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What It Is & What You Can Do About It?
by Dr. Beverly Potter
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Is your work feels like drudgery and your job is painfully empty?   Do you feel drained and "used up," with little desire to return to that job the next day?  If so, you may be struggling with job burnout which consumes enthusiasm until your motivation goes dry. Skills and knowledge remains intact, but the will to perform, the spirit within is gone.

Burnout is a malaise of the spirit in which motivation, that mysterious force that gets us moving is damaged or even destroyed. Job burnout could be called job depression.  Burnout is not an all-or-nothing proposition. On any particular day enthusiasm for work is increasing or decreasing but it does not remain the same. Even the hottest fires will burn out, so we tend them fanning, stoking, and occasionally adding another log. When motivation wanes, we burn out.

Who is Susceptible
Hardest hit are service providers who often become cynical about their work and openly hostile to the very people are to serve. Other burnout-prone professions are those that involve life or death   decisions;  managers, team leaders, and others who work with people;. working under demanding time schedules; work that requires exacting attention or repetitive detailed work; and work that is "politically incorrect". No one is immune from job burnout. Any person, in any   profession, at any level can become a candidate for job burnout.

Occasional feelings of frustration, anger, depression, dissatisfaction, and anxiety are normal parts of living and working. But people caught in the burnout   cycle usually experience these negative emotions more often until they become chronic. In the worst cases, people complain of a kind of emotional fatigue or depletion. While no two people respond in exactly the same way, people tend to experience frustration first that may evolve into anger. In later stages we see anxiety and fear, then depression and, in extreme cases, despair. These physical symptoms are accompanied by declining performance, withdrawal and interpersonal problems, substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate, illness and absenteeism, and feelings of meaninglessness—a "Why bother? Attitude.

Vicious Cycle
The burnout takes on a life of its own.  In desperation, the burnout victim may quit one job to seek another. But beginning a new job without first understanding the problem with the first job is a set-up for another disaster. It is easy to unwittingly get into another job with the same problems. Essentially, the new job picks up where the first one left off. Then the second job may promote burnout even more rapidly in the face of fewer frustrations. The burnout victim may once again seek another job,   only to find a repeat performance and eventually become unable to work at all.

To understand the causes of burnout it helps to understand what sustains motivation. Just as the body needs vitamins and protein for optimal health, certain "nutrients" are also essential to sustain high motivation: (1) Rewards for good work, and (2) Feeling you can control things that influence you. These factors nourish motivation and help overcome burnout.

Lack of Rewards
Rewards include praise, feelings of satisfaction, high self-esteem, raises, bonuses, promotions, fame, credibility, challenge, adventure, fun, and anything   else that is positive to you. Negative rewards include avoiding criticism, alleviating loneliness, reducing debts, turning off fear, avoiding guilt, getting away from bad relationships, and avoiding anything else   that you find punitive and unpleasant.

Feeling Powerless
We must believe we are potent, that we have the power to influence what happens to us. I say "believe" because how we see the world exerts a significant impact upon one's susceptibility to burnout. Believing that you can't control what happens to you and feeling helpless is one of the most threatening human experiences. Any time you believe the world uncontrollable, you are in trouble.

Research suggests, for example, that Voodoo deaths may be caused because the victims believed they were helpless. Many concentration-camp prisoners seemed to have died of helplessness. They were told and believed that the environment - the guards - had total power over them. Based on his own experience, Bruno Bettleheim, a renowned psychologist who survived one of the worst Nazi death camps, says that it was when people gave up trying to influence what happened to them that they became "walking corpses."

Learned Helplessness
Psychologist Martin Seligman spent years studying the impact of "controllability" on people and animals. He demonstrated that experiencing uncontrollability tends to undermine motivation to learn in new situations. Burnout victims have learned that they can't control their respective worlds so they stop trying to do so, which handicaps their ability to adapt or learn in the future. In this way they become psychologically "crippled" and burnout becomes chronic.

When people stop looking for ways to control their situations, they will stop finding them. Their own self-imposed "blindness" will keep them helpless. They will remain helpless because they feel helpless. Once a defeatist attitude is learned, it tends to cling tenaciously. Defeated people see only defeat, never success, and thereby remain defeated.

Personal power, the capability to influence the world around you in the ways you desire, is the opposite of helplessness, which causes burnout. Personal power is empowering and combats burnout. Personal power is a feeling of I-Can-Do - a belief that you can act to control your work. While we have little control over other people, we do have control over ourselves - something we tend to forget when we're feeling helpless. As we develop our capabilities, we gain a sense of mastery and control.

The experience of mastery changes everything. Because striving for mastery focuses your attention on areas in which you are skilled, a sense of confidence and being in command of yourself develops. Building personal power comes from developing your capabilities, your powers. It means learning how to get what you need. To the extent you are able to do this, you are powerful.

Effective self-management requires knowledge and skill.  You probably acquired your self-managing skills informally, from parents and teachers. Consequently, you may not manage yourself effectively.  Properly done, self-management increases your personal power because you can create situations in which you can give yourself the rewards you need to sustain high motivation

Acknowledge Yourself
Even in unresponsive and hostile environments you have an inexhaustible source of powerful wins. You can give yourself acknowledgment and rewards. Unfortunately, few people know how to use these self-rewards. Most people engage in negative-talk, a powerful punitive means of self-control. On the other hand, surprisingly few use self-acknowledgment. Thus, for most of us this self-renewing source of power remains dormant. Instead, we remain dependent on acknowledgment from others.

It is important to know how your body and psyche function and which situations trigger your stress responses. This understanding can be used to raise and lower your tension level as needed.  Personal power comes in knowing that, although you may not like the difficult situations, you CAN handle them. Such feelings enable you to rise to the occasion and to handle difficulties skillfully rather than by avoiding problem situations. Relaxation allows the body to repair, rest, and prepare for optimal functioning and to plug into "Remembered Wellness." With practice anyone can learn to use relaxation to control stress. Personal power increases when you can relax at will. For example, when faced with a crisis situation, if you can keep activation within the optimal range for peak functioning you will remain alert and have all your resources to draw on to deal with the situation. Confidence grows because you know you can remain cool regardless of provocation. You feel in command instead of helpless.

A strong social support system made up of family, friends and co-workers can help buffer you against the negative effects of stress.  People with strong social support systems tend to be healthier and live longer.  It's vitally important that you take active measures to build and maintain your support system.

Cultivate Allies
Allies can help you get your job done. Co-workers can help - or hinder - your accomplishing your objectives. When you have allies who you can count on to help you get things done, you feel more in control - even in very difficult situations. Your personal power grows because you can call on certain people to effect certain change.

Inevitably, you will encounter situations requiring skills you've not yet developed.  Personal power comes from knowing how to arrange learning situations for yourself. When you know how to acquire the skills you need, you'll have confidence to tackle new challenges and handle the unexpected.

Although objectives should be small steps, they should be big enough to make you stretch.  Think of yoga as an example.  When doing yoga you position your body in a particular posture and then slowly s t r e t c h the muscles you are exercising.  Similarly, the series of small step objectives should slowly stretch your abilities.  Don't worry about the steps being too small.  No step is too small as long as there is some stretch and some movement.  Remember the inertia principle: A body in motion will tend to stay in motion.  Use small steps to keep yourself in motion toward your goal.

Almost every job has some leeway for tailoring it to better fit your work style.  The ability to mesh a job to your style increases feelings of potency and enjoyment of work.

Alter Job Focus
Few jobs are clearly defined. Take advantage of its ambiguity and shape the job according to what you enjoy doing and what best capitalizes on your skills and interests. First, look around for needs and ways you can provide a service. When you see a problem within your department, write it down, mull it over, and consider how you can convert it into an opportunity. Always focus on this question: "How can I provide a service?" Simultaneously review all of your activities. There must be some you enjoy more than others.

Expand Your Job
Expand those parts of your job you enjoy most. When you discover a service you can provide by engaging in an activity you enjoy, move on it! And make what you do visible. Be alert to ways of highlighting  the needs you fill. In this way you can mold the job into one that is more interesting. It will evolve with you, and you'll receive more acknowledgment for your efforts because you have pointed them out.
Sometimes the best solution is to change jobs.  Too often, however, burnout victims quit an unsatisfactory job without analyzing the source of dissatisfaction or exploring what is needed, and grab the next job that comes along. Sometimes the new job is as bad as, or even worse, than the old one. Personal power comes in knowing what you need in a job and how to go out and get it.

Use Your Imagination
Don't limit yourself. Consider every way you can imagine to achieve what you want. Look at what skills you have and then make your plan. When you have made a plan and have determined your path it's time to go to work. Work as hard as you would for "the company." Many people will go all out for a job, yet when it comes to themselves and their own goals, they work half-heartedly. You owe it to yourself to give it your best shot. Chances are you'll hit the bull's eye. The hard part is not the reaching, but the deciding what the goal is. All that is required to get where you want to go is hard work and determination. Remember this: You could be working just as hard for something you don't want, and don't even like.

Sometimes your emotions may seem out of your control.  If so, you may be a victim of runaway thinking and not knowing how to curb your thoughts, you respond to every red flag waved before you.  Personal power comes in knowing how to empty your mind of negative chatter so that you can focus on the moment and the challenges at hand. It's through the constant chatter of words that you carry frustrations from work home with you.

Use Potent Language
If you study them you'll discover that most worrying and negative thinking makes you feel helpless. This is why I call it HELPLESS THINKING. If you engage in a lot of helpless thinking you will soon believe what you are saying to yourself and will become particularly susceptible to burnout. In fact, it is a vicious cycle because as people fall victim to burnout they tend to engage in more and more helpless thinking, which accelerates the process. When you keep telling yourself that you are helpless it makes it very difficult to turn around the situation and beat job burnout. Consequently, it is vitally important to tune into your thinking and take corrective action if you hear yourself thinking in helpless ways.

What you need to do is to substitute a helpful thought for the helpless one. For example, berating yourself for thinking, "Oh, I blew it!" is guaranteed to result in stress. In contrast, you will experience a greater sense of control - personal power - if you think, "I made a mistake, but I can learn from my mistakes." Both thoughts are "accurate" descriptions, but the first one is a helpless thought that generates feelings of helplessness while the second way of thinking is powerful because it focuses on what you can do.

Detached concern is a higher-order level of mental control in which personal power is gained by letting go.  This is particularly important for those who work with people having serious or even impossible problems.  It is the attachment to your notions of how things ought to be than can imprison you and make you feel helpless.  As with the Chinese finger puzzle, it's only when you stop pulling and instead push your fingers further into the holder that you can break loose.

Laugh a Lot
When you catch yourself taking things too seriously, laugh. Think of the "cosmic chuckle" and of the absurdity of it all. Satirize your distress. Imagine yourself in a Charlie Chaplin script. Pretend you are a stand-up comedian and that the disastrous situation is material for your next gig. As a discipline, practice finding humor in disaster. You'll save your sanity, your health, and your perspective.
Copyright 1998, 2005: Beverly A. Potter, From "Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work" by Dr. Beverly Potter (docpotter), RONIN Publishing. All Rights Reserved. This article may be downloaded for personal use, any other use requires permission Beverly Potter, <>

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