Fried: How to Prevent or Survive Job Burnout

San Jose Mercury News
San Jose, CA
June 16, 1998

by Sherri Eng

Carla couldn’t get her mind off of work. During weekend hikes to Marin with her husband, the marketing professional tried to concentrate on the beautiful landscape. Instead, her mind drifted back to the office and how much work was piled in her “In” box.

“I reached a stage where I was thinking about work 24 hours a day,” she said. “I couldn’t escape. I would go into work feeling like a zombie.”

She became short-tempered and irritable. Some days, thinking about work made her so stressed that she had difficulty breathing. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was suffering from burnout.

In today’s go-go-go society, burnout runs rampant as people increasingly cram more into their already-packed schedules. And with pagers, e-mail, voicemail and cell phones, today’s workers are tethered to their jobs more than ever. Certainly, some people feel energized by the crisis, surprise and excitement that are inherent in Silicon Valley. To them, long hours and tons of work are a way of life. For others, they spell burnout.

Psychotherapist Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the word “burnout” in his 1980 book of the same title to mean “a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” Given this definition, burnout does not result from too much work, but rather from a gap between effort and reward.

The definition has been broadened over the years. Career counselor Sheila Weisblatt says burnout can even be caused by boredom. “Some people feel they’ve been there and done that, and they’re not challenged anymore,” said Weisblatt, who works for Momentum Career Consulting in San Francisco. “That can cause stress, too.”

Although stress can lead to burnout, the two conditions should not be confused, experts say. Not all workers who hold stressful jobs end up burning out, said Beverly Potter, author of “Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work.” While stressed people are often tired, burned-out ones are chronically fatigued.

Beyond that, burnout is characterized by a feeling that one has lost control of one’s work and personal life. “People with burnout have feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” said Potter, who is based in Berkeley. “They feel, ‘Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.’ ” Such despair can result in a range of emotional and physical problems, including insomnia, irritability, muscle strain, headaches, social isolation and depression. In the worst cases, drug abuse and suicide are not uncommon.

For Carla, who was working for a Bay Area magazine, burnout manifested itself in backaches and mood swings. She found relief only after being treated by a chiropractor and a massage therapist.

Stress-related ailments cost corporate America an estimated $200 billion to $300 billion a year, according to Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y. These costs come in the form of lost productivity, sick days and lawsuits.

But while taking a vacation may provide short-term relief from stress, it won’t cure burnout. To recover, fried workers must dig deeper for the root cause of the problem in order to find a long-lasting antidote. If you find yourself sliding toward burnout, here are some ways to fight it:

Do a self-evaluation.

Conduct a stress audit by keeping a daily journal of what stresses you out. Also, record what makes you happy. Review your entries every few weeks.

“If we can learn to recognize the signs (of stress) sooner, we can take some form of action quickly,” said Lisa McNee, a career counselor for Careers in Transition in San Jose. “If we don’t take care of this, the stress will filter into other areas of our lives.”

Next, record what you like and dislike about your job.

Carla realized that she enjoyed the autonomy, energy and entrepreneurial and competitive spirit at her job. But by the same token, everything she liked about her then-employer was what she despised about it: The fast-paced, competitive environment left workers in a frenzy, struggling to keep up with the work. Besides, she found her job lacking in intellectual stimulation.

Her introspection drove her to leave the magazine and join a friend at a start-up marketing communications firm. There, she finds her job both interesting and challenging. Schedule flexibility is an added benefit: “My boss knows that I won’t be in until 9:30 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because those are the mornings I’m in the gym,” she said.

Happy ending aside, the stigma attached to burnout is strong. Like the other Bay Area workers interviewed for this story, Carla didn’t want her last name used for fear that admitting to burnout would signal a character flaw.

Don’t jump ship immediately.

Leaving your job isn’t the only way to combat burnout. In fact, Potter suggests you don’t quit until you have determined what is burning you out. Is it your profession? Your employer? Your boss? Figuring out what you want before you make a change is much more beneficial than making haphazard changes that may not improve your situation.

So, stay in your current job until you have drawn up a well-thought-out exit plan. Besides, it always behooves you to deal from a position of strength, not weakness.

“You’re burned out and you want to bail out, but if you do without a plan, you could find yourself in an unfamiliar situation and it could still be painful,” said Richard Phillips, a career counselor at Advantage Career Solutions in Palo Alto.

Determine what you can and cannot control.

A lot of stress derives from us wanting our world to be different than it is but not having the ability to change it, said David Gamow, founder of Mountain View-based Clarity Seminars, which teaches stress-reduction classes. He relates the all too familiar scene of tightly wound commuters feeling rising anger at fellow drivers while being stuck in traffic. You know that you can’t clear the snarl, yet you still turn red in the face as people block your way.

For example, experts say, you may not be able to do anything about the fact that your boss is nit picky. However, you can take charge of other parts of your life. You can take care of your body and prepare it to better weather work stresses by eating healthily and exercising regularly. You can expand your mind by reading. You can find personal satisfaction in volunteering for a good cause.

Set boundaries.

Jot down a list of priorities and stick to them. Don’t say “yes” to every work request when you know you have other work on your plate. Pull out your job description to remind yourself what you were originally hired to do. You might be surprised to find that you’ve taken on more duties than you’re expected to perform.

“Just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean that’s the way you want to use your energy,” said Mary Crocker Cook, a psychologist in San Jose.

Chris, a designer at Sun Microsystems Inc., learned the hard way about prioritizing. When he was hired three years ago, the company was half the size and his job as designer had half as many responsibilities. But as the company grew, so did the workload piled onto its workers. Chris felt overwhelmed.

“I felt I was really trying mentally and emotionally to juggle a lot of things at a very high level,” Chris said. “Yet, I was spinning my wheels. I wasn’t progressing. . . . No one was being satisfied.”

Exhausted, Chris set out to make some changes. He took a one-week vacation to Hawaii and thought of ways to simplify his job. When he returned, he explained to his manager how much work he had taken on and suggested ways that the load could be lightened. He transferred one task to an outside vendor and delegated others to co-workers, freeing up time for him to concentrate on bigger projects.

“I was bogged down with a bunch of little things that weren’t skilled tasks,” Chris said. “Getting rid of as many of those things as possible has helped me focus on tasks where I can add value.”

Redefine your job.

If you decide to stay with your current employer, try to find ways to inject excitement into your job. Although you shouldn’t tell your boss that you hate your position, you should suggest ways to make your work more pleasing. You might ask to take on an interesting project or to attend classes that will boost your skills. And don’t forget to check out open positions within your company.

“Sometimes, people think that other people should notice what you want or need,” said Linda Artel, a career counselor at the Career Action Center in Cupertino. “But it’s not until you put (your wants) in front of them that they will respond.”

Author Potter tells how a social worker at San Francisco’s county jail transformed her job. The employee began compiling the names of soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other resources to give parolees upon their release. Her list of social service organizations became so well-known that colleagues from other jails began referring their clients to her. After a while, maintaining her expanding list and referring people to it became an integral – and interesting – part of her job.

Take some time out.

Three to four times a week, Craig Mosher, a manufacturing engineer at 3Com Corp., gets to the office half an hour early to meditate before beginning the work day. He sits in his office, concentrates on his breathing and purges his mind of negative thoughts. The routine seems to work. Mosher said he remains calm during staff meetings and doesn’t rush around anymore.

[Mr. Mosher learned how to meditate from the Gamows at a training for 3Com.]

“(Meditating) provides a reality check; it takes you away from the job and let’s you put things in perspective,” said Mosher, who believes he staved off burnout through meditation.

Experts say regular exercise helps relieve tension, too. So does setting aside personal time to enjoy hobbies and other pursuits. It’s also a good idea to tell your family you would like 10 minutes of uninterrupted time after arriving home to unwind with your favorite music or book.

The somewhat slower pace at her new company has allowed Carla time to read and get back in touch with long-lost friends and family.

“I’m taking the time to do the things I love to do,” she said. “You can really lose sight of what’s important when you’re cranking out work 12 hours a day.”

Copyright (c) 1998 San Jose Mercury News