between three key factors in the workplace:

  • Demands: people or tasks that require your attention and a response
  • Supports: available resources to help you and your team
  • Constraints: lack of available resources or impediments to accessing support

If your job is demanding and your resources are few, the likelihood that you will experience burnout is going to increase. However, a good support system should help you to cope. Each of these factors can be technical, intellectual, social, financial, or psychological. The most stressful jobs are the ones where demands are high, the constraints are many, and there is little support. The least stressful jobs are not necessarily undemanding, but they tend to have fewer constraints and more support, so that the three factors balance each other out.

I am having a hard time with burnout but none of my coworkers seem to be affected. Why is this?

Stress affects people in different ways, so your colleagues could be suffering and yet you might not notice. Although people are not always aware of it, an individual's belief system is actually a big factor in determining whether stress produces a shock reaction or not. This is known as the person-environment fit. If you are convinced that you can cope with a particular stressor, you will be less affected by it.

How can I feel more in control?

Feeling as thought you are in control can also counter the effects of stress. If you feel trapped in your job or in the way that you are made to perform certain tasks, you feel under pressure. If you stay in this type of situation for a long period of time, it's much more likely that you'll burn out, whereas if you have the choice and the opportunity to use your discretion in managing people, tasks, and your environment, you will feel more in balance.

Your personality also has a lot to do with whether or not you will experience job burnout. "Type A" personalities—who are prone to anger and hostility—tend to be more affected by stress than others. They have more trouble letting go of minor problems and are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure as a reaction to stress. They are also particularly coronary-prone if action is not taken.

Finally, it's not just work that puts stress on us. We lead very complicated lives, and there are a variety of things that can happen to add to the stress that you are under. Even positive events, such as marriages, births and promotions, are major stressors. If you are combating pressure at work as well as major life events, you may find it hard to cope.

Is it possible to recover?

Yes. By clearly identifying the stressors in your environment, how they affect you, and what you can do about them, things are bound to improve. You should be able to make some immediate changes and also create a stress management plan that will improve your work/life balance and increase your effectiveness at work.

What to DoRecognize the Signs of Burnout

The precise combination of symptoms varies from person to person but here are the most common ones:

  • You have little patience and become irritated over minor things. You may find that your temper is getting out of control and that you have lost your sense of humor completely.
  • You often feel overwhelmed with frustration and helplessness, and may experience feelings of futility about your job.
  • You have strong and persistent negative emotions such as anger, depression, guilt, and fear. This may continue to the point where you feel unable to pull yourself out of the cycle.
  • You have increasing difficulty relating to other people. You may feel hostile and react angrily toward others, with emotional outbursts that can damage relationships.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from the company of others. This is particularly dangerous, as you are cutting yourself off from the very support system that can act as a buffer against the effects of stress.
  • Your health suffers. You may experience relatively minor effects such as colds, insomnia, headaches, backaches, cold sores, and high blood pressure. Sometimes people have a general feeling of being tired and run-down. Heart, breathing, and stomach problems are among the more serious effects of stress.
  • You try to solve your problems with chemical "solutions." This may start with increased intake of coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, or sleeping pills, and then move on to more addictive and dangerous substances. Rather than solving your dilemma, by taking this route you are only going to mask the cause of the problem.
  • You find that you are getting less and less accomplished, as the efficiency and quality of your work declines. Colleagues and managers may attempt to help you reverse this trend, which sometimes leads to more conflict and withdrawal.

If you recognize any (or several) of these symptoms, take action immediately, before the problem becomes any worse.

Get Medical Help

If you are suffering from the physical effects of job burnout, you will probably want to make an appointment with your doctor. Once you've discussed your symptoms, he or she will be able to suggest various steps you can take. For example, you may be referred to a stress counselor, who is trained to help you understand your problems and find ways to cope with your particular set of circumstances.

On the other hand, you and your doctor may decide that in order to gain perspective, you need a complete break from the demands of your job. If this is the case, you'll need to get a written explanation from your doctor. If you feel that you've been treated unfairly at work (that you've been placed under too much pressure by your manager, for example), the wording of this can be particularly important. Many organizations are becoming aware of stress links to health and are more open to working with you in dealing with a stress-related diagnosis. When you feel ready to return to work, you'll want to meet with your manager to discuss your future work regime. It's best to prepare well beforehand by coming up with some specific suggestions that will help increase your productivity and avoid some of the problems you've had in the past. You might explore several options, such as a more flexible schedule, reducing your hours, or working from home one day a week.

Acknowledge the Factors That Cause You Stress

Stress is any factor that causes your hormone levels to change in order for you to adapt to new circumstances. You can begin to tackle the sources of stress in your life by following this three-stage process:

  • Recognize the demands and responsibilities that are placed upon you now, as well as the positive sources of stress mentioned earlier.
  • Identify the supports that exist for you at present and how you can make the most use of them.
  • Identify the constraints that impede progress toward your goals or hinder you from meeting expectations.
Reduce Pressures at Work

Essentially, tackling job burnout means: lowering demands, increasing supports, and reducing constraints in your job and your life. It also means tailoring your approach in a way that suits you best (and not everyone else). For example:

  • Ask your boss how you might redesign your job to give you greater discretion in delegating work and more control over how you do your job. You might even consider redesigning your work space to give you a fresh outlook. This may involve some structural reorganization or team training, so investigate this with your manager, and be sure to get approval before suggesting any major changes to others.
  • Try to resolve long-term conflicts with co-workers and supervisors by clarifying roles or procedures. A tremendous amount of time and energy is wasted on conflicts that crop up time and again, and resolving them can make a big difference in the way you feel about your job.
  • Invest in some time management training, career coaching, and/or stress counseling are good ways to help you learn to cope and can bring long-term comfort and satisfaction.
Maximize Your Ability to Deal with Stress

Expending energy in positive ways at work and exercising in your spare time are both shown to protect against the effects of stress, so look into ways you can incorporate this into your day. For example, you could combine exercise with relaxation techniques via yoga, tai chi, or Pilates. Remember to check with your doctor before you begin, especially if you are not used to exercising.

One of the ways you can reduce stress at work is by taking more control over when and how you achieve your objectives. You can reap considerable rewards by having a discussion with your boss about how to increase the scope of your discretion at work.

Increasing your support network can also have an enormously positive effect on the way you're feeling. Maintaining meaningful relationships outside of work, spending more time with family and friends, and engaging in activities that you enjoy with others are all important buffers against stress. Another possibility is to find a mentor who can bring new insights to the way you live. Spending more time in different roles (such as husband, wife, mom, or dad) will also help you focus on your life outside of work.

If you feel that you need input from a professional, there are stress counselors and life coaches who can help you learn how to cope better with unavoidable stress. Some of their techniques involve changing your perceptions or beliefs, modifying your behavior to gain positive benefits, and negotiating more assertively with others. Always check the accreditation of professional counselors and try to get references before signing up for expensive or long term counseling.

What to AvoidYou Ignore the Problem

When people disregard symptoms such as fatigue and distress, they are less likely to seek help or change their behavior. By listening to the messages from your body and allowing yourself time to recover from symptoms caused by stress and pressure, you can avoid the crises that may arise from unacknowledged stress.

You Overburden Yourself

Some people enthusiastically jump into projects that sound exciting without thinking about their time limitations. Others may be overly ambitious or perfectionists who have trouble letting go when a job is finished. And there are those who simply are not good at asserting themselves. If you fall into any of these categories, it may take some time to change these habits. Don't expect too much too soon, and give yourself permission to reduce your workload when you realize you have taken on too much. Pace yourself toward realistic deadlines, map out your time, and try to build in sufficient allowance for the unexpected or for other important things in your life.

You Worry Too Much

Feeling under a lot of pressure at work can lead to something psychologists call "problems about problems."As you become concerned about your work, symptoms of your concern increase until they become more worrying than the initial trouble. For example, let's say that pressure at work is causing you to have trouble sleeping. You might decide to take sleeping pills because you are concerned about the effect of the lack of sleep on your performance. If you find yourself taking too many pills, you now worry about the effect of these on your health. You can see how following this pattern can cause everything to become worse. You need to break the cycle. Concentrate on the root of the problem and take action to balance your demands, supports, and constraints.

You Backslide

There are techniques you can use to combat job burnout. One of these is to visualize a traffic light system, in which you learn to recognize when you are in a "green" comfort zone, when you begin to have "yellow" stretch zone symptoms, and when you are approaching "red" stress symptoms. Notice the triggers that cause you to move from one zone to the next. Then set aside time on a regular basis to ask yourself "How do I feel right now? What are the triggers?" Thinking up some strategies in advance will help you to know what to do if you feel "amber" or recognize the onset of "red" symptoms. By being prepared, you will feel more in control of yourself and your situation.

Where to Learn MoreBook:

Drake, John D. Downshifting: How to Work Less and Enjoy It More. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2001.

Web Sites:

Mind Tools: www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_08.htm

PsychTests.com: www.psychtests.com/tests/career/burnout1_r_access.html