The Erosive Spiral
The classic set-up for burnout is a professional or personal situation that places high ongoing demands and responsibilities upon you while restricting your sense of control, autonomy and/or authority. Inflexibly high expectations and elusive goals only add fuel to the fire. Consider this: If, no matter what you do or how hard you try, results, rewards, recognition and relief are not forthcoming and you can’t say and mean “no” or won’t let go, trouble awaits. The groundwork is laid for apathy, callousness and despair.
Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and confusion--a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.
The Four Stages of Burnout
Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion is the first stage of burnout. Do you recognize this sequence? Maybe you are still holding it together at work, but as soon as you get home you go right for the fridge, turn on the TV, hit the sofa and are comatose for the rest of the evening. Normally you pride yourself on doing a thorough job. But budget cuts have you looking for shortcuts, if not cutting corners, and this gnaws at your self-esteem. A case of the “brain strain” is developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion.
Shame and doubt manifest themselves in the second stage of burnout. For example, if your supervisor asks you to take on a new assignment your first reaction is to be helpful, but suddenly a voice inside screams, “Are you kidding?” You’re feeling shaky in the present and losing confidence about managing the future--you can even start discounting past accomplishments. Remember, this is not a logical process but a psychological one.
Cynicism and callousness are how people often respond to feeling vulnerable. They put their guard up and look out for No. 1. In the short run this strategy may work, but over time this hard exterior can become a heavy burden. Remember, burnout is less a sign of failure and more a sign that you gave yourself away. Not surprisingly, you can become resentful and feel that people are taking advantage of you. Sensitive individuals begin developing calloused skin for self-protection.
This stage of burnout doesn’t just facilitate a hardening of the psyche. When your stress starts to smolder and turns to frustration and anger it can lead to a hardening of the arteries. High blood pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular complications, even heart attacks and strokes are potential health risks.
Failure, helplessness and crisis are symptoms of the fourth stage of burnout. And while it sounds terrible, consider this: hitting bottom means there’s no more downward spiral. And if you can reach out, there’s nowhere to go but up. Being caught in a career catch-22 often signals the final stage. Burnout is like trying to run a marathon at full speed. Without pacing, the body parts wear out, and the mental apparatus breaks down. In fact, one reason the fourth stage is so disorienting psychologically is that there are cracks in your defensive armor.
Fourth-stage burnout is the crisis point. Are you ready to reach out for the help and resources you need? A person recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities by:
- Getting proper support from a professional trained in crisis intervention and loss;
- Confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism and helplessness;
- Grieving past and present losses, while turning guilt, anxiety and aggression into focused energy; and
- Acquiring skills and technology for transforming new awareness and motivation.
While the erosive spiral of burnout is dangerous, it also provides opportunity for growth. I know from personal experience.
Back in the 1980s, I was an unrealistic doctoral student. Low self-esteem and determination to silence critics and doubters had me trying to turn a mystical-like experience in psychoanalysis into a doctoral dissertation. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say I was definitely off the ivy-covered wall. And for several months, I was sidelined by exhaustion, existential emptiness and frightening, stress-induced dizzy spells. Fortunately, a silver lining emerged from the academic ashes. I became an expert on stress and burnout eventually evolving a self-care, recovery and prevention process.
It took several months of grieving and tending to mind-body wounds to recover. I needed to know that significant others still loved and respected me despite my feelings of academic failure. You may need a mentor or a counselor to reconfirm your pre-crisis identity; to help you see strengths when you are fixated on your weaknesses. And the earlier one can begin grieving and “letting go,” the easier for emotional catharsis to become a tool for rebuilding healthy purpose and passion.
Six Rs of Burnout Recovery
Running – Get moving with 30-40 minutes of exercise, such as jogging, brisk walking, cycling or swimming, which will get those disposition-enhancing endorphins pumping. The chemical influx helps slow a racing mind and helps lift a sluggish mood. There’s a beginning and end point for a tangible sense of control and accomplishment. Your routine becomes a success ritual fueling burnout recovery.
Reading – Turn to humorous novels or cartoon books to add some absurdity, if not levity, to your perspective. Hearty laughter also releases endorphins, giving vital organs a brief but vigorous internal massage.
Retreating – Take time to reflect on this ego- and identity-shattering experience and answer some of the big, existential questions: What are my skills, gifts and talents? What are my emotional, knowledge and learning gaps? The blank canvas is scary--but also exciting. To paraphrase poet Walt Whitman: Follow the open road and discover or recover your soul.
Writing – Research indicates that taking the time to express and analyze your emotions through writing provides a stress-relieving anchor in a stormy, troubled sea. Reflective writing can also be a source of self-in your old selfdiscovery--a tool for your healing, understanding and action.
Relating – When it comes to dealing with stress, in general, men pursue the "fight or flight" strategy as control and pride often come into play. Conversely, women are more comfortable with a "tend and befriend" approach; relationship building is more often their driver. Which do you think is the overall healthier strategic and stress-relieving response?
Risk-taking – After grieving and gradually reversing the erosive spiral, with a greater understanding of your fallacies and defects, renewed confidence in your existing strengths and a growing thirst to explore future options, you just may be ready to begin "designing disorder."
Shake Things Up
Rebuilding may involve shaking up the personal-professional puzzle, exploring anew or even returning to one’s passionate roots. This might include job or career path changes.
- Restructure current roles and responsibilities; work in another department or division.
- Take a sabbatical or travel.
- Consult independently or work for a foundation, an association or an institute.
- Go back to school to pursue a heartfelt interest, or even return to the classroom as an educator.
- Go into business for yourself or, if you’re self-employed and running on empty, join a company.
- Recover a previous creative pursuit and turn it into a career path or, perhaps, balance a job with a passionate hobby.
- Pursue a different professional setting or field or a new geographical location.
Burnout evokes an experience of loss--from loss of control or abandoning a cherished goal to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. However, wrestling with loss often yields renewed energy and transitional possibilities.
To reduce chronic stress and prevent burnout, the Stress Doc prescribes natural SPEED.
Sleep – While recent research questions the health benefits of excessive sleep (more than eight hours) a pattern of less than six hours for most people yields a loss of mental sharpness. Also, sleep research supports brief napping (10 to 40 minutes) during the day for mind-body rejuvenation.
Priorities – Focus on the essentials when trying to be productive. To meet expectations and to achieve goals, it’s often vital to establish limits and set boundaries. Learn to say no and to negotiate. Tactfully yet assertively discuss what’s urgent versus what’s important.
Empathy – Listening to or supporting others can be stress relieving, just make sure the shoulder lending is not a one-way transaction. At work and/or in your home life, have at least one stress buddy with whom you can let your hair down.
Exercise – The benefit of regular exercise is both physical and psychological. Thirty minutes of vigorous activity releases endorphins--natural mood enhancers and pain relievers in the brain.
Diet – A diet high in saturated fats (red meat, high-fat dairy) and simple sugars (sodas, cookies and excessive chocolate) induces drowsiness and mental torpor, not to mention clogged arteries. And too much alcohol and caffeine is a roller coaster headache--moodiness or depression often follows aggression and agitation. Balancing protein, fruits and vegetables, complex carbs, grains, nuts and plenty of water is vital for optimal energy and alertness along with cardiovascular health.
Psychological hardiness is a concept developed by Dr. Suzanne Kobasa and her research team while studying the health of AT&T executives during the stressful breakup of “Ma Bell.” Some execs were having a hard time physically and emotionally, while others were coping effectively with the transitional storm. The hardiest executives demonstrated what I call the four C’s of psychological hardiness.
Commitment – While not happy about the major restructuring and resulting turbulence, the hardiest executives did not give up; they were determined to do quality work. They also had a life outside the office and received support from family, friends, colleagues and spiritual activities, as well as from hobbies. Hobbies allow you to take time out and to stimulate and nurture yourself.
Control – The hardy execs also had a realistic sense of control and less rigid need to wield it. They understood the necessity of giving up some turf positions and status posturing. Letting go of your cherished territory often provides a new vantage point for strategically surveying the emergent big picture.
Change – The hardy individuals had a realistic attitude toward change. For them, change was a natural part of life, not something to be resisted. Even when facing unpleasant or unhappy changes, they quickly grappled with their emotions. They grieved the loss of their familiar world, and then prepared themselves for the new or unknown. With this enlightened perspective, change was more a stepping-stone than a stumbling block.
Conditioning – Finally, the most hardy of the execs engaged in regular aerobic exercise or physical conditioning. Why is it so critical? As we’ve seen, not only does exercise help you stay fit, manage your weight and improve your cardiovascular health, but it also releases mood-lifting endorphins, a good antidote to mild feelings of agitation and/or depression. Also, when everything’s up in the air--you can’t seem to close any projects or sales or meet elusive deadlines--structured exercise provides a self-defined beginning and endpoint.
When you add natural SPEED to your routine and emulate the hardiest executives, you will have established a work world and a lifestyle that is balanced, has boundaries and also is bursting with energy. You have an awareness and action plan that prevents stress smoke signals from smoldering and erupting into that burnout fire. You will have truly learned how to practice safe stress!