Burned Up or Burned Out?

Bob Goldman
Posted: Nov 08, 2012 12:01 AM

"All of a sudden you're exhausted, you're feeling cynical and unattached. And you think, 'What happened to me?'"

Well, you could be coming down with the flu. Or you could be in love. The symptoms are the same. In this case, however, it is neither your heart nor your sinuses that is inflamed.

You, friend, are simply a burnout. Or, you're headed in that direction. Says who? Says psychologist Sherri Bourg Carter, the author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout."

Since I am not a woman or a superachiever, I culled this valuable psychopathological information from a recent story in the Chicago Tribune. Titled "Burnout Becoming More Widespread," the article suggests that, if the economy is sputtering, burnout is booming. In fact, it is exactly because the economy is sputtering that burnout is booming.

"During the recession, companies shed millions of jobs as they strove to cut costs and shore up the bottom line," the Trib reporter reports. "But that work didn't go away with the elimination of the position, it just got shifted, pushing workers to do more with less."

You can understand why this dynamic could result in stress. You're asked to do more with less when your entire career has been based on doing less with more.

So, how do you know when your normal level of discontent and dissatisfaction hits the burnout redline?

According to Ms. Carter, the physical symptoms include "chest pain, chronic fatigue, sleep problems, lots of headaches and indigestion." I can certainly understand the sleep problems. With so many empty desks, it's difficult to take a two-hour after-lunch nap without someone noticing your absence -- or your snoring.

As for your indigestion -- maybe it's not the all-you-can stuff-in-your-face buffalo wings luncheons at the Kit Kat Klub. And your manager shouldn't blame you when you stagger back to work at 4 p.m. She should shower you with sympathy, and Tums.

There are behavioral signs, as well, such as "eating more or eating less, increasing drug or alcohol use, feeling more sensitive or emotional, isolating oneself from friends and colleagues."

I'm not sure what to make of this laundry list of symptoms, but as for isolating yourself from friends and colleagues -- how could that be a warning sign of anything, except little patience for hanging out with idiots and nerds?

But let's not worry about it. You're probably fine. Just finish eating your pepperoni pizza, and drink the last of that six-pack. Breakfast is over, and it's time to go to work.

I won't bore you with the psychological signs of workplace burnout, except to say that if you're feeling depressed or anxious, helpless or hopeless, congratulations! You're officially a burnout and an extremely good judge of what makes for a miserable job.

According to Ms. Bourg Carter, the burnout state "starts with mild stresses that most people experience, but if nothing is done to manage the stress, it can become unbearable."

In other words, when you feel burnout creeping up on you, do something about it immediately. But what to do? According to Thomas Donohoe, who researches work-life balance at East Tennessee State University, one of the most effective first steps is to talk about the stressors in your work with friends or family. Unfortunately, since you've already isolated yourself from friends and family, as I explained above, you'll have to find some new people with whom you can share your innermost feelings.

(I'm certainly available if you'd like to unburden yourself. I am not a psychiatrist, but I charge like one. Please include your credit card information with the first email outlining all your stressors. Funny how much more empathetic I can be with a few hundred semolians in the bank.)

Other ameliorative steps from Mr. Donohue include allowing taking a break, and allowing "five minutes to eat." Apparently, he doesn't realize that you currently take two hours. He also suggests doing "simple exercises at the office." May I suggest going a few rounds with a punching bag? If your company doesn't provide punching bags, you could substitute the snack machine.

"Most people expect their brain to be constantly on," concludes Bourg Carter, "but if your brain is constantly on, it will eventually shut itself off."

That's a comfort, but it's not really your problem, is it? The question is: will a brain that is constantly off eventually turn itself on? Until science figures that one out, enjoy your burnout, and the chicken wings, too.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com. To find out more about Bob Goldman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.