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Burnout at Work
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Burnout at Work

Recognizing the symptoms and strategies for relief.

Yoga and meditation teacher Debbie Helfeld practices alternate nostril breathing, which she says can relieve the type of stress that can lead to workplace burnout.

Yoga and meditation teacher Debbie Helfeld practices alternate nostril breathing, which she says can relieve the type of stress that can lead to workplace burnout. Photo by Marilyn Campbell.

Maria Cogswell says she used to sob in her car each day as she drove to her job on Capitol Hill. She complained of stomach cramps and indigestion during the time she spent in her office.

“I was rude to people and short and irritable with my friends,” she said. “I was miserable. My brain was fried and I was completely burned out at work. Eventually I just quit my job.”

Cogswell is not alone. According to a recent Gallup study, two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. Researchers who conducted the study concluded that employee burnout can lead to a downward spiral in performance and can damage an employee’s self-esteem and confidence. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently labeled workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that could lead to health issues.

“Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion that negatively affects self-esteem,” said Linda McKenna Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University. “It affects the quality of services the burned-out employee provides. For example, nursing is a field with high burn-out, so this is a concern if the employee is not able to perform well.”

The feeling that one has little or no autonomy at work can cause frustration and stress that leads to burnout. “Keep in mind [that] those jobs, across all professions in which the employee has little control and competing demands of both family and work, lead to this serious problem of burnout,” added Gulyn, who taught the topic of stress and burnout in a recent class.

Learn to recognize the early signs of burnout, advises Carolyn Lorente, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Northern Virginia Community College. “Oftentimes the first indicator of work burnout and stress may be felt in our bodies,” she said “Especially for those of us who learned as children to tough it out, we may have been socialized to not cue into our stressors or emotions. This can really take a toll on our physical health. We may find ourselves getting more frequent headaches, having stomach issues, or catching colds more often.”

According to the World Health Organization announcement in May, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Such extreme levels of chronic stress can damage one’s overall physical and mental wellbeing, added Chris Harrison, professor of health and physical education at Montgomery College. “Individuals reach the condition of burnout when they are exhausted and can't replenish their energy levels, they lack motivation, develop a chronic pessimistic attitude with feelings of frustration and hopelessness.”

“Job-related burnout can result in lower productivity, lower quality of work, increased accidents and increased absenteeism,” continued Harrison, who teaches a class called “Controlling Stress and Tension.”

One of the most effective ways to ease stress and prevent burnout before it happens is to make time throughout the day to practice self-care, advises Lorente, who encourages people to take what she calls “peace pauses.” “For instance, during a lunch break take a walk outside rather than eating inside, treating yourself to a favorite afternoon tea or coffee, or listening to books on tape or an interesting pod-cast to and from work.”

Stress often comes from feeling a lack of control over how one’s time is spent, advises Lorente, who is also a psychotherapist at Belle Point Wellness clinic where she helps patients manage stress. “These peace-pauses can help us begin to take back even small parts of how our day goes and help protect against stress-related ill health,” she said.

Make time to take care of one’s physical health, advises Harrison. “Work to improve your sleep habits, eat a healthy diet and participate in regular physical activity,” she said.

To ease stress, Harrison also recommends a holistic approach. “Explore activities ... such as yoga, meditation, guided imagery or tai chi,” she said. “Mindfulness is the act of focusing on your breath flow and being aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the present moment without interpretation or judgment. This practice involves facing situations with openness and patience, and without judgment.”

One breathing technique that some meditation teachers say can calm a person who is in a stressful situation is alternative nostril breathing, an exercise in which a person breathes out of one nostril while closing off the other.

“Hillary Clinton used alternative nostril breathing to cope with stress during her presidential campaign,” said yoga and meditation teacher Debbie Helfeld. “I had a student who was stuck at a railroad crossing when she was already late for a meeting. She told me that she tried alternative nostril breathing while she waited for the train to pass and it really calmed her anxiety.”

Adjusting the way one views stress and changing one’s thoughts, behaviors and relationships might be necessary, suggests, Jerome Short, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at George Mason University. “The more that we view stress as a challenge and we develop coping skills the more we can experience growth and not harm,” he said.

For those who feel a sense of hopelessness, Harrison suggests exploring available options. “Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor,” she said. “Maybe you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Try to set goals for what must get done and what can wait.”

Sometimes the best option is to get help from a therapist or simply change jobs, says Short. “In the workplace, it helps to have new challenges, a sense of purpose, autonomy to make decisions, and opportunities to master skills,” he said.