Today’s world is 24/7, wired and always on and often cycling between upgrading and reorganizing–if not outsourcing and downsizing. And as company mantras become “do more with less,” it’s no surprise that more and more people are struggling with job stress and burnout.
By Mark Gorkin, The Stress Doc ™, LICSW
Burnout: The Erosive Spiral
The classic set-up for burnout is a professional or personal situation that places high ongoing demands and responsibilities upon you while restricting your sense of control, autonomy and/or authority. Inflexibly high expectations and elusive goals only add fuel to the fire. Consider “The Vital Lesson of the Four ‘R’s”: If, no matter what you do or how hard you try, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming and you can’t say and mean “no” or won’t let go, trouble awaits. The groundwork is laid for apathy, callousness and despair. Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and confusion–a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.
The Four Stages of Burnout
Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion is the first stage of burnout. Do you recognize this sequence? Maybe you are still holding it together at work, but as soon as you get home you go right for the fridge, turn on the TV, hit the sofa and are comatose for the rest of the evening. Normally you pride yourself on doing a thorough job. But budget cuts have you looking for shortcuts, if not cutting corners, and this gnaws at your self-esteem. A case of the “brain strain” is developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion.
Shame and doubt manifest themselves in the second stage of burnout. For example, if your supervisor asks you to take on a new assignment your first reaction is to be helpful, but suddenly a voice inside screams, “Are you kidding?” You’re feeling shaky in the present and losing confidence about managing the future–you can even start discounting past accomplishments. Remember, this is not a logical process but a psychological one.
Cynicism and callousness are how people often respond to feeling vulnerable. They put their guard up and look out for No. 1. In the short run this strategy may work, but over time this hard exterior can become a heavy burden. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more a sign that you gave yourself away. Not surprisingly, you can become resentful and feel that people are taking advantage of you. Sensitive individuals begin developing calloused skin for self-protection.
This stage of burnout doesn’t just facilitate a hardening of the psyche. When your stress starts to smolder and turns to frustration and anger it can lead to a hardening of the arteries. High blood pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular complications, even heart attacks and strokes are potential health risks.
Failure, helplessness and crisis are symptoms of the fourth stage of burnout. And while it sounds terrible, consider this: hitting bottom means there’s no more downward spiral. And if you can reach out, there’s nowhere to go but up. Being caught in a career catch-22 often signals the final stage. Burnout is like trying to run a marathon at full speed. Without pacing, the body parts wear out, and the mental apparatus breaks down. In fact, one reason the fourth stage is so disorienting psychologically is that there are cracks in your defensive armor.
Fourth-stage burnout is the crisis point. Are you ready to reach out for the help and resources you need? A person recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities by:
• Getting proper support from a professional trained in crisis intervention and loss;
• Confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism and helplessness;
• Grieving past and present losses, while turning guilt, anxiety and aggression into focused energy; and
• Acquiring skills and technology for transforming new awareness and motivation.
Rehabilitation and Rejuvenation
While the erosive spiral of burnout is dangerous, it also provides opportunity for growth. I know from personal experience. Back in the 1980s, I was an unrealistic doctoral student. Low self-esteem and determination to silence critics and doubters had me trying to turn a mystical-like experience in psychoanalysis into a doctoral dissertation. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say I was definitely off the ivy-covered wall. And for several months, I was sidelined by exhaustion, existential emptiness and frightening, stress-induced dizzy spells. Fortunately, a silver lining emerged from the academic ashes. I became an expert on stress and burnout eventually evolving a self-care, recovery and prevention process.
It took several months of grieving and tending to mind-body wounds to recover. I needed to know that significant others still loved and respected me despite my feelings of academic failure. You may need a mentor or a counselor to reconfirm your pre-crisis identity; to help you see strengths when you are fixated on your weaknesses. And the earlier one can begin grieving and “letting go,” the easier for emotional catharsis to become a tool for rebuilding healthy purpose and passion.
Four Rs of Burnout Recovery
Running – Get moving with 30-40 minutes of exercise, such as jogging, brisk walking, cycling or swimming, which will get those disposition-enhancing endorphins pumping. The chemical influx helps slow a racing mind and helps lift a sluggish mood. There’s a beginning and end point for a tangible sense of control and accomplishment. Your routine becomes a success ritual fueling burnout recovery.
Reading – Turn to humorous novels or cartoon books to add some absurdity, if not levity, to your perspective. Hearty laughter also releases endorphins, giving vital organs a brief but vigorous internal massage.
Retreating – Take time to reflect on this ego- and identity-shattering experience and answer some of the big, existential questions: What are my skills, gifts and talents? What are my emotional, knowledge and learning gaps? The blank canvas is scary–but also exciting. To paraphrase poet Walt Whitman: Follow the open road and discover or recover your soul.
Writing – Research indicates that taking the time to express and analyze your emotions through writing provides a stress-relieving anchor in a stormy, troubled sea. Reflective writing can also be a source of self-discovery–a tool for your healing, understanding and action.
Shake Things Up
Rebuilding may involve shaking up the personal-professional puzzle, exploring anew or even returning to one’s passionate roots. This might include job or career path changes.
• Restructure current roles and responsibilities; work in another department or division.
• Take a sabbatical or travel.
• Consult independently or work for a foundation, an association or an institute.
• Go back to school to pursue a heartfelt interest, or even return to the classroom as an educator.
• Go into business for yourself or, if you’re self-employed and running on empty, join a company.
• Recover a previous creative pursuit and turn it into a career path or, perhaps, balance a job with a passionate hobby.
• Pursue a different professional setting or field or a new geographical location.
Burnout Prevention Strategies
Burnout evokes an experience of loss–from loss of control or abandoning a cherished goal to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. However, wrestling with loss often yields renewed energy and transitional possibilities.
To reduce chronic stress and prevent burnout, the Stress Doc prescribes Natural SPEED.
S = Sleep. Don’t be cheap with your need for sleep. Less than six hours a day for most folks dulls cognitive sharpness, a critical faculty for firmly grounding those fear factors and exploring problem solving opportunities. Also, sleep research supports brief napping (10 to 40 minutes) during the day for mind-body rejuvenation.
P = Priorities. One example: distinguish “the urgent” (which must be handled immediately) from “the important” (which can be prioritized). The second approach when it comes to establishing priorities: “learn to say no.” Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away. Consider these Stress Doc maxims: “A firm ‘No’ a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities, too” and “Do know your limits and don’t limit your ‘No’s.”
E = Empathy. Have a stress buddy at work and/or home; someone with whom you can both give and get support. As I once penned: “E” is for the empathy found in a caring shoulder. But all give without take is a big mistake for now you shoulder a boulder!
E = Exercise. Not only does aerobic level exercise stimulate the mind-body’s natural mood enhancing chemicals, but walking two miles or a 30-minute workout at the gym provides a beginning and endpoint for a tangible sense of accomplishment and control. In uncertain times, success rituals definitely strengthen psychological hardiness and resilience.
D = Diet. This is not the time to use food to numb your angst. High fats and simple sugars along with excess alcohol dull the brain in the long run and can even trigger moodiness and depression. A conscious healthy eating regimen will be another self-control component in your strategic plan for mind-body safety and personal-professional integrity.
Psychological hardiness is a concept developed by Dr. Suzanne Kobasa and her research team while studying the health of AT&T executives during the stressful breakup of “Ma Bell.” Some execs were having a hard time physically and emotionally, while others were coping effectively with the transitional storm. The hardiest executives demonstrated what I call the four C’s of psychological hardiness.
Commitment – While not happy about the major restructuring and resulting turbulence, the hardiest executives did not give up; they were determined to do quality work. They also had a life outside the office and received support from family, friends, colleagues and spiritual activities, as well as from hobbies. Hobbies allow you to take time out and to stimulate and nurture yourself.
Control – The hardy execs also had a realistic sense of control and less rigid need to wield it. They understood the necessity of giving up some turf positions and status posturing. Letting go of your cherished territory often provides a new vantage point for strategically surveying the emergent big picture.
Change – The hardy individuals had a realistic attitude toward change. For them, change was a natural part of life, not something to be resisted. Even when facing unpleasant or unhappy changes, they quickly grappled with their emotions. They grieved the loss of their familiar world, and then prepared themselves for the new or unknown. With this enlightened perspective, change was more a stepping-stone than a stumbling block.
Conditioning – Finally, the most hardy of the execs engaged in regular aerobic exercise or physical conditioning. Why is it so critical? As we’ve seen, not only does exercise help you stay fit, manage your weight and improve your cardiovascular health, but it also releases mood-lifting endorphins, a good antidote to mild feelings of agitation and/or depression. Also, when everything’s up in the air–you can’t seem to close any projects or sales or meet elusive deadlines–structured exercise provides a self-defined beginning and endpoint.
When you add natural SPEED to your routine and emulate the hardiest executives, you will have established a work world and a lifestyle that is balanced, has boundaries and also is bursting with energy. You have an awareness and action plan that prevents stress smoke signals from smoldering and erupting into that burnout fire. You will have truly learned how to “Practice Safe Stress!”
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and “Motivational Humorist” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL’s “Online Psychohumorist” ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” – www.stressdoc.com – called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.
Thanks for the aritcle. I’ll pass it along to those planning to deal with the flu or pandemic in the fall – very stressful for some.
Positive mental attitude is another key ingrediant. Its not prince valium to the rescue nor to just give up but see what good can come of change.
“Some times it takes great strength to hold on. Other times it takes greater strength to let go”
Great article. Thanks. I will refer to it as we continue through these dark budget times.
Thanks, Allen. Appreciate your kind words and your willingness to share mine with others.
I like your Prince Valium reference; I’ll remember that.
And, of course, letting go doesn’t mean giving up and isn’t necessarily forever. Think you might like this quote from Camus (speaking of “The Plague”): “Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky washed by rain.”
Also, if you know of any groups that might be interested in my Leadership or Practice Safe Stress — Team Building and Interactive Humor — Speaking Programs, feel free to drop my name shamelessly. Best wishes and good adventures.
Thanks,Victoria. Appreciate your kind words and feel free to share with others. I hope the article proves to be a supportive resource.
Also, if you’d like to receive my free newsletter, comes out a few times/month, just let me know.
FYI, if you know of any groups that might be interested in my Leadership or Practice Safe Stress — Team Building and Interactive Humor — Speaking Programs, feel free to drop my name shamelessly ;-). Best wishes and good adventures.