Recognizing, Avoiding Burnout

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(This article appeared in the November/December 2007 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Joyce B. Robinson, Research & Education Department Director

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can occur when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands.

As stress builds, burnout victims begin to lose interest and the motivation that led them to take on certain roles in the first place. The result is sapped energy and reduced productivity, leaving victims feeling increasingly powerless, cynical, resentful, and hopeless. The unhappiness burnout causes eventually threatens jobs, relationships, and health.

Symptoms of burnout tend to be mental rather than physical. The frustration can lead to feelings of being trapped or detached, and lead to withdrawal, which causes feelings of failure and isolation. Constant irritability and uncontrollable sadness are also signs of burnout.

Stress Factors If you find yourself extremely irritable — always snapping at people or making snide remarks about them — it might be burnout. If you feel like you need to sleep all the time or are “too tired” to socialize, it might be burnout manifesting itself as depression.

One reaction is to turn to escapist behavior, including binges of sex, drinking, drugs, partying or shopping, to try to find release from your negative feelings. Your relationships at work and in your personal life may begin to fall apart.

While people are aware of being under a lot of stress, they only rarely notice burnout. Burnout occurs after a period of unrelenting stress, sometimes over the course of months. When the physical and psychological pressures of stress are relieved, the “stressed” person typically feels better, sees everything as being under control, and moves on. But when people experience burnout, they feel empty, devoid of motivation, and do not see any prospects for positive change.

Most burnout is workplace-related. Many of us have days when we are bored with our work, when dragging ourselves into work seems like a waste of energy. We find our co-workers to be bull-headed, and nothing we do seems to make a difference.

When every day is a bad day, however, you may be flirting with burnout. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Setting unrealistic goals for yourself or having them imposed upon you; 
  • Being expected to be too many things to too many people; 
  • Working under rules that seem unreasonably coercive or punitive; 
  • Feeling bored because of work that never changes or doesn’t challenge you; and 
  • Feeling trapped, for economic reasons, to stay at a job that you hate.

Burnout Prevention

Burnout is related to stress, so many of the methods effective in countering stress can help prevent burnout as well. For one thing, it is important to build or maintain a foundation of good physical health, so be sure to eat right, get plenty of sleep, and make exercise part of your daily routine. In addition, you should:

  • Know your limits: Be realistic about how much of your time and yourself you can give – set limits, and communicate those limits to family members and others; 
  • Practice healthy communication: Express your feelings to friends and family members who will listen, understand, and not judge; 
  • Connect with a cause or a community group: Joining a religious, social, or support group can give you a place to talk to like-minded people about how best to deal with daily stress; 
  • Cultivate positive relationships: Poor relationships and isolation can contribute to burnout, but positive relationships can help prevent or reduce its onset; and 
  • Learn to relax and blow off steam: Play cards, go to a movie, or go out to eat with friends.

Do not be afraid to acknowledge your own needs: To prevent or recover from burnout, learn to cultivate methods of personal renewal, self-awareness, and connection with others. Identifying the causes of your stress, recognizing your limited control of any given situation, and taking care of yourself emotionally and physically can help you to avoid burnout.

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