Are You Burned Out? Beyond the Rat Race…

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June 5, 2014

Lately, I have witnessed many professionals who have retired early or taken prolonged breaks from work.  There are quite a few physicians I know who have done this already and others who have made plans to retire in their fifties or younger.  Some are simply tired from the long hours of hard work; others have physical symptoms often of some unidentified “ailments.”  Many of my colleagues started to become disillusioned with medicine, as it is changing so rapidly with all the government regulations and rules which, in many instances, seem to make little or no sense.  We feel as if our lives and careers are controlled by a group of people who know very little about medicine, but think they can improve our jobs by imposing on us many rules we have to follow…or else!  

One of our bloggers is bidding farewell to medicine in a month or so.  She’s a marvelous physician and among the best in her specialty in our area.  She no longer feels personal satisfaction from practicing medicine.  She feels as if she has, over the last few years, turned into a data entry clerk!  She is happy that she will no longer have to be trained, then retrained multiple times in this “Electronic Medical Record” or “EMR” mess, whenever the newest regulation is ready to be enforced.  I have the feeling that, as more rules and regulations are pushed on physicians, more will be leaving their fields, which would be unfortunate.  

A study conducted by Dr. Tait D. Shanafelt and colleagues at Mayo clinic in Rochester, MN showed that nearly half of the 27,276 physicians surveyed had at least one symptom of burnout, with those in the front line of care access such as internal medicine, family practice and emergency medicine having the highest rates of burnout.  

I am not here, however, to discuss the disillusionment of medical doctors.  I am here to explore the subject of “job burnout,” which can happen to anybody in any field.  Health professionals are, ironically, highly susceptible to be burned out. 

Symptoms of Job Burnout

1. Exhaustion: physically and/or emotionally.  Exhaustion leads to a lack of energy to perform your work.

2. Cynicism or depersonalization: You become more “detached” from your job and feel as if your efforts won’t make any difference.  As a healthcare provider, you might feel less caring or empathetic toward your patients. 

3. Lack of Motivation: a lack of enthusiasm for your work.  You find it hard to get up in the morning to drag yourself to work and once there, you don’t feel enthusiastic in starting your work. 

4. Decreased Satisfaction: According to Dr. David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, this lack of or decreased satisfaction can occur both at home and work.  You feel less happy and satisfied with your life.  You even feel “stuck” in a cycle of unhappiness.

5. Decreased Job Performance: All the above factors can eventually lead to a lower level of performance.  

6. Lack of Concentration: You might have some problems with memory and your ability to focus on a task.

7. Interpersonal Problems: You might have more conflicts at home or at work.  Depending on your personality, you might either get into more arguments or become more withdrawn from those around you.

8. Neglecting Yourself: You might develop unhealthy habits to “escape” your unhappiness at work by drinking more alcohol, using drugs, smoking, sleeping less, becoming more sedentary or eating more unhealthy food.  In other words, you do not care about your health as much as you used to do.

9. Health Problems: Do you have unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?  Do you have digestive problems?  Do you feel anxious or depressed?  All these symptoms could be caused by job burnout! 

10. Obsession with Work: Can you stop thinking about work once you are home, or is your job always on your mind?  Can you leave work behind once you walk into the house?  Are you on the computer at night checking on office matters?

Solutions to Job Burnout

1. Identify your stress factors: What stresses you at work?  Your long hours or the nature of your job? Are there unrealistic expectations from your supervisors or your employees?  Are you receiving enough support from your colleagues or partners or do you feel as if you are alone in your stress?  Are you skillful enough for your job or is it “over your head”?  

Once you figure out the source of your stress, your head will be “clearer” in figuring out if changes can be made to remove these stressors.   

2. Find Your Options: This step may require extensive negotiations or discussions with appropriate parties to see if the nature of your job can be changed.  Can you have more time off?  Can you do some work from home?  Can you come in at later hours and leave later to avoid the heavy traffic?  Can you job share or get more help from other colleagues?  Can the firm hire more help?

3Seek Your Passion: All of us would agree it is very hard to work just to get our pay check.  I, unfortunately, know many people who have to “drag” themselves to work every morning and can’t wait to get out of work at the end of the day.  It is indeed a blessing to do something we truly love.  To be passionate about our job helps us sustain ourselves through the hard times, as we find meaning in what we do.   Once the stress of our job has made us unhappy at work or affects our state of joy, it is important to reassess our needs and passions.  Maybe a less well-paid job or one less demanding will keep us working longer, even when we have to accept a pay cut.  The end result will be a healthier, happier future in terms of our overall state of health.  Readjusting our lifestyle is wiser and “healthier” than getting sick from doing something we do not like.

4. If You Can’t Change Jobs, Change Your Attitude:  If it’s not possible to move on to another job because of the economy or your family situation etc., you will have to find positive aspects at work in order to continue with your job without too much misery.  Improve your relationship with your colleagues or employees.  Take frequent breaks if possible.  Do not bring work home.  Once home, do other things that you love.  To have a work-life balance is critical to job satisfaction.

It is important to recognize that having a job is just a part of your life and NOT your WHOLE life.  Cultivate other interests or hobbies outside of your job to give you a “mental” break from your job.  Many professionals agree if they had not been workaholics, they would not have burned out at a younger age.  Take time to live your “other” life!

5. Identify Your Support System: Reach out to your friends or colleagues at work.  Many times people do not know you are burned out until you communicate your feelings to them.  Reach out to your family members.  A nurturing environment will help you sustain your hardship at work.  A third person’s opinion might be more objective than your opinion when you are directly involved in your stress! 

6. Take Care of Yourself: When there is no good health, there is no good life.  By having adequate sleep and exercising frequently, you will lower your stress level and deal better with difficult tasks at work.  Stress at work can lead to serious health problems such as anxiety, depression, obesity, heart diseases, stroke, alcohol or substance abuse, etc.  Regular exercise, by itself, can eliminate many of these problems. 

Taking care of yourself also means you have to be able to turn off from your job once you are no longer at work.  Do you need to answer that business email now?  Can you turn off your cell phone once you are with your family?  Can you talk about topics other than your work once you leave work?

Ironically, while writing this blog, I happened to read an excellent opinion piece in last Sunday’s Review in the New York Times, written by Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project consulting firm, and Professor Christine Porath of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.  Together with the Harvard Business Review, the authors surveyed more than 20,000 mostly white-collar workers in different companies and industries.  They concluded that four “core needs” should be achieved in order for an employee to be satisfied and productive: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  Leaders in these organizations have to support their employees in achieving these core needs. 

Physical, according to the author, is the ability to recharge and renew.  Frequent breaks, for example, have been found to increase productivity.  Emotional, on the other hand, is the feeling of being appreciated by one’s contribution.  Mental is the chance to focus on one important task at a time, instead of getting exhausted from having to attend to multiple tasks at the same time.  Spiritual is when the employee finds meaning and purpose in his or her work, and is the most important of the four core needs.

I hope all the above information will help you reassess your joy of working.  Recognize your symptoms of stress and take action before you get burned out.  Always think of your health first – even before thinking about your job!  If you are an employer, however, you should pay attention to the “four core needs” mentioned in the NewYork Times article.  Success here will lead to your having happier employees and higher productivity for your firm. 

For further information, you can read the articles below: