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Burning Out the Candle at Both Ends : Relationships: The pressures of the recessionary '90s are causing more O.C. people to 'hit the wall,' losing any ability to enjoy life, love or work in a struggle to simply survive.

June 02, 1993|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They have enough money to do just about anything they want, but Richard and Karen--an Orange County couple in their mid-30s who own a business specializing in custom interior design work--have neither the time nor the energy to enjoy their affluence.

As Richard puts it: "We have all the success we want, but we don't have a life."

He gets to the office at 6 a.m. every day and seldom leaves before 9 p.m. His wife arrives at 9 a.m. and often puts in more than 12 hours. On one recent day when a deadline was pressing, she worked until 2 a.m. and grabbed two hours of sleep before catching a plane to San Francisco, where she had an early business appointment.

Their meals are rarely home-cooked and almost always rushed. Most of their conversation is related to business. And their "vacations" are limited to long weekends planned around meetings with out-of-town clients.

Richard and Karen, who dream of raising kids and dogs on a farm someday, have worked so hard to withstand the downturn in the economy over the past few years that they're now running on empty. They no longer get a charge out of what they do for a living; it's become a chore that they perform just for money, with no sense of personal satisfaction.

Still, they continue to push themselves, because they're afraid that if they slow down, they'll lose the edge that enabled them to survive while the recession was driving many others in their industry out of business.

They seemed relieved to have an opportunity to talk about the job stress that has drained them physically and emotionally, but asked not to be identified because they don't want clients to know that, behind the polished professional images, are two people who have lost their passion for their work--and for each other.

Richard and Karen both feel certain that their marriage won't last if they don't make some drastic changes in their lifestyle. Soon.

"We're losing our identity as individuals and as a couple," Richard says. "We have to find a way to take our life back."

They have sought help from Laguna Beach psychotherapist Ruth Luban, who is offering free workshops on how to overcome burnout in the '90s. Luban blames the prolonged recession for many of the advanced cases of burnout that she's seeing today.

When people suffered from burnout in the '80s--a time of plenty--they had choices, Luban explains. Workers who needed to refuel their psyches could take an extended vacation or sabbatical, cut back on their hours or job-share, or even quit and try something new.

But in the '90s, with businesses going bankrupt and companies downsizing and cutting back on employees' salaries and hours, people are clinging to what they have. The economic uncertainty created by the recession and the faltering recovery have left people at all levels of employment feeling helpless, pessimistic and afraid. They're working harder and longer to rise above competitors, make up for lost income and guard against future losses. And many have neither the time nor the money for the extras that once helped prevent or ease burnout--vacations, recreation and counseling, for example.

"Just as our economy demands greater effort, creativity and aggressiveness to compete for considerably fewer projects than the '80s offered, more professionals than ever are experiencing career burnout," Luban says.

And often, burnout at the office spills over into relationships, causing loved ones to become alienated when they are needed most. Luban says couples get more and more distant from each other when one or both partners suffer from burnout, because they tend to argue over petty things that wouldn't normally cause friction, unfairly blame the mate for the other's misery, become hypercritical and come home from work feeling too tired for intimacy.

Several times in recent weeks, Richard has told Karen, "I need a wife!" Her answer is always the same: "I have nothing left to give."

Richard understands because, he admits, that's exactly how he feels. "I don't know what a good husband is because I don't have time to be one," he says.

The couple, who have been married three years but have been together since 1984, wish they'd recognized the signs that they were heading toward burnout a long time ago, before they let their lives get totally out of balance. But they were focusing so intensely on their work that they lost touch with everything else.

Luban says that Richard and Karen are ideal candidates for burnout because both are intense, driven, perfectionistic high achievers. These "Type A's" are the ones most likely to give too much of themselves to their careers and let the debilitating demands of a job take the place of outside activities and interests that would help keep them energized.

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