Heed warning signs of worker burnout

Unfortunately, by the time they realize it, the burnout has set in and is much more difficult to overcome than if it had been recognized earlier. Nobody is immune to burnout, which usually arises when the demands of work exceed the possible capacities of an individual who tries to meet the increasing demands with persistence.

Despite their best efforts, these people find themselves lifting the weight of work until they fail, completely unable to pick up another set of work-weights. At this point, they feel hopeless, dejected, cynical and unable to accept any possible intervention that could change the quality of their lives. 

The earliest stages of burnout involve plastic smiles and minor forms of dissatisfaction.

This leads to the subsequent stages of a person’s work constantly getting ahead of them, and then their minds being elsewhere while at work.

People think of this as normal, when in fact they could well be in the earliest stages of burnout.

By the time they get to the fourth stage, people start to feel that their future is vague and threatening. The tiredness they feel at work leads people to become more cynical, until they start to dread the thought of going to work.

This leads to the last stage of physical and emotional exhaustion. The transition between the two is usually either so subtle that people do not notice, or so dramatic that they are overwhelmed.

Many high-achieving, high-performing people suffer from what has been called “The Summit Syndrome,” which is a form of burnout.

These overachievers peak in their performance, struggle to raise the bar even higher, eventually plateau, but bear down even harder as they try to make things happen.

Eventually, they plummet into a descent in their careers that sometimes leaves them feeling hopeless and despairing, and at other times leaves them accepting lateral transfers: essentially, shifting the deck chairs around on the Titanic of their sinking lives without jumping ship.

These people have been burned out by the boredom and repetition of their ideas, and by their own mastery of their jobs.

What can you do about this?  Apart from just “sucking it up” and trying to look on the bright side, the earlier you can identify burnout, the better. There are six factors that have been shown by extensive research to contribute to burnout: work overload, lack of control, insufficient reward, breakdown in community, absence of fairness and conflicting values. The interventions you can institute depend on which of these are your major obstacles.

Below are some things that might help you change the burnout process:

1.  Time management: People often think that they manage their time well, but they do not account for e-mails, lunch, answering voice-mail and emergencies that could come up.  When scheduling your day, decide how much time a day can be spent on “intangibles.”

2. Recognize the differences between “walls and fences”: Walls are more difficult to break down than fences.  When tackling problems, tackle the fences first — this will give you an incremental sense of mastery — and save the wall tackling for the most energetic parts of your day. 

3. Anchor your goals to a higher purpose: When day-to-day tasks are boring and repetitious, they can take a toll on you. But there are ways in which they can be more tolerable if you think of doing them within a greater context that serves you.  We often forget that our work puts our kids through school, gives us the means to have an incredible vacation or the fruits to enjoy and pursue our personal passions.

4. Consider re-inventing yourself: Write out a plan to do something different while holding onto your core competencies. For example, if you cook every day, in a year from now you might be able to write a small culinary book or start a blog or Web site. If you are a CEO, you could reorganize your company to work more directly with people who are inspiring or you could take some of the stress off yourself by involving the company in decision-making.

No change is easy. If you are thinking that you may be burned out and that nothing is going to help you, then think again.

Cynicism is one of the hallmark features of advanced burnout. Hire a burnout coach.

Trust the process. You will be surprised what a refreshing change of mind you can have by just taking yourself out of the heat of burnout and cooling down.

Dr. Srini Pillay is also an executive coach and founder/CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, an international group of specialized coaches trained to apply the latest developments in “social intelligence” as it relates to productivity in the workplace.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.