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Burnout blues

Most people want to give their best to their work and to their families. Most of us want to make a difference in life. We expect our bosses, coworkers and families will appreciate what we do, and our efforts and sacrifices will be worthwhile.?

Then, reality hits. We can bust our gut, but our work and family don’t seem to notice — all they seem to want is more and more from us. ?

Burnout has been described as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. It means different things to different people and call it by different names — stagnant, bitter, resigned, pooped or just lousy. ?

Burnout is a gradual process. Life becomes less fun, you can’t play anymore, you lose your curiosity and creativity. You start thinking very negatively about everything. You just feel like getting away. Being in a busy, rapidly-changing job, including being a stay-at-home parent, means a constant drain on your physical and mental energy. Being female with an ‘inborn’ high level of concern for others increases the rate of drainage. So you must keep it replenished.

Work-related burnout results from a combination or all of the following: a poor match between the demands of the job and who’s doing it, responsibility without authority, little recognition or appreciation, lack of control over how things will be done, and work overload.?

Stages of burnout

Different models of burnout have been proposed, but the stages are fairly similar: ?


1. Full tank or the ‘honeymoon’.[/strong] You have high energy and you get satisfaction from trying to solve problems. You find the job interesting most of the time and you feel you can develop your own special abilities.?

2. Fuel starts to run low.  You feel the gradual onset of frustration, tiredness and loss of interest. You start to distance yourself from co-workers and clients. You use language like, ‘He’s an ass!’ or become cynical and negative. You notice inefficiency, make more mistakes. Physical symptoms of anxiety increase, like early morning waking and fatigue — including general fatigue, not just muscle fatigue. Sleep is disturbed. ‘Escape’ activities increase: drinking, drugs, eating, buying things, smoking.?

3. Towards a crisis. Symptoms and dissatisfaction with the job dominate all areas of life. You want to be alone, you reject help, you feel lots of anger and maybe even abuse alcohol and/or drugs. You can’t seem to relax. You think of extreme measures such as resigning, moving, or even suicide if you enter a clinical


4. Apathy.[/strong] Energy is very depleted and symptoms get worse.?depression.?

People may not follow a usual path. If a major event happens early — such as a costly mistake — then burnout may follow quickly. Almost everyone gets some symptoms at some point, but not everyone totally burns out.

It’s often the best workers who are most at risk for burnout and depression because they invest the most energy, emotion and commitment. Early burnout may not be quite as serious as late burnout because people can learn from it and become more flexible in their approach to work, and design a more resilient personal life.

Recognize that if you’re a hard working idealist or a perfectionist, your risk is still greater. ?

Are you suffering from burnout?

Try this individual checklist to help you live a stress-free life.

* I’m aware of burnout, and I know the symptoms.

* I associate with positive, upbeat people.

* I replenish myself physically with diet and exercise.

* I replenish myself mentally with regular relaxation, yoga, Tai Chi, etc.

* I replenish myself emotionally with a mission, a meaningful purpose in life and support. ?

* I use rational thinking, e.g. “My boss is not an ignorant, critical SOB, but just another fallible fellow human being, like his dad.”

* I’m not “done for.” I need something to be “done differently.”

* I pick my wars carefully. I don’t take on too many tasks at once or try to solve all problems.    ?

* I pace myself. Good time management gives me time to unwind on weekends.

* I have a hobby that takes my mind off work. I can’t control my job, but I can control my leisure time.?

* I have a sense of the wider meaning of my life, a belief system which helps to maintain the balance in life.?

* I have a sense of humour — or try to cultivate it.

* I focus on what I really love about the job, why I went into it in the first place. I look out for those moments, I savour them even if they are infrequent.?

* I set clear, interesting goals in different areas of life and make time to achieve them.

* I have one good friend who supports me.?

* I stay out of groups of complainers and negative-thinkers.?

* When I share problems with fellow workers, I do it in an upbeat way, using optimism, focusing on what I enjoyed about the day, what satisfaction I got.?

* I try to ensure that my job is doing for me what I want

* I feel a sense of personal accomplishment?

* I feel I am making a worthwhile difference, either at work or at home - or both??

How did you score on the checklist?

Dr. David Rainham is the founder of Optimum Health Centre in Waterloo, Ont., specializing in stress, weight/nutrition and pain management. You can contact Dr. Rainham by phone at 519-897-3670 or visit or

Mari-Len De Guzman

Mari-Len De Guzman is the former editor of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine and
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