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by Dr. Beverly Potter

The symptoms of burnout are neither unusual nor mysterious. In fact, it's difficult to find someone consistently free of symptoms. Burnout is a loss of interest in work and, in extreme forms, the burnout victim can literally become unable to work. The work skills remain intact, but burnout leaves its victim unable to become involved in the work: It extinguishes motivation.

Burnout doesn't occur overnight. It is a cumulative process, beginning with small warning signals that, when unheeded, can progress into a profound and lasting dread of going to work.

Negative Emotions

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, guilt and fear, then depression and, in extreme cases, despair.
Moodiness and irritability over trivial provocations signal impending burnout. You experience a feeling of emotional tautness, as if the slightest inconvenience is enough to make you snap. The process is similar to overloading an electrical circuit: One additional demand for energy, no matter how small, blows a fuse.
Life is fraught with frustration. There are always some barriers preventing us from getting what we want. In small doses frustration can be a helpful emotion, spurring us on to try new methods or to find alternatives to a problem. Then we expand and grow. But when frustrations are continual and unsolvable, the stage is set for feelings of futility: "Why bother? There's no point. It's hopeless. I can't do anything anyway." If you feel frustrated most of the time in carrying out the responsibilities of your job, you are experiencing an early symptom of burnout.

When frustrations stem largely from the job situation, intense feelings of dissatisfaction with the job itself can result. Yet many burnout victims blame themselves as they attribute their frustrations to their own failings which can escalate into bitter self-revolution.

Coping with constant feelings of negativity and futility can run down the emotional batteries of even the most enthusiastic person. The result is feelings of profound depression and a kind of emotional and spiritual exhaustion where you feel like you're running on one watt, without the resiliency to recharge.

While depression may begin as a response to a job situation, it can become a problem in itself, leading to poor health and impaired work performance.

Interpersonal Problems
The negative emotions characteristic of burnout usually affect interpersonal relationships. Feeling emotionally drained makes interacting with people more difficult, both on the job and at home. When inevitable conflicts arise, burnout victims tend to overreact with emotional outbursts or intense hostility,
making communication with co-workers, friends, and family increasingly difficult. Getting along with people requires tolerance and patience, but tolerance level drops as the burnout grows. Emotional overloading makes interacting with others precarious.

Interpersonal disturbances are not restricted to working relationships, however. In fact, difficulties may appear in your private life first. Frustrating, conflicting relationships put additional strain on emotional circuits, creating even more frequent blowouts. People need emotional support, and an unsatisfactory personal encounter combined with job frustration can set you up for an emotional meltdown.

Emotional Withdrawal
People suffering from job burnout tend to withdraw from social interactions. This tendency is most pronounced among helping professionals who often become aloof and inaccessible to the very people they are expected to help.

People often defend themselves against adverse job situations by emotionally withdrawing. But this short-term solution only accelerates burnout because a strong social support system acts like a buffer against burnout.

People caught in the burnout cycle withdraw. By cutting themselves off from friends and colleagues they deprive themselves of the support they desperately need.
Emotional withdrawal is common among people in the service professions. Others such as managers and team leaders who work closely with people often suffer similar symptoms. A natural response is indifference to the people's feelings and problems.

Dehumanization is another form of emotional withdrawal: Many helpers begin to think of their clients not as people but as objects. Others will respond to the drain on their emotions with hostility.

Still others become aloof and intellectual, talking about their clients as abstract cases in a textbook. All of these attempts to cope actually accelerate the burnout process. When going to work becomes increasingly unpleasant, it becomes an endurance test. A nearly complete emotional shutdown will eventually occur.

Health Problems

As burnout victims' emotional reserves are depleted and the quality of relationships deteriorates, their physical resilience declines. They seem to be in state of chronic tension or stress. Minor ailments, such as colds, headaches, insomnia and backaches become more frequent. There is a general feeling of being tired and rundown.

Frustration, feelings of guilt, interpersonal conflicts, and even depression are all stressors. In addition to these, burnout victims must also contend with continual physical tension. Burnout takes a physical toll. Burnout victims have more than their share of health problems, from colds, flu, and allergy attacks, to insomnia, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal breakdowns, and other serious health problems.

Substance Abuse

As the occupational "blahs" become chronic, many burnouts seek chemical solutions to overwhelming emotional demands and stresses. People often drink more alcohol, eat more or eat less and use drugs such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and mood elevators. Chain smoking and drinking large amounts of coffee and sugar are also common. This increased substance abuse further compounds problems.

People suffering burnout often use substances in an attempt to self-medicate their anxiety and depression. Not only doesn't this help to alleviate the underlying causes of these distressing feelings, but addiction becomes a risk. If the person does develop a chemical dependency, then the symptoms addiction add another layer to the person's problems, making it even more difficult to overcome.

Declining Performance
High energy level, good health, and enthusiasm - the necessary conditions for peak performance - are all depleted in burnout. A person may become bored and unable to get excited about projects, or in other cases, the burnout victims may discover that concentrating on projects is increasingly difficult. In both cases efficiency suffers and quality of output declines.

As work becomes more painful and less rewarding, absenteeism is also likely to increase. Even when physically present, the burnout victim is often emotionally and mentally absent from the job. Health problems, substance abuse and interpersonal strain makes it difficult to extend oneself to co-workers and others at work whose cooperation and goodwill is needed to get the job done.

As others pull back from the burnout victim, it becomes harder for the person to perform optimally because a solid social support system is generally required for high performance. So it is only a matter of time until there is a substantial drop in the quality of performance. The result is a decline in productivity.

The Peter Principle
The infamous "Peter Principle" postulates that people rise through promotion after promotion in organizations until they reach their level of incompetence, where they stay. The person functions, but in a diminished capacity. The problem is usually one of not having the skills to do the work assigned to them. To compensate they tend to adhere rigidly to "the rules" in making decisions, for example.

Making unpopular and painful decisions is an emotional strain that can be reduced by rigidly adhering to the rules. Difficult decisions are made easy because rules provide a protective shield from painful ethical questions. Attacks can be deflected onto the organization by pointing to the rules and saying, "I can't help it. I have no choice!" In the process, however, the burnout victim often loses the ability to function in a creative capacity, which stifles innovation and impedes progress within the organization. These subtle consequences of burnout are not felt immediately but can create serious problems in the future.

Feelings of Meaninglessness
Most people want more from their jobs than a pay check. Virtually everyone wants to do something meaningful - to come home from work feeling that what they did that day on the job served an important purpose. Unfortunately for the burnout victim, working can become meaningless, as they question if working accomplishes anything important.Enthusiasm is replaced by cynicism. Working seems pointless.
A strong signal that the burnout victim is sliding into an existential crisis of meaninglessness is evident when the person's statements about work are cloaked with a "so what?" or "why bother?" attitude. This is particularly striking among burnout victims who were once very enthusiastic and dedicated.

Vicious Cycle

The burnout syndrome takes on a life of its own. Feelings of futility, disappointment, and guilt provoke interpersonal hassles and depression. Emotionally drained, health problems can set in and performance ultimately drops. As performance deteriorates, there is an even greater sense of futility and guilt. A vicious cycle becomes entrenched.

Eventually painful emotions give way to lethargy. The person cannot muster enough energy to participate in life; talents remain dormant, knowledge untapped, and potential squandered. The vital driving force has become a whimper. As a malaise of the spirit, burnout attacks and depletes motivation. The cycle rarely stops by itself.

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.

Copyright © 1980, 1993, 1998, 2005: Beverly A. Potter, from "Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work", Ronin.  All Rights Reserved. This article may be down loaded for person use.  Any other use requires written permission from docpotter.

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