Kelly James thought she wanted to be a lawyer, but after four different law jobs in five years, hoping each position would lessen her unhappiness, she was at a breaking point. "I lived for Friday. I'd count the hours until Friday at five o'clock," she recalls.
After one particularly awful case, "I came home, and I cried for two or three hours straight," James says. Her boyfriend finally confronted her. She remembers, "He said, 'If this job is making you this miserable, why don't you quit?'" So, finally acknowledging that job burnout was jeopardizing her mental and physical health, she did.
James is not alone. Many people feel concerned about work-related stress, which can directly impact job satisfaction and performance.
What Is Job Burnout?
"Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to stress and physical, mental, and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lower productivity, cynicism, confusion…a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give," says Mark Gorkin, LICSW, a Washington, DC-based expert on stress.
It is a rare employee who has not experienced some on-the-job pressure. Ups and downs are part of the natural cycle of work—and life—but when stress continues, unabated, for extended periods of time, burnout can result.
"Burnout itself is a process. It develops through stages," explains California executive coach and psychologist Sandra Paulsen, PhD. She defines the stages as:
- Physical exhaustion —having reduced energy to maintain activity level
- Emotional exhaustion —feeling depressed , hopeless, and helpless
- Changed perspective on the world —feeling cynical, negative, and irritable
- Pervasive, global feelings of negativity —feeling that you are doing poorly in all areas of life or feeling that you are not a good person
What Causes Burnout?
Though unhappy employees like Kelly James are prime candidates for burnout, you do not have to hate your work to be at risk. Even people who enjoy their jobs can get worn out, says Bob Gardella, assistant director of alumni career services for Harvard Business School and author of The Harvard Business School Guide to Finding Your Next Job .
Many employees find themselves constantly fighting to maintain a balance between their home and work lives. The combination of long hours, work and family pressures, increased job responsibilities, business travel, and a lack of boundaries between time on and off the job can all conspire to make even the most dedicated worker frazzled. And if you do not enjoy what you are doing, those factors can wreak even more havoc.
What Is at Risk?
So you are a little worn down. You do not feel the same motivation you used to, and your work is more of a drain than a joy. So what? Everyone goes through ups and downs. It will pass—right?
Do not be so quick to shrug off workplace stress. While it is normal to occasionally experience some level of workplace dissatisfaction, long-term stress—burnout—can damage your career and your health.
"Most of us can handle the 'speed bumps,' as I call them," says motivational speaker Tom Bay, author of Change Your Attitude: Creating Success One Thought at a Time. "It's when it's prolonged that it becomes a problem."
According to the Center for the Advancement of Health, various studies indicate a significant correlation between on-the-job stress and mental, emotional, and physical problems, such as heart disease and mental, immune system, and musculoskeletal disorders. These affect your quality of life and workplace productivity.
In sum, job burnout is a pervasive problem that individuals and companies cannot afford to ignore.
What Can You Do About It?
If you are facing a mild case of workplace angst or if your stress comes from a short-term problem, such as a co-worker's absence, taking a week's vacation or acknowledging that your situation is temporary may be enough to get your life back on track. If you are facing an advanced case of burnout however, the solution may be more drastic.
- Look at your life. Dr. Paulsen suggests first determining if your current lifestyle resonates with your long-term goals. She recommends imagining yourself at an advanced age, leafing through a scrapbook of your life's accomplishments. Are you happy with the balance presented on its pages? If not, it's time to commit to some changes.
- Create free time. Gardella adds that simply being aware of your work-related challenges is one step towards resolving issues. You may need to impose more boundaries between the different areas of your life in order to gain back some of the "off" time lost to technology, like cell phones and the Internet. "You really need a mechanism for getting away from things," says Gardella, whether that is leaving your laptop at the office on the weekends, taking a monthly fishing trip, or jogging every lunch hour. "One of the key things is finding out what works for you," he says.
Is It Time to Change Jobs?
If you are unhappy, do not automatically assume the solution is to change jobs. First, assess what you might be contributing to your woes. For instance, do poor time-management skills result in always being behind on your work? Are you inclined to take on more than you can possibly do? Do you have trouble delegating or saying no? If so, those problems will not disappear just because you are hanging your hat in a different place.
There are times, though, when the only solution is to make a break. If your priorities do not mesh with your current corporate culture or if you do not see a path towards a different working environment, you may have to say goodbye. Or if you take a break and do not find yourself returning with more energy, it may be time to move on.
Is It the Right Decision for You?
Even if these lifestyle decisions reflect your priorities, making choices that may jeopardize your position or reputation in the company is difficult, especially if you have always been a top performer.
"But one has to have the intestinal fortitude to protect one's self and one's family," says Dr. Paulsen. "One has to. No one else is going to do it."
Bay agrees, "It comes back to the fact that it's your life—and it's all you've got."