Evansville Courier & Press 

September 17, 2007

A vacation jolted Gary Schultheis to wake up and smell the smoke.


After just a year of working as a live-in counselor for the Parole and Probation Commission in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Evansville native realized he had burned out on his job.


"When I came back from vacation, I started listening to the probationers there, and I really didn't want to listen to them. I just didn't want to hear it, which is not a good thing for a counselor," he says.


Three decades later Schultheis uses his own experience to counsel clients in his work as a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Evansville.


"I think burnout happens when people don't take care of themselves," he says.


"I think I was just working too many hours, and I was around the probationers all the time." Even if he was technically off-shift, because he lived in the residential facility, "if they had a problem you just got drawn into it. I really didn't have a life outside of work."


Schultheis' solution for his own burnout was to quit the job.


Leaving a burnout situation won't solve the problem unless you learn from it and make sure you don't fall back into the same traps in the next job, which could wind up being as bad or even worse than the initial burnout experience.


That's why it's important to understand the root cause of burnout.


Schultheis went on to work in another residential counseling position in California, sleeping over some nights and weekends in group homes. He'd learned, however, to make sure he had a place away from where he worked, and to get away from the job and pursue his own activities whenever he was off duty.


Weekend camping, trips to San Francisco, bicycling and other activities helped him keep his work and his life in prospective, and helped him remain productive on his job.


Burnout isn't a clinical term, but it's become a widely recognized description for when someone loses motivation, becomes chronically frustrated, cynical and, in extreme cases, hostile toward a job, co- workers, customers and clients.


In her book "Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Your Enthusiasm for Work," and on her Web site (, Beverly Potter notes all those symptoms. Unless addressed, they can lead to a vicious cycle in which "burnout takes on a life of its own," she writes.


Potter cites two causes for burnout: a lack of rewards and feeling powerless.


Rewards include praise, self-esteem, salary raises, promotions, "adventure, fun and anything else that is positive to you," Potter adds.


Feeling powerless to control your life "is one of the most threatening human experiences," Potter says. Some have attributed voodoo deaths to a sense of doomed powerlessness. Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim saw terminal powerlessness in "walking corpses" in Nazi concentration camps, Potter notes.


Potter recommends a list of approaches to overcoming burnout. They include learning to manage stress, developing a personal and professional support group, modifying or, if necessary, changing jobs.


Potter cites service providers as among those most susceptible, "but any person in any profession, at any level, can become a candidate for burnout," she adds.


Avoiding or recovering from burnout boils down to "taking care of your own needs," says Schultheis. Off the job, that means spending time with family and friends and getting exercise. On the job, that means figuring out what's frustrating you and seeking solutions.


"Ask for help, talk to your supervisor," Schultheis advises. "Usually employers want to keep their employees - they've got an investment in them." If that doesn't work, the next step may be leaving a job, even if it means working for less money in another position or profession that is more satisfying and less stressful.


That may sound idealistic, especially for the working poor, but the financial rewards for staying in a job you hate, no matter what it pays, may not be worth the personal toll.


The Japanese have a word for terminal job burnout. It's called "karoshi," and it means "death by overwork."


ROGER McBAIN: Courier & Press staff writer
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