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Career Makeover

Burnout Can Strike Anyone, so Be Vigilant About Its Symptoms

* Sufferers often ignore this state of mental and physical exhaustion that threatens their jobs as well as their health and emotional well-being.

March 25, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For years, Nikki Wheeler tackled burnout in a radical, though not-so-effective way: She quit her jobs.

First she resigned from a government aide post, then a federal agency position, a teaching job and a project manager spot. Each time responsibilities threatened to overwhelm her, she left for seemingly greener pastures.

"I never took a vacation, I never took a break," she said. "But eventually, I saw there was a pattern. There was nothing wrong with the job. I finally realized I had really needed a break."

Today, the Englewood, Colo., publicity manager seems to have vanquished her burnout woes. Wheeler, 29, schedules regular work breaks, takes walks at lunch and participates in varied activities outside of work. She also shares concerns with her boss as they arise--something he requested, given Wheeler's former "love 'em or leave 'em" ways.

"He told me, 'If you ever think of quitting, talk to me first,' " she said.

Burnout is a growing threat. As layoffs escalate, those remaining in their jobs are forced to shoulder added responsibilities under stressful conditions.

It's a state of mental and physical exhaustion often denied or ignored by its sufferers.

Many attempt to plunge ahead with their work, only to find themselves making errors, forgetting appointments and snapping at co-workers. Others begin developing physical ailments--headaches, digestive ills, back problems and sleep difficulties--but try to cure the maladies with over-the-counter remedies. A few burnout sufferers, overwhelmed and overworked, turn to drugs and alcohol.

Only when burnout symptoms threaten to cost individuals their jobs and relationships, do they realize they need help.

"They have an intuitive sense that something is wrong, but they can't slow down and take a look at things," said Deborah Arron, a Seattle-based career development consultant, who specializes in counseling attorneys.

Who is a candidate for burnout? Experts say just about anyone. Those in helping professions, who put others' needs before their own, are susceptible to "compassion fatigue," said Ruth Luban, a Santa Monica psychotherapist and author of "Keeping the Fire: From Burnout to Balance"(ChoicePoints, 1996). Teachers, psychologists and nurses are examples of workers at risk for this type of burnout.

To prevent compassion fatigue, Beverly Potter, a Berkeley-based psychologist and authority on job burnout, suggests that these professionals adopt what she calls detached concern.

They must be able to offer compassion for those in their care, without becoming emotionally entangled.

Persons whose work is highly stressful, dangerous or deadline-oriented, such as emergency workers, police officers and media personnel, also must guard against creeping burnout.

When feeling distressed about an on-the-job incident or struggling with mounting work demands, these individuals should schedule work-free breaks, seek social support and, if unable to resolve their difficulties, accept counseling help.

When Deana Valorose, 28, a former South Carolina television news producer, found herself struggling with severe burnout, she at first tried to press ahead with her deadline-intensive work. But her problems only multiplied.

"It seemed like my whole life was crashing down," she said. "I was stressed out all the time, on deadlines, always on call. I was so unhappy.

"I guess what I did at the breaking point was pretty bold. I just walked in to my TV news director's office and said, 'I'm leaving. I can't do this anymore,' " she said. She's now a media relations representative for PR Newswire in Washington, with a saner schedule and work responsibilities she enjoys.

People in creative occupations, such as writers, advertising executives, photographers, artists and musicians, may find themselves stymied professionally by burnout when they're pushed too hard to produce.

This can result in career crises and creative blocks: Their imaginations go on strike, they begin generating mediocre work and find themselves struggling to remain competitive and employed. A work-free sabbatical, longer than a typical vacation, is often required for this group, experts say.

Office workers, no matter what their field, are increasingly threatened by burnout because of "access overload," according to Debra Dinnocenzo, co-author of the upcoming "Dot.calm: The Search for Sanity in a Wired World" (Dinnocenzo, 2001). Their employers now can harness them 24/7, thanks to cell phones, pagers, e-mail, electronic personal assistants and laptops, so there is no structured respite from job obligations.

"There's often an urge to run away and abdicate responsibilities," Luban said.

Scheduling periodic time-outs--by temporarily disconnecting their electronic umbilical cords--can stave off burnout for wired workers, Dinnocenzo said.

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