Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships resulting in lesser productivity, cynicism, and confusion, a feeling of being drained, and having nothing more to give. No matter what you say or what you do, results, rewards, recognition and relief are not forthcoming, and you can’t say no.
The signs of being caught up in this erosive spiral are physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, shame and doubt, cynicism and callousness, failure, helplessness and crisis. Normally, you pride yourself on doing a thorough job, a high quality performance. Now you are looking for shortcuts, if not cutting corners and this gnaws at your self-esteem. There are pangs of guilt. The brain strain is developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion. If stress levels continue unabated, you head to shame and doubt. You catch yourself emitting heavy, labored sighs. You are chronically grappling with a profound sense of vulnerability or uncertainty. No surprise then we will progress to cynicism and callousness.
In response to prolonged feeling of insecurity or vulnerability, one feels there is only one thing left to do that is to say put on the heavy armor. We develop an attitude and become sufficiently abrasive or obnoxious, but this hard exterior can eventually become a burdensome, self-defeating strategy. We may be basically down to earth nice guys who become increasingly bitter with hard attitude. One is pulled in all directions with compelling demands, favors, complaints, bribes. Still, what do you think is the biggest stress trap? You are such a nice guy. What can’t nice guys and nice gals do? They can’t say no. They are not confident in establishing boundaries. They have difficulty with authority like being one or interacting with one. The nice folks tend to avoid conflict; they don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. They are not comfortable with anger, or don’t know how to express their frustration or displeasure in a focused manner. The personal mantra is being fair and accommodative while feeling deep rejection when others aren’t fair or accommodative.
The accommodators, despite having a full workload, when asked to take on new work will just allow others to pile on more stuff. Being a team player doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your integrity or health. Sure, we’ll have to renegotiate our priority list and timelines. This does not mean there are no extraordinary and emergency situations. There is a difference between urgent and important. When everything is urgent, nothing is important. Setting realistic limits is not a negative reflection on work ethic or in the ability to go the extra mile. Without boundaries, that mile often morphs into a marathon. Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away. Burnout doesn’t facilitate a hardening of the psyche. When your stress starts to smolder into frustration and anger; then it turns to suspicion and mistrust as you enclose yourself in embattled armor. This is not just how you harden an attitude, but it is a formula for hardening the arteries. Cardiovascular complications, high blood pressure, even premature heart attacks can ensue. Of course, failure, helplessness and crisis sound terrible. But hitting bottom means there is no more downward spiral and there is no where to go but up.
Failure, helplessness and crisis often signal the final phase. Your coping structure seems to be coming unglued. Next stop is the psychiatric ward. Burnout is like trying to race a marathon at full speed, nonstop. Can anyone race 26 miles full speed, nonstop? Even Olympic marathon runners must pace themselves. If not, the body parts will break down with burnout, over time, the mental apparatus also wears out.
The reason fourth stage is so disorienting is that a person’s psychological defenses wore down. Cracks start appearing in the defensive armor. Painful memories and old hurts normally contained by emotional defenses are leaking through the cracks. An emotional bump can set off an overly sensitive and personal reaction. Before throwing up your hands, remember burnout is not for wimps. A lot would have jumped ship much earlier. Many reach the farther stages of burnout because of their tenacity and dedication. They have a strong sense of responsibility and don’t like being deterred from reaching goals. All are noble qualities unless compelled by rigid perfectionism and there is only one right way of thinking. Now, pursuing goals takes a back seat to proving others wrong and overcoming humiliation. You are chasing maybe, also, being chased by ego-driven goals. Especially in times of overload, uncertainty and major change, driven and rigid responsibility can quickly transform a performance benefit into a personal and professional liability.
Also, these people are usually not just responsible; they often are quite responsive to others. People lean on them for support. Are you a pillar of strength for those around you? If so, will those dependent upon you be quick to notice when you are feeling shaky? That you may need a shoulder? Often not, as their sense of security is contingent on you always being strong and available. Are you the emotional sponge in the office, frequently absorbing your colleagues’ complaints? Can you hear that screeching, scratching sound? That’s the stress knot twisting and turning tighter and tighter about your neck.
No wonder people start jumping out of jobs or school, out of relationships, sometimes just jumping. For those not into jumping, may be into mood swinging, that is, between short highs and or prolonged depressive lows. Is it Prozac Time? It is exactly the key for transforming a danger into an opportunity. Fourth stage burnout is the crisis point. One recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities through a crisis when one gets proper and sufficient support; someone trained in crisis intervention and loss, on confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism or helplessness, grieving past and present losses while turning guilt, hurt, anxiety and aggression into focused energy and by acquiring and applying skills and technology for turning new problem-solving options into productive attitudes and actions.
For the phoenix to rise from the ashes one must know the pain to transform the fire to burning desire. Will you Practice Safe Stress?