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Feel the Burn?

The answer to job burnout may not be to retreat but to reengage, experts say.

April 06, 1998|DON LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Feeling burned out at work? Nothing a two-week vacation in Maui can't take care of, right?

Wrong.

That may solve the problem if you're stressed or overworked. But if you're burned out--that is, you've lost energy, enthusiasm and meaning in what you do--experts say that what you really need to do is reengage in work, not retreat.

"It's not to go away, it's to get involved," says John B. Izzo, co-author of "Awakening Corporate Soul," one of a growing number of self-help titles on reigniting the spirit in the workplace.

Izzo and other counselors and researchers believe that more workers today experience burnout even as the economy booms, because people are putting in longer hours at work and facing greater demands on all fronts: Technology requires ever more knowledge and faster responses. Managers want more productivity. Family members refuse to wait for attention to the hearth.

Plus, Izzo says, baby boomers, who comprise much of today's work force, have greater expectations than their parents did about work--that it should be fun, have purpose--and now they are moving into the stage of life in which they're more inclined to ask, as in Peggy Lee's song, "Is that all there is?"

Adding to the confusion is a climate in which economic opportunities are expanding at the same time traditional job security is vanishing, says Dr. Gene Ondrusek, a psychologist with the Center for Executive Health at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla and one of a growing cadre of so-called executive coaches. Ondrusek says this unsettled climate is producing more cases of executive burnout, which he views as "a failure to do good preventive job maintenance."

Some of the signs of job burnout include insomnia, chronic fatigue, aches and pains and depression, Ondrusek says. People also may exhibit symptoms of being distracted, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty in making decisions, profound sadness or anger.

"Psychologically speaking," he adds, "you can talk about fear of failure, the need to prove oneself, which can lead to overcommitments, underestimating time lines and scope and overestimating your abilities."

Christina Maslach, a job stress researcher at UC Berkeley, has devised a survey aimed at assessing a person's degree of burnout. Questions focus on measuring emotional exhaustion in workers, feelings of depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment.

Corporations, of course, have good reason for dealing with burnout, and experts say they are finally paying more attention to it. Studies show burnout may be a factor in job turnover, absenteeism and low morale.

"Employers face a unique problem; for the first time, money alone will not be enough to attract and retain the best people," says John Challenger, of the Illinois-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Some companies are responding with "soft benefits" that are intended to give employees more time to work and enjoy life, Challenger says. As a way to reduce stress and create additional personal time for workers, these employers are providing such benefits as massage therapy during working hours, concierge services that include grocery shopping, and classes on work-family issues.

High-tech employers, in particular, need to be creative about what they offer. Experts say that's not only because skilled workers are in short supply but also because computer-savvy Generation Xers, while having fewer expectations about job security, also have fewer hang-ups about job hopping and will be more prone to leave if they feel they are burning out.

As an executive coach, Ondrusek says he typically starts out with assessing a person's self-care factors--diet, exercise, relaxation, social support system, family and friends. "Typically, this is not an inside problem," he says, noting that many people know what they need to do.

"It's an implementation problem," Ondrusek says. "It's like the gas gauge is on empty, but you say, 'I have to keep going to get where I need to go.' "

Some experts say burnout is largely rooted in feelings of powerlessness or loss of control in one's job. More physicians, for example, seem to be confronting burnout because fundamental changes in the health-care industry have reduced their control and autonomy in accepting and treating patients.

"There is more of a sense of burnout among my colleagues since managed care," says David M. Davis, a psychiatrist in private practice in Newport Beach and secretary of the Psychiatric Society in Orange County.

In her book "Overcoming Job Burnout," Dr. Beverly Potter describes eight paths to developing personal power. They include managing stress, building social support, skill enhancement and tailoring the job to fit a person's work style. "Sometimes the best solution is to change jobs," she says, although she warns that too often, burnout victims quit one unsatisfactory job and land in another one.

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