Don’t get scorched with job burnout.
By William Atkinson
It’s rare these days to pick up a newspaper and not read something occasionally about some entertainer being hospitalized for “exhaustion.” Yet a review of the table of contents, index or symptom/diagnosis charts in any of the standard medical reference books leads to a surprise: There is no disease or illness called “exhaustion.” So why are so many entertainers (and other ordinary people whose names don’t make the paper) hospitalized for something that doesn’t even exist?
Actually “exhaustion” does exist, but since it is generally a combination of a number of different symptoms, the medical literature finds it difficult to categorize.
Exhaustion, which is actually “emotional exhaustion,” affects people in the business world, too, but some business executives, such as Bruce Glaser of APS Concrete Products (Lannon, Wis.), know how to handle it. “I recall the time when I was at my most stressed level,” says Glaser, who also served as NPCA chairman of the board in 2003. “One day I realized I had to do something about it, so I went to the YMCA, where I had a member-ship.” There, prior to getting on the treadmill, Glaser asked himself what was the worst thing that could happen related to the situation that had him stressed. He then asked himself what was the best thing that could happen. Then he asked what he needed to do if the worst happened and what he needed to do if the best happened. “It turned out to be the same things,” he says.
Specifically, there were four things Glaser identified. First, he needed to maintain his health so that he could either enjoy the good things that were coming or get through the bad things. Second, he needed to maintain relationships with his family. “Third, I needed to maintain my integrity and self-respect,” he adds. “Finally, I needed to find a way to take control of something, since, at the time, a lot of things were out of control.”
At this point, he got onto the treadmill and began repeating four words: “Health-Family-Integrity-Control.” As he continued to repeat these words, he found himself beginning to relax. Eventually, he shortened it to “H-F-I-C.” He repeated these initials the whole time he was on the treadmill. “Now, even today, when stress begins to build up, I start repeating ‘H-F-I-C,’ and it calms me instantly,” he states.
Emotional exhaustion is actually one of three components of the burnout syndrome, says Dr. Christina Maslach, vice provost at the University of California-Berkeley and co-author of “The Truth About Burnout.” The three components are:
- Depersonalization – feeling disconnected from other people and feeling the need to get away from people as much as possible, as well as showing impersonal responses to people.
- Personal Accomplishments – fear that you are failing and/or having few or no feelings about your accomplishments.
- Emotional Exhaustion – feeling that you are completely drained, either by work demands or other people or both. You are so emotionally tired that you lose control of your emotions. Maslach says there are four elements to emotional exhaustion:
- Physical: no energy, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, rapid breath, etc.
- Emotional: sadness or depression, negativity, increased cynicism.
- Intellectual: decreased creativity, reduced ability to concentrate.
- Social: quickness to anger, defensiveness, being on edge, blaming others, a sense of depersonalization.
These direct problems can cascade into more serious indirect problems, according to Dr. Greg Jantz, director of The Center for Counseling & Health Resources Inc. (Edmonds, Wash.), which specializes in helping executives recover from exhaustion. “When your body is drained, it doesn’t get enough nutrients, and this can lead to depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain,” he says. “Another danger of reaching emotional exhaustion is that some people may turn to unhealthy things such as alcohol, drugs or other forms of addiction.” Furthermore, if you don’t get help for your condition, you will start making poor decisions at work.
Causes of exhaustion
While your environment can trigger conditions that can lead to emotional exhaustion, it is your individual makeup that will determine whether you actually experience exhaustion. Here are some of the characteristics that can make you prone:
- “If you are someone who needs outside approval because internal approval is never enough, you may be prone,” explains Dr. John-Henry Pfifferling, founder and director of the Center for Professional Wellbeing (Durham, N.C.).
- “You are also prone if you have unrealistic expectations and have a terrible time with failure or disappointment,” he adds.
- “You are at risk if you are task-focused, want to be productive and have problems when you don’t succeed with this,” adds Philip Chard, president and CEO of NEAS Inc. (Waukesha, Wis.), a management consulting firm. “Another problem is if you have a high need for order to such a point that disorder causes stress for you,” adds Chard. “Still another problem is being an either-or type, where everything is either right or wrong, black or white, good or bad,” he says. “In other words, you have problems with ambiguity.”
- “People who tend to be prone to anxiety will find it more difficult to escape from emotional exhaustion, because their base level of activition is high to begin with,” says Dr. Ronald G. Downey, professor of psychology at Kansas State
- If you are particularly empathic and pour a lot of yourself into what you do, you are prone to emotional exhaustion. “These are giving people who often feel other people don’t appreciate what they’re giving or feel that they are expected to give too much,” says Chard.
- Interestingly, according to Dr. J. Aaron Johnson, assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia, individuals who are prone to emotional exhaustion tend to include young, idealistic managers and professionals who have unrealistic expectations about the work environment and their role in that environment. “Older people tend to experience less exhaustion than younger ones, who tend to be more idealistic when they come into the workplace,” he explains. “The younger ones think they’re going to change the world.”
- Finally, if you work in isolation, you are prone to exhaustion. “Top executives and business owners often don’t have anyone else to talk to about what they’re going through,” states Pfifferling.
Preventing emotional exhaustion
The first step to preventing emotional exhaustion is to realize that the key to success in business is to be able to run a marathon, not a sprint. “And a marathon requires good self-care,” points out Jantz. This involves diet, exercise, sleep and not taking on more work than you can handle. “Marathoners constantly refuel themselves,” he adds. “If they don’t, they cramp up and can’t finish the race.”
Here are some tips on prevention:
- Use commute time to relax. “Instead of talking on your cell phone in the car, listen to relaxing music,” suggests Downey.
- Exercise has been proven to reduce stress, and if you can keep stress levels manageable, you can do a lot to prevent emotional exhaustion and burnout. “If exercise involves playing sports with other people, make sure you keep it noncompetitive,” cautions Downey. “If you’re naturally competitive, then it is probably better to walk or swim than to play tennis or handball.”
- Don’t eat at your desk during lunch. “If you do, the tension from the morning continues on into the afternoon,” explains Downey. Taking a break and going somewhere else to eat breaks this tension. What about “working lunches” with colleagues? “If you go somewhere else to eat, it may not be a problem,” he replies. “In any event, don’t do this every day.”
Many executives realize they’re getting close to emotional exhaustion, yet they keep going. Finally, they cross an invisible line where they crash. They wake up one morning and realize that they just can’t handle any more. “Before, they could always keep themselves going,” notes Jantz. “However, once they cross the line, they can’t take care of themselves anymore.” Jantz recalls talking with one executive who was so exhausted that he said it took energy just to breathe.
How can you deal with the pride and ego that get in the way of being willing to admit that you can’t continue to do everything? In other words, one reason many executives force themselves to plow ahead despite knowing they’re headed for exhaustion is not wanting to admit that they’re not invincible. The solution is to look at the situation differently, according to Downey. That is, you need to balance two types of pride. One type of pride is that you feel good about being able to do a lot of things. The other is feeling good about being able to do things well. “Clearly, as you increase the number of things you do, your ability to do things well will necessarily decrease,” he explains. “In other words, if you continue to say ‘yes’ to everything, there will come a time when you will start to fail.”
Recovering from emotional exhaustion
If you currently suffer from exhaustion, there are a few things you can to do help yourself recover.
- Adjust how you spend your time. Cut down on certain activities, and begin new ones that are refreshing.
- “Gain support from family or your religious/spiritual community,” suggests Chard. That is, engage in substantive interaction. Find people with whom you can discuss what is important in your life. “This helps to reconnect with what has real meaning in your life,” he adds.
- Get back in touch with nature. “Too many people are indoors and online,” states Chard. “Being in touch with nature gives people a renewed sense of hope about life.”
- Some people may need counseling to recover, because they don’t have the emotional ability to think clearly and design their own strategies to recover.
- Remember to maintain balance as you are recovering. “Some executives are such overachievers that, once they experience emotional exhaustion, they realize they need to take better care of themselves,” explains Jantz. “One element is exercise, so they go to the gym for three hours straight, and the next day they’re in worse shape than they were before.”
One executive’s master plan
APS Concrete’s Glaser admits that there have been times in his life when he has been significantly stressed, but he has always managed to avoid emotional exhaustion by utilizing a number of different strategies.
“First, I always try to make sure I schedule time for myself to do things I enjoy,” he says. He has always wanted to learn how to meditate, and he finally did. He now does a 10-minute meditation many mornings. He also attended a seminar that taught a 20-second method of calming down. “I close my eyes, take a deep breath and let it out,” he says. “I then imagine myself at my favorite place, which is a place I once vacationed. I then go through different senses of what I see there, smell there and hear there.”
Glaser and his wife go bike riding during the summer and visit the YMCA the rest of the year. He also spends some time in his sunroom, which overlooks a pond, and reads a few pages from a book. And a very important key: “I have a failsafe mechanism for when I get to the point of experiencing too much stress,” Glaser states. “I force myself to take a break.” For example, if he planned to work that evening, he doesn’t. He may do something he enjoys, or he may do absolutely nothing. “I sometimes just ‘veg out,’ which involves lying in bed, reading a book or watching TV,” he says.
Glaser also recently took his first-ever cruise, a weeklong trip through the Caribbean. “I definitely plan to do that again!” he emphasizes. “When I read that phone calls cost $16 a minute, I was thrilled, because I knew I wouldn’t be making or receiving any calls. I just relaxed.”