Burned out and used up

burnout n. 1. the point at which a rocket’s fuel or oxidizer is completely burned up and the rocket enters its free-flight phase or is jettisoned; 2. damage caused by overheating; 3. a state of emotional exhaustion caused by the stresses of one’s work or responsibilities.

How do you know when you’ve arrived at personal or professional burnout? In a post from four years ago that has since become a classic, emergency-room nurse/blogger Kim McAllister describes the signs:

You feel you are “on stage” for eight solid hours playing the part of a nurse.

You smile so hard for so long your face hurts.

You resent everyone. The doctors. Your colleagues. Your manager. Your patients.

The point comes when you snap. You can’t play the role any longer.

(You don’t have a choice.)

Depression follows.

You have to take medication just to get to the point that you can put on those damn scrubs and put one foot in front of the other.

(A commercial for “ER” makes you physically sick.)

You spend the majority of your time off sleeping. Your family suffers as apathy and anhedonia infuse every aspect of your life.

You can’t quit. You’re trapped. You need the money. You have to have the benefits. You desperately look for something outside of nursing to cling to, something else you can do for a living.

But… you aren’t educated to do anything else and besides, every other job you consider just pays minimum wage and you can’t support your family.

Although she’s writing about nurses, McAllister’s words surely resonate with anyone who’s ever experienced what it’s like to be worn down, depleted, used up, fried, physically and emotionally burned out.

Burnout has always been one of the hazards of the human condition. Lately, though, it seems the pressures of contemporary life, coupled with the recession, have increased our vulnerability. Workplaces have been pared down by layoffs. People are working harder with fewer resources. Stress levels are high. The struggle to keep up with all the demands often leaves everyone feeling mentally depleted and emotionally frayed.

Psychologists first began using the term “burnout” in the 1970s, and it’s an apt one. One by one, the flames of enthusiasm, vitality and motivation are quenched, to be replaced with cynicism, withdrawal, depersonalization, emptiness and depression.

Anyone can experience burnout, but some factors seem to place people at higher risk.

Experts who study burnout have identified a number of these factors. Some are external, such as work or home environments that are disorganized, unsupportive or excessively rigid. Others are internal, such as overly high expectations of oneself. An interesting article that appeared some years ago in Psychology Today explores another perspective: that job burnout is primarily the fault of organizational dysfunction rather than people’s individual mental makeup. The author, Christina Maslach, is perhaps one of the best-known researchers in the U.S. who focuses on burnout.

Other researchers have raised additional intriguing questions, such as how e-mail, cell phones and other electronic gadgets might be contributing to burnout, and the role of cultural attitudes towards work, multi-tasking and efficiency. They’re summed up in this article that appeared in New York Magazine in 2006; it’s rather a long read but worth it.

Although burnout is often associated with stress, these two states of mind are not synonymous with each other. HelpGuide, a mental health education website, explains it this way:

Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and psychologically. Stressed people can still imagine, though, that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.

Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress is like drowning in responsibilities, burnout is being all dried up. One other difference between stress and burnout: While you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.

If this sounds like you or someone you know, an online quiz here can help you assess whether you’re headed for burnout and perhaps are in need of some intervention. Burnout that’s ignored can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and increasingly difficult relationships with family and friends.

What to do about burnout? Many organizations in the fields of mental health and human resources have information and suggestions that are available online. Here’s a sample: MayoClinic.com, LiveStrong.com, and Workplaceissues.com. What they have in common is a focus on becoming more resilient, recognizing what you can change (and what you can’t), and re-engaging with the things that matter to you in life.

Emergiblog’s Kim McAllister describes her experience with burnout as a descent into a black hole. It took some counseling and antidepressants, plus learning how to avoid overwork and take care of herself, to help her regain her passion for nursing.

For each individual, the answer to preventing burnout, or finding one’s way back from burnout, is going to be different. For McAllister, it was reconnecting with the reason she went into nursing – to take care of patients.

In a post titled, appropriately enough, “Sweeping Away the Ashes,” she writes: “Lose sight of the person and you lose sight of the profession. Lose sight of their humanity and you lose sight of your own. Lose sight of your own and you become a burnt shell. You would think that after three decades of this, I’d have figured this out by now. I guess you never stop learning.”

Image credits: Photo, Wikimedia Commons; logo, Troy Murphy, West Central Tribune.