How to Keep Those Burn-Out Blues at Bay
by Barbara McMahon


The Sunday Herald

September 17, 2000

The effects of stress at work can be disastrous. Barbara McMahon investigates the causes, symptoms and possible ways of how to prevent it.

JOB burn-out, once considered a marginal affliction, is receiving renewed attention in the USA as a serious issue. A burnt-out worker, says American psychologist Dr. Beverly Potter, is like Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, who was condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down just before it reached the top.

"Burnout is when a person's motivation to do their job starts declining," she says. "People start thinking: 'Why bother?' They believe they cannot increase their job satisfaction, regardless of how they perform."

Potter, a laid-back Californian, conducts seminars for top Silicon Valley companies on preventing burnout and has written books on the subject. Such is her expertise, she is nicknamed Beverly Burnout in the USA.

Potter tells companies that the condition can have a detrimental effect on productivity and profits - by increasing employee turnover and absenteeism. There is little teamwork and morale becomes low. Burnt-out people feel they have lost control over their working lives.

"People are overwhelmed with negative emotions, so everything starts to annoy them. They get angry with callers on the phone or with customers. They become susceptible to illness or take days off, even when they are feeling fine, and become irritable with colleagues. They may use drink or drugs in the evening - or they just go home and slump all night in front of the television."

THE next stage, says Potter, is an attitude of helplessness about work, the full-blown Sisyphus complex. The danger is that the burnt- out worker's dissatisfaction can become contagious and a whole department will start griping.

So what is the solution to get rid of those burnt-out blues? What you should not do, except as a very last resort, is leave your job, says Potter. "Every job has demotivating aspects, but the challenge is in how they are handled.

"Burnt-out people have succumbed to feelings of powerlessness, so they really have to renew their enthusiasm for work," Potter points out.

To do that, people should challenge themselves by setting goals and rewards. Almost every job can be modified in some way, she says, so people should try to tailor their jobs to their own style and rhythm. Increasing skills, or learning new ones, will also help overcome that obstacle.

Potter says burnt-out people rarely have the energy for anything outside work, so it is important to make an effort to socialise out of hours with family or friends. It is also imperative to develop a detachment about your job.

"The caring professions - doctors, nurses, social workers, probation officers - are much more prone to burnout," according to Potter. "Too many people worry about work outside office hours and they have to learn detachment. Give work your best while you're on duty and then let it go. You will become a much more effective person if you can achieve that."

Changing jobs is a last resort and most people do not need to go that far.

"A shake-up of your working life can work wonders," Potter adds.