Defining burnout is as tough as repairing its damage.

“It’s that feeling when you make it home Friday night and pour yourself a drink or a glass of wine and feel like the blood has drained out of you,” said Richard Boyatzis, a local professor, national speaker and co-author of “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion” (Harvard Business School Press, 2005).

“For me, one of the cornerstones of burnout is anger,” said Steven Berglas, a clinical psychologist, Los Angeles-based executive coach and author of “Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout” (Random House, 2001). “They’re angry at not getting the psychological gratification they need” from their jobs.

It’s “too much work with too few resources,” said Scott Cohen, national practice leader for talent management for Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc., a human-resources consulting firm based in Arlington, Va.

Consequently, employees are unhappy and ineffective. Perhaps most at risk are middle managers squeezed by superiors above and subordinates below, though Cohen said no one is immune. A struggling economy only adds to woes; staff cuts often mean more pressure on workers who are spared the ax.

For workers, burnout can lead to job loss or worse if they self-medicate with alcohol or engage in other destructive behavior. For employers, it often means the loss of a formerly stellar employee and the expense – typically 1 to 1.6 percent of a person’s salary – of hiring a replacement, Cohen said. Burned-out employees also risk poisoning the well; a disgruntled worker often is a vocal one, according to Berglas.

Experts say the same people so eager to climb the corporate ladder often feel helpless to prevent their slide back down. Still, “burned out” doesn’t have to mean washed up.

In general, one-third of all American workers could be viewed as chronically overworked in 2004, according to a report by the nonprofit Families and Work Institute in New York City. The more overworked employees were, the more likely they were to make mistakes, feel angry with their employers and resent colleagues they felt weren’t working as hard, the study found. People who felt overworked also reported higher stress levels, more symptoms of clinical depression and poorer health, and said they were more likely to neglect caring for themselves.

“I actually think burnout is the wrong description of it. I think it’s ‘burn up,'” said Boyatzis, a professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and a professor of organizational behavior in Case’s Weatherhead School of Management. “Physiologically, that’s what you’re doing because of the chronic stress on your body.”

The psychological response often is working harder. The result: a CEO going through the motions, a manager who can no longer “read” his subordinates, a chasm between what a leader thinks of her abilities and how others actually see her.

“You stop using your discretionary effort, you stop looking at creative things you can do,” Boyatzis said. “If you want people coming to work with only half their brain, put them under stress.”

Berglas theorizes that the factors that define success – expertise and experience in a chosen profession – are the ones causing burnout. As professionals refine their focus, he said, they have little time to pursue new professional interests, to hone new skills or to mentor others.

He uses a fictional tax lawyer as an example. As the lawyer succeeds, he is given bigger accounts, more-prestigious clients, perhaps, and an increasingly narrow focus. Suddenly, “you’re doing that every day. You’re a toll taker, building a widget.”

The solution is more complicated than simply switching jobs.

For executives making big bucks, a job change could mean a pay cut – and the loss of country club memberships, social standing and tuition dollars for their kids’ private schools.

Berglas’ advice: “Sit down with your family and say, “I’m cutting back because I hate my life.”‘

For executives trapped by skills – say, the tax lawyer who is becoming bored with tax law – he recommends mentoring a newcomer, coaching a colleague or teaching at a college or trade school. “It doesn’t pay, but it creates the ultimate gratification in life: self-esteem enhancement in exchange for loss of material gain.”

For people feeling trapped by a bad boss or what they consider a bad work environment, switching jobs often is the best move, said Watson Wyatt’s Cohen. Though companies often work to prevent burnout by offering training and compensation programs, he said, “unless the organization is truly open for the person to make a switch, the best option might be for the person to move on.”


Whatever the option, learning to care for oneself – mind and body – is paramount for success, said Boyatzis, who advocates a holistic approach.

That means more than a night out with friends. He advises frequent trips to what he calls the “renewal zone” by coaching others, meditating or just spending time with loved ones, including pets. Listen to your body, he says.

“Most people know when they’re not happy, when they’re feeling burned out,” he said. “But the noise level on all the other circuits is so high that sometimes, they don’t listen.”


(Jennifer Scott Cimperman wrote this story for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. She can be contacted at news(at)newhouse.com.)

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