Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.
Monday, March 11, 2002
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 do 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. 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, 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 with frequent people contact or deadlines, you advance from a possible to a probable candidate. The road to burnout is paved with good intentions. There's certainly nothing wrong with being an idealistic, hardworking perfectionist or self-motivating achiever, and there's nothing wrong with having high aspirations and expectations. Indeed, these are admirable traits in our culture. Unreality is the villain. Unrealistic job aspirations and expectations are doomed to frustration and failure. The burnout candidate's personality keeps him striving with single-minded intensity until 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. These stages include: 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 three to four years. You experience an overwhelming sense of failure and a devastating loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. You become depressed and feel lonely and empty. Life seems pointless and there is a paralyzing, "what's the use" pessimism about the future. You talk about, "just quitting and getting away." Your are exhausted physically and mentally. Physical and mental breakdowns 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 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. Whomever you're talking to about your feelings can help you, but be careful. Your readjusted aspirations and goals must be yours and not somebody 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.