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What It Is & What You Can Do About It?
by Dr. Beverly Potter
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Is your work feels like drudgery and your job
empty? Do you feel drained and "used up," with little
to return to that job the next day? If so, you may be struggling
with job burnout which consumes enthusiasm until your motivation goes
Skills and knowledge remains intact, but the will to perform, the
within is gone.
WHAT IS JOB BURNOUT?
Burnout is a malaise of the spirit in which
that mysterious force that gets us moving is damaged or even destroyed.
Job burnout could be called job depression. Burnout is not an
proposition. On any particular day enthusiasm for work is increasing or
decreasing but it does not remain the same. Even the hottest fires will
burn out, so we tend them fanning, stoking, and occasionally adding
log. When motivation wanes, we burn out.
Who is Susceptible
Hardest hit are service providers who often
about their work and openly hostile to the very people are to serve.
burnout-prone professions are those that involve life or
decisions; managers, team leaders, and others who work with
working under demanding time schedules; work that requires exacting
or repetitive detailed work; and work that is "politically incorrect".
No one is immune from job burnout. Any person, in any
at any level can become a candidate for job burnout.
Occasional feelings of frustration, anger,
dissatisfaction, and anxiety are normal parts of living and working.
people caught in the burnout cycle usually experience these
negative emotions more often until they become chronic. In the worst
people complain of a kind of emotional fatigue or depletion. While no
people respond in exactly the same way, people tend to experience
first that may evolve into anger. In later stages we see anxiety and
then depression and, in extreme cases, despair. These physical symptoms
are accompanied by declining performance, withdrawal and interpersonal
problems, substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate, illness and
and feelings of meaninglessness—a "Why bother? Attitude.
The burnout takes on a life of its own. In
the burnout victim may quit one job to seek another. But beginning a
job without first understanding the problem with the first job is a
for another disaster. It is easy to unwittingly get into another job
the same problems. Essentially, the new job picks up where the first
left off. Then the second job may promote burnout even more rapidly in
the face of fewer frustrations. The burnout victim may once again seek
another job, only to find a repeat performance and
become unable to work at all.
CAUSES OF BURNOUT
To understand the causes of burnout it helps to
what sustains motivation. Just as the body needs vitamins and protein
optimal health, certain "nutrients" are also essential to sustain high
motivation: (1) Rewards for good work, and (2) Feeling you can control
things that influence you. These factors nourish motivation and help
Lack of Rewards
Rewards include praise, feelings of satisfaction,
self-esteem, raises, bonuses, promotions, fame, credibility, challenge,
adventure, fun, and anything else that is positive to you.
Negative rewards include avoiding criticism, alleviating loneliness,
debts, turning off fear, avoiding guilt, getting away from bad
and avoiding anything else that you find punitive and
We must believe we are potent, that we have the
to influence what happens to us. I say "believe" because how we see the
world exerts a significant impact upon one's susceptibility to burnout.
Believing that you can't control what happens to you and feeling
is one of the most threatening human experiences. Any time you believe
the world uncontrollable, you are in trouble.
Research suggests, for example, that Voodoo
be caused because the victims believed they were helpless. Many
prisoners seemed to have died of helplessness. They were told and
that the environment - the guards - had total power over them. Based on
his own experience, Bruno Bettleheim, a renowned psychologist who
one of the worst Nazi death camps, says that it was when people gave up
trying to influence what happened to them that they became "walking
Psychologist Martin Seligman spent years studying
impact of "controllability" on people and animals. He demonstrated that
experiencing uncontrollability tends to undermine motivation to learn
new situations. Burnout victims have learned that they can't control
respective worlds so they stop trying to do so, which handicaps their
to adapt or learn in the future. In this way they become
"crippled" and burnout becomes chronic.
When people stop looking for ways to control
they will stop finding them. Their own self-imposed "blindness" will
them helpless. They will remain helpless because they feel helpless.
a defeatist attitude is learned, it tends to cling tenaciously.
people see only defeat, never success, and thereby remain defeated.
Personal power, the capability to influence the
around you in the ways you desire, is the opposite of helplessness,
causes burnout. Personal power is empowering and combats burnout.
power is a feeling of I-Can-Do - a belief that you can act to control
work. While we have little control over other people, we do have
over ourselves - something we tend to forget when we're feeling
As we develop our capabilities, we gain a sense of mastery and control.
The experience of mastery changes everything.
striving for mastery focuses your attention on areas in which you are
a sense of confidence and being in command of yourself develops.
personal power comes from developing your capabilities, your powers. It
means learning how to get what you need. To the extent you are able to
do this, you are powerful.
Effective self-management requires knowledge and
You probably acquired your self-managing skills informally, from
and teachers. Consequently, you may not manage yourself
Properly done, self-management increases your personal power because
can create situations in which you can give yourself the rewards you
to sustain high motivation
Even in unresponsive and hostile environments you
an inexhaustible source of powerful wins. You can give yourself
and rewards. Unfortunately, few people know how to use these
Most people engage in negative-talk, a powerful punitive means of
On the other hand, surprisingly few use self-acknowledgment. Thus, for
most of us this self-renewing source of power remains dormant. Instead,
we remain dependent on acknowledgment from others.
It is important to know how your body and psyche
and which situations trigger your stress responses. This understanding
can be used to raise and lower your tension level as needed.
power comes in knowing that, although you may not like the difficult
you CAN handle them. Such feelings enable you to rise to the occasion
to handle difficulties skillfully rather than by avoiding problem
Relaxation allows the body to repair, rest, and prepare for optimal
and to plug into "Remembered Wellness." With practice anyone can learn
to use relaxation to control stress. Personal power increases when you
can relax at will. For example, when faced with a crisis situation, if
you can keep activation within the optimal range for peak functioning
will remain alert and have all your resources to draw on to deal with
situation. Confidence grows because you know you can remain cool
of provocation. You feel in command instead of helpless.
BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM
A strong social support system made up of family,
and co-workers can help buffer you against the negative effects of
People with strong social support systems tend to be healthier and live
longer. It's vitally important that you take active measures to
and maintain your support system.
Allies can help you get your job done. Co-workers
help - or hinder - your accomplishing your objectives. When you have
who you can count on to help you get things done, you feel more in
- even in very difficult situations. Your personal power grows because
you can call on certain people to effect certain change.
Inevitably, you will encounter situations
you've not yet developed. Personal power comes from knowing how
arrange learning situations for yourself. When you know how to acquire
the skills you need, you'll have confidence to tackle new challenges
handle the unexpected.
Although objectives should be small steps, they
be big enough to make you stretch. Think of yoga as an
When doing yoga you position your body in a particular posture and then
slowly s t r e t c h the muscles you are exercising. Similarly,
series of small step objectives should slowly stretch your
Don't worry about the steps being too small. No step is too small
as long as there is some stretch and some movement. Remember the
inertia principle: A body in motion will tend to stay in motion.
Use small steps to keep yourself in motion toward your goal.
MODIFY YOUR JOB
Almost every job has some leeway for tailoring it
better fit your work style. The ability to mesh a job to your
increases feelings of potency and enjoyment of work.
Alter Job Focus
Few jobs are clearly defined. Take advantage of
and shape the job according to what you enjoy doing and what best
on your skills and interests. First, look around for needs and ways you
can provide a service. When you see a problem within your department,
it down, mull it over, and consider how you can convert it into an
Always focus on this question: "How can I provide a service?"
review all of your activities. There must be some you enjoy more than
Expand Your Job
Expand those parts of your job you enjoy most.
discover a service you can provide by engaging in an activity you
move on it! And make what you do visible. Be alert to ways of
the needs you fill. In this way you can mold the job into one that is
interesting. It will evolve with you, and you'll receive more
for your efforts because you have pointed them out.
Sometimes the best solution is to change
Too often, however, burnout victims quit an unsatisfactory job without
analyzing the source of dissatisfaction or exploring what is needed,
grab the next job that comes along. Sometimes the new job is as bad as,
or even worse, than the old one. Personal power comes in knowing what
need in a job and how to go out and get it.
Use Your Imagination
Don't limit yourself. Consider every way you can
to achieve what you want. Look at what skills you have and then make
plan. When you have made a plan and have determined your path it's time
to go to work. Work as hard as you would for "the company." Many people
will go all out for a job, yet when it comes to themselves and their
goals, they work half-heartedly. You owe it to yourself to give it your
best shot. Chances are you'll hit the bull's eye. The hard part is not
the reaching, but the deciding what the goal is. All that is required
get where you want to go is hard work and determination. Remember this:
You could be working just as hard for something you don't want, and
REPROGRAM YOUR THOUGHTS
Sometimes your emotions may seem out of your
If so, you may be a victim of runaway thinking and not knowing how to
your thoughts, you respond to every red flag waved before you.
power comes in knowing how to empty your mind of negative chatter so
you can focus on the moment and the challenges at hand. It's through
constant chatter of words that you carry frustrations from work home
Use Potent Language
If you study them you'll discover that most
and negative thinking makes you feel helpless. This is why I call it
THINKING. If you engage in a lot of helpless thinking you will soon
what you are saying to yourself and will become particularly
to burnout. In fact, it is a vicious cycle because as people fall
to burnout they tend to engage in more and more helpless thinking,
accelerates the process. When you keep telling yourself that you are
it makes it very difficult to turn around the situation and beat job
Consequently, it is vitally important to tune into your thinking and
corrective action if you hear yourself thinking in helpless ways.
What you need to do is to substitute a helpful
for the helpless one. For example, berating yourself for thinking, "Oh,
I blew it!" is guaranteed to result in stress. In contrast, you will
a greater sense of control - personal power - if you think, "I made a
but I can learn from my mistakes." Both thoughts are "accurate"
but the first one is a helpless thought that generates feelings of
while the second way of thinking is powerful because it focuses on what
you can do.
DEVELOP DETACHED CONCERN
Detached concern is a higher-order level of
in which personal power is gained by letting go. This is
important for those who work with people having serious or even
problems. It is the attachment to your notions of how things
to be than can imprison you and make you feel helpless. As with
Chinese finger puzzle, it's only when you stop pulling and instead push
your fingers further into the holder that you can break loose.
Laugh a Lot
When you catch yourself taking things too
laugh. Think of the "cosmic chuckle" and of the absurdity of it all.
your distress. Imagine yourself in a Charlie Chaplin script. Pretend
are a stand-up comedian and that the disastrous situation is material
your next gig. As a discipline, practice finding humor in disaster.
save your sanity, your health, and your perspective.
Copyright 1998, 2005: Beverly A. Potter, From
Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work" by Dr. Beverly Potter
RONIN Publishing. All Rights Reserved. This article may be downloaded
personal use, any other use requires permission Beverly Potter, <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Book: Overcoming Job Burnout
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