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Career Development Articles - Are You Burned Out?

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By Anne Stockdale
For MedHunters

I really love my job. It's challenging, always changing (therefore, never boring), and people depend on me. I feel like I am positively contributing to the company I work for, which is why I work 10-hour days, five days a week, and eat lunch at my desk. And, I am good at what I do. I work hard, I am open to new projects, and my boss knows she can count on me to deliver. But every now and then, I find myself sitting on the edge of my bed in the morning, with my head in my hands, struggling to find the energy to just get up and get dressed - the thought of going to work and being functional is almost overwhelming. Fortunately, these mornings are rare. And while most of us have experienced an episode like the one I've described, for the majority of us, it never goes beyond being a bit reluctant to go into work, or being a little disengaged when we're there. For some, however, these feelings can escalate into something a lot more serious: burnout.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a gradual process whereby chronic stress leads to feelings of negativity and malaise and, ultimately, results in the loss of motivation and interest in work.

Burnout is not stress. Most of us are under some amount of stress, positive or negative, at any given time. Indeed, positive stress can help a person be more productive and increase motivation. Burnout, on the other hand, is a gradual process whereby chronic stress leads to feelings of negativity and malaise and, ultimately, results in the loss of motivation and interest in work. A person suffering from burnout is likely to be chronically tired, feel physically and mentally run-down, have general aches and pains, have a profound dread of going to work, be mentally absent when at work, and can appear to simply not care. And, if that doesn't sound serious enough, the overwhelming feelings of despair and failure a burnout sufferer feels may lead to drug or alcohol abuse, a mental or physical breakdown, or even premature death.

What Causes Burnout and Who is Likely to Develop It?

Although burnout can be exacerbated by occurrences in your personal life, it is usually related to stresses at work, such as:

  • Having too much work
  • Feeling helpless at work (e.g., things change continuously and for no apparent reason)
  • Not feeling recognized for the work you're doing
  • Not finding the work rewarding - either personally or financially
  • Experiencing disharmony at work (e.g., labor issues or office politics)
  • Having conflicting values with your employer
  • Feeling intense and sustained pressure (e.g., a big project that never seems to end)

Everyone is susceptible to burnout, but (in general) those who are the most at risk are those who, interestingly, make the best employees. These individuals don't hesitate to take on additional responsibilities, have high standards and perfectionist tendencies, consistently give more than 100 percent, and are intensely driven. Not surprisingly, burnout is common among "helping" professionals and professions that involve life or death decisions (e.g., nurses, doctors, and counselors).

How Do I Know if I'm Suffering From Burnout?

There are many symptoms of burnout and they vary from person to person. But, overall, the symptoms fall into three major categories:

  1. Emotional/Psychological Symptoms: These symptoms do not just affect the ability to work, but can carry over into personal relationships.
    • Depression: Feeling emotionally exhausted; disengaging from work and/or personal relationships; experiencing overwhelming feelings of despair and hopelessness; being increasingly negative or cynical; or thinking about suicide.
    • Anxiety: Continuous and unabated, it can lead to hypervigilance, unfounded expectations of misfortune, obsessive thinking, difficulty concentrating, inability to sleep, and reduced tolerance.
  2. Cognitive Symptoms: These symptoms can lead to increased absenteeism and/or decreased productivity. Physicians and health care professionals also show these symptoms by beginning to dehumanize their patients and becoming aloof and indifferent to their patients' needs.
    • Decreased attention span
    • Inability to concentrate
    • Poor memory
    • Reduced problem-solving skills
    • Loss of creativity
    • Lack of interest (e.g., work no longer has any meaning)
  3. Physical Symptoms
    • Dizziness; cardiovascular problems (e.g., racing pulse); digestive problems (e.g., diarrhea, upset stomach); back and neck pains (due to unconscious tension); sexual dysfunction; fidgeting; sensitive startle reflex
    • Insomnia: Resulting in chronic tiredness and reduced energy levels
    • Overeating: A form of self-nurturing, it has a tranquilizing effect, which is due to blood being diverted from the brain to the digestive tract
    • Loss of appetite
    • Substance abuse: Reducing anxiety and elevating mood through self medication (e.g., alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, illicit drugs, or prescription drugs)

If I'm Suffering From Burnout, What Can I Do?

Although it seems obvious, the first thing to do is admit you're suffering from burnout. The second step is identifying the cause. What, specifically, in your personal or work life is affecting your motivation and enjoyment of work? Is it the environment you're working in? Or, is it the work itself? For physicians and health care professionals, this can be a difficult thing to admit. Regardless of whether you are able to determine the cause, you can take some common sense steps to alleviate your feelings of burnout.

  • Take a break: This can mean taking a bit of time throughout the workday, taking some time off, or leaving your job completely.

  • Reassess your work life: Are your work expectations and goals realistic? You may decide to stay in the same profession, but add to your skill set in order to take on new challenges. You may decide to change careers altogether. But, before modifying your current job, changing positions, or finding a new career, understanding the causes of your burnout is necessary to prevent it from occurring again.
  • Reassess your personal life: Do you take enough time for yourself? Are you eating properly, getting enough exercise, staying in touch with friends, doing things you find enjoyable? A support system of friends and coworkers offer a great way to de-stress, either by listening to you vent about job frustrations or by distracting you from them.
  • Ask for help: Although it may be against your nature to ask for help, or even admit that you need it, this is one of those times when you just have to. Speak with your physician or see a psychotherapist. If this is too difficult, consider confiding in a trusted friend or colleague.

The most important way to resolve burnout is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. If you start feeling overwhelmed with work or if, like me, you have a few mornings when the thought of facing work makes you want to go back to bed, the steps above should help you avoid burn out. For example, I get past these episodes by leaving work a little early, getting out of the office for a quick break during the day, or requesting a day off. In general, I take time for myself.

For more information on burnout:

If you are interested in viewing open positions in your field, click here to access the ACR Career Connection.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. The ACR is not responsible for any career decisions made by those consulting this article.

© 2010 American College of Rheumatology