The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
MAY 2005, Sec.
III & IV, the Stress Doc delineates and illustrates key strategic interventions
for recovering from and preventing individual burnout and for effectively
managing reorgnizational stress. [See APR05, Sec. I for "Burnout Prone
Organizations & Sources and Stages of Burnout."]
Burnout Series - Part
Three Step Strategy for Dealing with Individual Staff Burnout
In a wired, 24/7 and "do more with less' world where technology transcends time
zones and shortens time lines while dissolving boundaries between work and home,
many of your employees are seriously burning rubber. At some point, most will
require a pit stop both to refuel and to prevent serious exhaustion, mind-body
breakdown or burnout. How do you assist your staff in making repairs and doing
Depending on the amount of individual wear and tear, some or all of these
recommendations will be healing or rejuvenating. Here are the Stress Doc's
"Individual Survival Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront." (Part IV will
outline "Organizational Survival Strategies."):
1. Schedule "R & R." Remember, some of your best producers don't know
when to turn off their motors. Monitor their behavior: slipups, missed
appointments or a deadline, being abrasive with customers or colleagues, etc.
may mean "Rest and Recreation" is no longer optional. You don't want folks to
shine in the 100-yard dash only to collapse prematurely when running a
marathon. A candidate for general exhaustion may simply need some time off.
Getting away, especially in new or relaxing surroundings, will help an employee
revive energy levels and the mind-body-spirit.
2. Facilitate Professional Coaching or Counseling. For individuals with
moderate exhaustion or just the beginning signs of burnout (see previous Q & A
Essay: Part I on the "Four Stages"), a few sessions with a career or life coach
should help an employee slow down and smell the burning rubber. However, for
the individual who has been trapped in the "erosive spiral" for a considerable
period of time therapeutic measures will be necessary. If an option, encourage
this employee to use the company's Employee Assistance Program. A solid program
assures confidentiality; EAP utilization must not blemish the employee's work
record. At the same time, utilization does not provide cover for less than
satisfactory job performance. (Employees at the burnout battlefront may
actually be receptive to counseling. For example, in Washington, DC, my home
base, people speak of and sport their burnout experience as if a Purple Heart.)
If there is no EAP, can the company pay for a valued employee's first few
therapy sessions with an outside counselor?
3. Encourage Better Balance and Better Boundaries. Let your employees
know they can periodically turn off their cell to allow recharging of both the
phone and the person. Ironically, one way of encouraging some division between
work and home, for example, is by sponsoring a company/family picnic. The
company's message: we value home life and want to encourage employee balance.
As for the boundary issues, you may want to provide training in the areas of
time management and assertiveness. In today's world, not only does a person
need good self-organizational skills, but he or she must also be able to say
"No" in a constructive manner. While previously mentioning the value of "R &
R," the capacity for "N & N" may be as important: the ability to say "No" and
to "Negotiate." It's a "No" that:
a) respects and displays understanding of the request,
b) explains why the employee cannot meet the request at this moment in time, and
c) details what the employee can do to help immediately and in the long run.
It's much better to have your staff employ "N & N" than make false or foolish
promises and then drop the ball at the eleventh hour. My mantra: "A firm 'No'
a day keeps the ulcers away, and the hostilities, too."
Finally, when appropriate consider using structural balancing techniques such as
flextime, job sharing and telecommuting in addition to encouraging some
uninterrupted "closed door" time.
4. Promote New Job Training and Learning Curves. Sometimes boredom, if
not burnout, occurs from having "been there, done that" too many times.
Actually, when the timing is right, you may want to encourage all employees to:
a) upgrade skills on an ongoing basis,
b) experiment with new roles and responsibilities, and
c) provide backup for a colleague through cross-training.
And for the employee just coasting, encouraging reassignment in a three-month
work detail just might rekindle his or her juices. Remember this Stress Doc
maxim: "Fireproof your life with variety!"
5. Promote the Stress Doc's "Three Step Burnout Prevention/Burnout Recovery
Plan." Perhaps you can include this plan in a company newsletter. Of
course, the other option is to have me come out and deliver it in person. My
motto: "Have Stress? Will Travel!"
Burnout can be likened to digging and digging the wrong hole (and often using a
spoon, not a shovel). And because a person has invested so much time and
energy, ego and money in this particular hole, process, choice, dream, etc. he
or she can't acknowledge that there's no oil in the ground. Or if he does
strike a vein, it will likely yield "fool's gold." What to do? Try this
"Three Step Burnout Prevention/Recovery Strategy":
a) Engage with the "Six 'F's." To "let go" and begin exploring another
hole (or another pursuit altogether) often requires doing emotional grief work.
Consider these "Six 'F's for Transforming Loss and Change":
1) Let go of a familiar past (or at least certain significant components
that are keeping you stuck),
2) Confront an uncertain future fraught with anxiety,
3) Grapple with some loss of face or blows to one's self-esteem,
4) Acknowledge feelings of rage and sadness to achieve a renewed state of
focused anger: "I don't like what has happened, but how can I make the best
5) Seek objective, knowledgeable and trustworthy feedback to gain a new
6) Have faith…If you've taken these steps, no matter what the outcome of
this transition trial, you will grow from this grief process.
b) Employ the "Four 'R's of Burnout Rehab":
1) Running. A person doesn't literally have to start running;
thirty-forty minutes, 3-5 times/week of brisk walking, jogging, swimming,
biking, etc., are excellent ways to generate an exercise regimen. In addition
to cardio-vascular and weight management benefits, regular exercise becomes a
"success ritual" providing a tangible sense of accomplishment and control.
2) Reading. People often lose their sense of humor under prolonged
stress. Try reading books or comic strips that help reinvigorate your smile
muscles. Or watch your favorite film comedians or comic actors on television.
Then, as you start feeling more in control, begin to read on the subject of
stress and burnout.
3) Retreating. When trying to recover from burnout it's essential to
reflect upon how one's personal attitudes, expectations and self-defeating
behaviors contributed to being trapped in the erosive spiral.
4) Writing. Stress management research shows that writing about emotions
or painful experiences from both an expressive and an analytical perspective
helps reduce stress and strengthens a sense of psychological control.
c) Transition to Passion. Burnout is often a powerful signal that one's
mind-body-spirit path and/or one's job position or career path are not working,
or not working effectively and harmoniously. There's a dysfunctional fit (along
with corresponding existential ennui or angst) between where one is and where
one needs to be.
Upon setting in motion the first two phases of the above "R & R" --
Rehabilitation & Rejuvenation - plan the person is ready to explore avenues that
encourage meaningful, fulfilling and (usually more) realistic action steps. And
sometimes "less is more." Focus on what is essential and "let go" of the
ego-baggage. Also, experiences from the past are not always part of the heavy
baggage. One way of rekindling passion is to reconnect with youthful aspects of
your life or basic aspects of your personality. And then create professional
and personal venues for expressing this vital and renewed self. Surely this
recovery process is not just a strategy for rebuilding the fire; these survival
strategies in time become tools for burnout prevention. In addition, when you
and your organization:
1) Schedule "R & R"
2) Facilitate Professional Coaching or Counseling
3) Encourage Better Balance and Better Boundaries
4) Promote New Job Training and Learning Curves
5) Promote the Stress Doc's "Three Step Burnout Prevention/Burnout Recovery
then your employees are learning to…Practice Safe Stress!
Burnout Series - Part IV
Seven Keys for Organizational Intervention in Times of Transition
A global, cyberspaced and hyper-spaced business climate forever cycling between
constant upgrading and reorganizing (from mega-mergers to systemic surgeries)
poses great transitional challenges. HR and the management team must
acknowledge the sea change and allow employees to vent and, if possible, have
some problem-solving input as the staff and organization try to navigate the
uncertain if not rough and stormy waters. How can you help your company
structurally and strategically weather this transitional tempest? Consider
these "Seven Critical Interventions in Changing and Trying Times":
1. Promoting Truth in Reorganizing. In this murky and anxious period, when
communicating with employees key decision-makers must be as straightforward as
possible about the transitional process. In the long run your workforce will
prefer hard realities than to be misled or blind-sided. The former, at least,
allows for future planning. And sometimes management's most honest and
affirming message is, "At this time, I (or we) don't know fully what's going on
or what these events really mean for the future."
Providing false hope invariable fuels the mistrust and helps crank up the rumor
mill. People who are feeling like pawns will likely seek some form of active
control. And when feeling helpless and enraged some employees will act out
passive-aggressively (e.g., theft or sabotage) if not "go postal." (And as a
former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, I am
Rest assured, survivors of a restructuring won't just be grateful. People will
remember the credibility of your communication. Truth in reorganizing should
not be as dubious as truth in advertising!
2. Getting Initial Buy-in. To intervene effectively with an
organization in transition you must design a strategic organizational
development/team building process having broad-based input. For example, a
planning committee would consist of representatives of management and the unions
or management and line staff. Participation should be driven by a variety of
diversity measures including different departments or divisions, supervisors and
front-line staff, range of years of employee experience, race and gender, etc.
This breadth of perspective increases the chance of both generating new
problem-solving paths and of envisioning an achievable "big picture." And while
achieving complex consensus may take more time, in the long run you will have
troops more committed to the post-restructuring campaign to rebuild productivity
3. Structuring Systemic Grief Work. Just as individuals need to process
a range of emotions during periods of loss and change, so too do organizations
in transition. Whether a merger of two entities or a company downsizing, for
the "survivors" of this reality show there are definite themes around loss:
a) a losing team locker room atmosphere, i.e., staff thinking, "Why wasn't our
work or our contribution sufficiently valued?"; or there may be anger at
management's less than stellar leadership,
b) loss of friends and respected colleagues as well as the loss of institutional
knowledge or an exodus of informal company historians,
c) loss of familiar roles and responsibilities; there are new performance
d) a generalized feeling of loss of control, perhaps a sense of helplessness and
hopelessness in the face of an imposed and uncertain work environment.
Letting people know they are fortunate to have a job or prematurely trying to
get staff to grasp the opportunities in a changing climate misses the point big
time. An effective starting point in "Team (or Organizational) Survival in
Times of Change" (the title of one of my programs/interventions) is running a
workshop that allows departments or division staff (or even multiple systems) to
safely express the emotion stirred by a major restructuring. Common early
reactions to significant loss and change include shock and denial, sadness and
fear, and abandonment, helplessness and rage.
In my mind, an exemplary workshop program enables participants to safely vent
and to transform some of this grief energy into purposeful and playful problem
identification and creative team problem solving. Then objectives and goals are
preliminarily prioritized. And upon completion of this transition survival
workshop, form a "Save the Retreat" Committee. The charge of this
cross-sectional and diverse matrix team is to develop action plans and time
lines while appropriately assigning implementation responsibility for the
aforementioned problem-solving strategies and priorities.
4. Working with an EAP/Outside Consultant. Having an outside and
objective workshop leader (not a management mouthpiece) trained in
organizational change, interpersonal conflict and team building is critical for
the success of step #3. Dealing with grief invariably proves to be a
psychologically and communicationally charged intervention step. Consider the
following two resources:
a) EAP Intervention. Both for objectivity, complexity and
confidentiality reasons, if Employee Assistance Program services are available
you may want to contact the EAP Counselor. This professional can: 1) work with
individual employees exhibiting patterns of dysfunctional or disruptive behavior
in the face of change, 2) help supervisors manage their own transitional
emotions and 3) provide supervisors techniques and tools for more effectively
managing and holding accountable the troubled individual as well as assisting
the supervisor to better support all employees during this turbulent transition.
The best supervisors are those who seek out the EAP Counselor (or an EAP- or
HR-referred consultant) for approaches in handling a difficult employee or
complex team issue. The worst response by a supervisor is denying or
downplaying the adverse effects of a slacker or aggressive disrupter on his or
her colleagues. Simply encouraging or expecting others to ignore a "stress
carrier" heightens team members' anger and anxiety. Such concerns include,
"Will this carrier explode or implode? Will I be hurt by the fallout?" As I
once discovered first hand, "Will a borderline employee pull a knife on a new
supervisor partly because the supervisor's boss downplayed the violence
potential of the employee?" is not an abstract question. In this scenario, both
dysfunctional employee and dysfunctional supervisor are tumors, inevitably
eroding department or division safety, morale and productivity.
b) Call on OD Consultant. Sometimes Human Resources or, even, the EAP
(often for confidentiality reasons) will recommend an outside
consultant/facilitator. Especially when large systems are involved, you want
someone trained in Organizational Development and Team Building processes during
periods of transition. Most EAP Counselors specialize in clinical and substance
A team-building consultant can be a facilitator/role model for the first two or
three non-traditional team meetings when a team is grappling with balancing task
focus and group process. For example, I recall a consultation with an IT
supervisor and her staff in which all were unsure about running a more
"participatory" team meeting. Not surprisingly, these folks were overly
focused on my direction (and, perhaps, my approval). The analogy I used was
trying to teach them to ride a two-wheeler. At first, they didn't want me to
let go of the bike seat. In fact, I wound up playfully hiding under the
conference table so that the participants could not make eye contact with me,
only surfacing if I thought they were wildly off course. Gradually, and more
steadily, the group process began to cruise, this time hardly noticing my
presence when I resurfaced.
5. Experimenting with Team Meetings. Transforming a typical
supervisor-driven team meeting into a gradual team building process doesn't
require the group going on some touchy-feely retreat or participating in some
formulaic or chaotic (that is, leaderless) TQM-like training program. With a
little advanced coaching and group training along with some operational shifts,
a team can become a catalyst for improved coordination, morale and
productivity. Consider these hands on strategies:
a) Staff Facilitation. Have staff members replace the supervisor as
meeting facilitator every 4-8 weeks (assuming the team meets once or
b) Two Hats Phenomenon. Staff facilitation means the supervisor or
department head wears two hats: as much as possible, in the meeting this
individual is team player first and management representative second. Surely,
letting up on the authority reins may be a challenge for some managers.
However, this shift can be initially uncomfortable for other team members as
well. Employees who are used to deferring to authority or who don't want to
risk being open with ideas and beliefs will have a steeper learning curve.
Also, across the organizational hierarchy, there are individuals reluctant to
assume responsibility for making decisions and being held responsible for
outcomes. Such a perceptual and procedural shift requires trust and, depending
on the quality and integrity of the communication, this trust will evolve or
erode over time.
c) Build In a Wavelength Segment. In a "lean-and-MEAN" climate, not
surprisingly, most meetings, from team and department to branch and division,
are short fused if not "T & T" -- "Time and Task"-driven. The content is often
still exclusively focused on goals and objectives, timelines and deadlines and
outcomes and return on investment issues. Which makes sense; there's a business
or organization to run. My recommendation calls for carving out ten or fifteen
minutes at the end of the meeting -- the "Wavelength Segment." A group member
comfortable with group process initially facilitates the meeting. Then, as
noted above, as experience and trust builds the role of facilitator can be
rotated. And, of course, this can be initiated as an experiment, that is, a
time-limited pilot project often allows various parties, especially the
authority figure, a sense of some control when implementing a new or uncertain
Three purposes of the "Wavelength" are:
1) Relationship Check -- this closing segment focuses on any barriers to
communication and cooperation bypassed in the "T n T" section of the meeting,
e.g., regarding operational coordination, how are team members relating with
each other or with other departments? Appropriate emotional venting is
2) Peer Recognition -- in addition, "the wavelength" is also a time and
place for recognizing individual and group efforts that have heightened morale
3) Restore Trust -- finally, perhaps most important, the wavelength is
designed to restore trust, especially between a supervisor or manager and team
members. Based on my broad organizational experience, there is often a fear of
speaking up (the chain of command). This fear is fueled by the prospect of
being judged negatively, being retaliated against in a performance evaluation or
being blocked from fulfilling one's career path. Such a restricted, if not
repressive, environment does as much to stifle morale and induce burnout while
undermining initiative and innovation as any other toxic elements or hazardous
d) Plan Informal Gatherings. In a "do more with less" environment, some
organizations practically dispense with meetings; others have employees feeling
"meetinged to death." Either extreme is self-defeating in terms of optimal team
coordination and individual productivity. Consider these alternatives:
1) Morning Huddle -- briefly get as many team members together in the
morning or just before the shift starts. Identify any looming surprises or
crises and areas of unfinished business, or whether a team member may need extra
support or backup coverage. This is a 5-10 minute "heads up," "all on the same
page" gathering. And if you add some humor -- "joke of the morning" -- it can
get the team off to a lively and cohesive start.
2) Communal Lunch -- each Friday, one federal government branch would
have lunch together. Especially if employee hours are staggered, having more
than one opportunity to gather informally makes sense. For other units, Friday
afternoon pizza parties serve a similar function - informal "food for thought"
3) Chief's Cookout -- twice a year the above head of the aforementioned
branch, invited team members to her house for a half-day "visionary" cookout.
(The food was real.) This mini-retreat setting helped the group maintain the
currency of their branch vision while creatively massaging vital "big picture"
goals and action plans.
6. Increasing Management Visibility. At some regular interval the teams
and/or departments of the division, center or entire organization need to
congregate. The purposes include:
a) Installing Windows In the Silos. To develop a sense of
"we-are-all-in-this-together," management must share "big picture" information
to help employees and units see their give-and-take involvement with the whole,
including the larger or "outside" environment. For example, this is especially
salient for preventing a dysfunctional disconnect between HQ and field
b) Interdepartmental Clarification and Collaboration. Create a forum
that allows teams and departments to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas
of overlap, identify potential joint venture areas, and announce hot projects
that may have larger appeal or impact thereby motivating interdepartmental
collaboration. And, of course, this venue will broadcast inter-team
c) Matrix Teaming. From parts to whole, there must not simply be
top-down information flow unless in a state of urgency. (Remember, the urgent
must get done now, the important is negotiated and prioritized.) If time
constraints or meeting size prove unwieldy, then a matrix team comprised of a
small sample of department managers, supervisors and employees across varying
units should convene for task and process problem solving as outlined in the
above "Wavelength Segment."
d) Conflict, Not Greed, Is Good. Competing perspectives, if not
conflict, among top management or between the Executive Committee and the Board
of Directors is to be expected. Actually, it's probably needed to avoid the
greed and groupthink that has been fostering "irrationally exuberant," deceptive
and criminal actions. Too often, however, executives deny or cover-up their own
and/or colleagues' performance inadequacies; or long-standing dysfunctional
relating between some of "The Big Five" (as I dubbed a federal agency Center
Director, her Deputy and the three Branch Managers) lead to communicational and
problem solving inertia. Now the status quo is triumphant. No one risks the
conflict necessary to change and rejuvenate a tired and outmoded operating
system or leadership.
7. Following the Way of the Acronyms. Consider these two acronyms to
bolster survival capacity during these trying transitional times:
a) Balancing the Triple "A". To affirm an employee's sense of
professionalism and sense of responsibility, blend "The Triple 'A': Authority,
Autonomy and Accountability." Management must recognize and support an
employee's utilization of skills and knowledge, and the desire to have input in
relevant decision-making ("Authority"). Workers also want some control of their
turf, time frames, tools and operating procedures ("Autonomy"). At the same
time, employees must accept the objective and timely review of their work
b) Investing in Organizational IRAs. When people are chronically doing
more with less, don't assume they will be (or should be) grateful just having a
job in a tight economy. A management team that's concerned about motivation and
loyalty or, at least, about the longevity of workplace survivors, makes sure
people can earn those IRAs: Incentives, Recognition & Rewards and Advancement
Opportunities, including opportunity for needed and desired training.
Part IV of this Burnout Series has examined "Seven Critical Interventions in
Times of Major Organizational Transition." These strategic plans and action
1. Promoting Truth in Reorganizing
2. Getting Initial Buy-in
3. Structuring Systemic Grief Work
4. Working with an EAP/Outside Consultant
5. Experimenting with Team Meetings
6. Increasing Management Visibility
7. Following the Way of the Acronyms
Exploring and implementing these interventions will help an organization
transform transitional dangers into individual and systemic opportunities for
learning and morale-building and help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
Identifying burnout in your staff is a two-step process.
The first requisite is an honest and comprehensive assessment of your workplace
environment. Next comes a mind and body, motivation and morale assessment of
Series – Part I
Characteristics of a
Burnout-Prone Work Environment:The Dirty Dozen
In a 24/7
always on, “do more with less” world that seems to cycle between constant
upgrading and the next downsizing should it be surprising that employees
increasingly alternate between feeling “lean and Mean” or
exhausted and burnt out?
questions need to be on an employers’ and HR professionals’ minds: 1) what are
some of the signs of an organization fueling the burnout fires and 2) how can I
identify burnout in my staff? And finally, how can I deal with these burnout
issues both from an organizational and an individual perspective?
with the “dirty dozen” of dysfunctional organizations:
From TLC to TNC.
People are always on call. There’s little boundary between work and home. Work
environment driven by "time, numbers and crises" not by "tender loving care."
Beware a philosophy that extols customers as kings while treating employees as
peasants; it's a formula for revolt, inertia or sabotage.
2. Rapid and
Can be either a downsizing or an expansionary mode. Unstable leadership and a
revolving work force; adjusting to new personnel along with a loss of
institutional history and wisdom. Rules and procedures don't appear to be
operational; "the book" has lost some critical pages. Chronic uncertainty and
mistrust from lack of timely information or from communication not perceived as
genuine or accurate.
Destructive Communication Style.
The norm is
condescending, explosive or passive aggressive styles of communication; there’s
excessive workfloor razzing or scapegoating. Managers are talking over
employees; nobody is truly listening. Either defensive counterattacking or
robotic groupthinking is common.
militaristic mindset; "superiors" vs. "subordinates" or "inferiors." Typical
slogans: "You don't get paid to think" or "My way or the highway." Leaders
blow up if challenged and break up any participatory decision-making or team
There’s an overall dismissive attitude regarding feedback with little interest
in evaluation of people and policies. Only numbers count. Not safe to give
feedback; people quick to feel disrespected or rejected. Yelling or
intimidation or, conversely, avoidance, are the preferred ways of dealing with
policies and procedures, bias in application, for management and employees, blue
collar or white collar, racial or sexual discrimination – "Workfloor vs. Tower"
dichotomy. Double standard also manifests as management gets substantial
training or support for dealing with change processes and employees get minimal
orientation and ongoing support.
Unresolved Grievances. No mechanisms or
only adversarial ones – "us vs. them" – to settle grievances. Or, dysfunctional
individuals protected or ignored because of contractual provisions, red tape,
old boy network or union cover, etc.
Management not actively assisting troubled employees get the help they need; no
Employee Assistance Program (EAP) option. No coaching for supervisors dealing
with dysfunctional personnel. This gap can create a tumor for the work team –
scapegoating, loss of respect for leader, apathy and lowered morale, etc.
Repetitive, Boring Work.
assembly line syndrome. Also, "The Bjorn Bored Syndrome": When Mastery
times Monotony provides an index of Misery! Your niche of
success becomes the ditch of excess and stagnation. There’s a lack of
opportunity for job rotation or not enough new blood is coming into the system.
Faulty Equipment/Deficient Training.
procedures (or lack of same) that don't allow people to work effectively or
efficiently…and then workers are criticized for not being productive. Also,
rapidly inundating people with new equipment and operational standards while not
providing sufficient time and resources for successful startup.
Disruptive ambient work conditions – temperature, air quality, repetitive motion
issues, overcrowded space, problematic noise levels, excessive overtime,
nocturnal schedule and interrupted sleep, etc. Personnel shortage results in
lack of backup resulting in potentially dangerous work expectations and
Culture of Violence.
There is a culture or past history of individual and/or systemic violence and
abuse, e.g., family battering, gang membership, etc. The person has been
exposed to violent or explosive role models often with a context of alcohol and
drug abuse. Finally, under sufficient stress, employees with lingering
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be set off.
dozen” provides a slightly larger than life portrait of a hazardous work
environment. While somewhat "blue" in tint, the "white collar" world also needs
to pay heed. No matter the color, these dysfunctional workplaces both overtly
drain and frustrate employees and generate a smoldering background. A seemingly
trivial event can set off a chronically stressed, troubled individual. Of
course, some folks are ready to go even in the best of environments. And Part
II captures the warning signs of burnout for the individual employee. Until
then, of course…Practice Safe Stress!
Burnout Series –
Sources, Definition and
Stages of Burnout
In a rapidly
changing, uncertain yet always on wired world, three major sources of burnout
1) the boundary
between work and home is eroding; there’s less recovery time and space with
today’s exhausting pace,
2) when ideals,
high expectations and critical or especially, pride-driven goals prove elusive
or are continuously thwarted despite significant investment of time, energy,
money and self-identity, and one can’t step back or “let go,” an employee’s
motivational fire will likely be extinguished, and finally
3) when a once successful
person simply rests on his or her laurels, tries to cruise to retirement,
resists new learning curves, or just habitually performs a repetitive job or
starts sleepwalking through a career path then such a person is susceptible to
what I call the “Bjorn Bored Syndrome” (BBS). BBS is named for Bjorn Borg, the
late ‘70s-early ‘80s Swedish tennis great who seemingly burnt out and dropped
out suddenly from the tennis circuit. Maybe it was winning four or five
back-to-back French Open and Wimbledon titles. (Was the thrill gone?) Maybe it
was the drudgery of the all too familiar mind, body and spirit numbing hours and
hours of practice. (Perhaps his inner core had been gradually weakening and
suddenly seemed depleted and hollow.)
forces and factors of this “erosive spiral,” how can you recognize signs and
symptoms? First, let me provide a definition: Burnout is a gradually
process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and
relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical
and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and
confusion, a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give.
Doesn’t sound like fun.
a concise summary of the “Four Stages of Burnout”:
Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion.
you recognize this sequence? Maybe you’re holding it together at work, but as
soon as you get home, right for the fridge, get out the chocolate ice cream or
the lite-beer, put on the tube, hit the sofa…and you are comatose for the rest
of the evening. (Of course, I’m frequently hearing, “Doc, you mean there’s
something wrong with that!”) Consistently doing more with less not only can
induce a case of the brain strain but people often start becoming “lean-and-MEAN.”
Shame and Doubt. When someone asks you to
take on a new project, despite wanting to help does a voice inside insist, “Who
are you kidding!” Will colleagues, friends and family members sense there’s
something wrong? Uncontrollable sighing may punctuate your day. A dark cloud
of uncertainty and vulnerability may be following you.
Cynicism and Callousness. Eventually, some
folks have enough of feeling anxious and vulnerable. They start putting on the
heavy armor: “Look out for #1,” “Cover your derriere,” “Get out of my way,” or
“I could care less.” In the short run there may be some payoff – you become
abrasive enough and people start avoiding you. In the long term, not only are
you projecting a dysfunctional image, but you are bottling up or covering up all
this fear, frustration and sense of failure. And the risk is not only a
hardening of the psyche; you may be encouraging a hardening of the arteries –
high blood pressure and premature heart attacks or brain attacks – as well.
4. Failure, Helplessness
and Crisis. In the final stage one may
feel, “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t; damned if I stay, damned if I leave.”
Your coping strategy is coming unglued. In this vulnerable state, you may be
especially sensitive to criticism and feel paralyzed. In fact, prolonged stress
can inhibit the functioning of such brain neurotransmitters such as serotonin
and dopamine, biochemicals instrumental in mood state. And when a person has
genetic predisposition or family history, early childhood loss (e.g., the death
of a parent) or unresolved trauma then such biochemical disruption combined with
prolonged stress may even foster clinical depression.
So can there be light at the
end of the burnout tunnel? Most definitely. And Parts III and IV of this
Burnout Series will be your individual and organizational guides. Until then…Practice
Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
psychotherapist, an acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker (including with
Celebrity Cruise Lines), and an OD/Team Building Consultant. Mark is the author
of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout
& Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage,
and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior. Also, the Doc is America
Online's "Motivational Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and
Group Chat." See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" –
www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a
workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Finally, Mark is an advisor
to The Bright Side ™ –
www.the-bright-side.org – a multi-award winning
mental health resource. Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.
For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.
Successful Programs [References on Request]
Sociey for Professional Journalists. Practice Safe Stress Workshop.
2) Estrin Legal Eduction. Rebuilding Passion in Your Job. Cambridge Mass. For
3) Van Ness Feldman. Managing Stress and Team Morale for law firm support
4) Suffolk, VA City Govt. Leaders. Managing Stress and Team Morale for City
Manager, Department Heads, Elected Officials
5) Fairfax County Govt. Balanacing Stress & Stressing Balance. Keynote for 350
admin staff across all departments. Two testimonials:
Administrative Resource Team
Department of Community and Recreation Services
12011 Government Center Parkway, Tenth Floor
Fairfax, VA 22035-1115
April 27. 2005
The members of the Administrative Resource Team and the Department of Human
Resources would like to thank you for your outstanding presentation at
the ART conference on April 22. We had an overwhelming response to the
conference, and that is due in large part to your exciting presentation on
stress in our daily lives and how we can develop strategies for managing that
From the moment you were approached about the possibility of being our guest
speaker, your enthusiasm conveyed your commitment to making this conference
vital and interesting to participants. Within the first few minutes of your
presentation, you had captured the audience's attention and had encouraged them
to become active, eager participants. The [team] artwork was an excellent way
of getting the audience to creatively express their feelings of stress and
tension. The important benefit, of course, was for them to realize that art
could be a positive outlet for these feelings.
Again, thank you so much for such an entertaining and informative presentation.
Marian M. Matthews
Keynote Address (350 attendees)
"Practice Safe Stress: "Balancing Stress and Stressing Balance"
Gorkin (also known as "The Stress Doc" ™) is a psychotherapist, author, speaker
and organizational and team-building consultant. In a 24/7, do-more-with-less,
constantly-upgrading-and-reorganizing world, cell phones and e-mail can wear out
the boundary between work and home. Learn how to identify smoke signals
indicating personal, family, and workplace imbalance. Develop key skills and
strategies for recovering from exhaustion, managing change, and transforming
conflict while gaining control over your daily schedule. Learn, laugh and have
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an acclaimed
Keynote and Kickoff Speaker (including with Celebrity Cruise Lines), and an
OD/Team Building Consultant. Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:
Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of
The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring
Attitude and Behavior. Also, the Doc is America Online's "Motivational
Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat." See his
award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" --
www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public
Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.
Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ --
multi-award winning mental health resource. For more info on the Doc's speaking
and training programs and products, email email@example.com or call
(c) Mark Gorkin 2005
Shrink Rap Productions