Are you on the road to burnout?

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Stress and its related ailments are approaching epidemic proportions in our lives, especially the workplace. Burnout at work is at an all-time high. And if you think that you're not a candidate, think again.

If, in the beginning, your job seems perfect, the solution to all your problems, you have high hopes and expectations, and would rather work than anything else, be wary. You're a candidate for the most insidious and tragic kind of job stress - burnout, a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by unrealistically high aspirations and illusory and impossible goals.

Your potential for burnout increases dramatically depending on who you are, where you work, and what your job is. If you're a hard worker who gives 110 percent or an idealistic, self-motivated achiever who thinks anything is possible if you just work hard enough, you're a possible candidate. The same is true if you're a rigid perfectionist with unrealistically high standards and expectations.

In a job with little recognition and few rewards for work well done, particularly one that involves frequent people contact or deadlines, your chances of burnout advance from possible to probable.

The road to burnout is paved with good intentions. There's certainly nothing wrong with being an idealistic, hardworking or self-motivating achiever, nor is there anything wrong with having high aspirations and expectations. Indeed, these are admirable traits in our culture. It is unreality that is the villain. Unrealistic job aspirations and expectations are doomed to frustration and failure. The burnout candidate's personality keeps him/her striving with single-minded intensity until s/he crashes.

Burnout proceeds by stages that blend and merge into one another so smoothly and imperceptibly that the victim seldom realizes what happened even after it's over.

1. The Honeymoon

During the honeymoon phase, your job is wonderful. You have boundless energy and enthusiasm and all things seem possible. You love the job and the job loves you. You believe it will satisfy all your needs and desires and solve all your problems. You're delighted with your job, your co-workers and the organization.

2. The Awakening

The honeymoon wanes and the awakening stage starts with the realization that your initial expectations were unrealistic. The job isn't working out the way you thought it would. It doesn't satisfy all your needs; your co-workers and the organization are less than perfect; and rewards and recognition are scarce.

As disillusionment and disappointment grow, you become confused. Something is wrong, but you can't quite put your finger on it. Typically, you work even harder to make your dreams come true. But working harder doesn't change anything and you become increasingly tired, bored, and frustrated. You question your competence and ability and start losing your self-confidence.

3. Brownout

As brownout begins, your early enthusiasm and energy give way to chronic fatigue and irritability. Your eating and sleeping patterns change and you indulge in escapist behaviors such as sex, drinking, drugs, partying, or shopping binges. You become indecisive, and your productivity drops. Your work deteriorates. Co-workers and superiors may comment on it.

Unless interrupted, brownout slides into its later stages. You become increasingly frustrated and angry and project the blame for your difficulties onto others. You are cynical, detached, and openly critical of the organization, superiors, and co-workers. You are beset with depression, anxiety, and physical illness. Drugs or alcohol are often a problem.

4. Full Scale Burnout

Unless you wake up and interrupt the process or someone intervenes, brownout drifts remorselessly into full-scale burnout. Despair is the dominant feature of this final stage. This may take several months, but in most cases it involves a couple to three years. You experience an overwhelming sense of failure and a devastating loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. You become sad, or depressed and feel alone, lonely and empty.

Life seems pointless or hopeless and there is a paralyzing, "what's the use" pessimism about the future. You talk about, "just quitting and getting away." You are exhausted physically and mentally. Physical and mental challenges are likely. Suicide, stroke, or heart attack are not unusual as you complete the final stage of what all started with such high hopes, energy, optimism, and enthusiasm.

5. The Phoenix Phenomenon

Some questions for self-reflection
  • On a scale of 1(low) to 10 (high) where do you feel you are on the burnout scale?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 what degree of stress are you experiencing in your work life? In your life in general? Do you deal with stress proactively, acknowledging it and take action to alleviate it? Or do you "medicate" it with food, drugs, alcohol, etc?
  • Are you living your visions, your values, and your goals or the goals and expectations of someone else? How do you know?
  • How do co-workers, colleagues, family, and friends feel you handle stress? Are you willing to ask them for their feedback or does the though of asking them cause fear, worry, anxiety and resistance?
  • How did you learn about, and deal with, stress growing up? How did your parents or primary caregivers deal with stress?
You can arise Phoenix-like from the ashes of burnout, but it takes time. First of all, you need to rest and relax. Don't take work home. If you're like most, the work won't get done and you'll only feel guilty for being "lazy."

In coming back from burnout, be realistic in your job expectations, aspirations, and goals. It's a good idea to enlist the support of a coach, counselor, or trusted friend to discuss your feelings, your present and your future. This is the time to reassess your values, your intentions, your aspirations and your goals and to ensure that your goals are your goals and not someone else's. Trying to be and do what someone else wants you to be or do is a surefire recipe for continued frustration and burnout.

A final tip: create balance in your life. Invest more of yourself in family and other personal relationships, social activities, and hobbies. Spread yourself out so that your job doesn't have such an overpowering influence on your self-esteem and self-confidence.

(Adapted from The Stress Solution by Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.)

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