Total burnout Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

People casually say, "I'm burned out" all the time. But what is burnout and how does it differ from the stress we face every day?

"The difference between stress and burnout is that burnout tends to come over a longer period of time," says Agnes Huff, a psychologist and president of the Agnes Huff Communications Group. "It has some of the same symptoms, except they will be much more chronic and debilitating."

A person experiencing burnout will be almost nonfunctional. He or she could be tremendously disillusioned.

"They don't care about anything," says Huff. "There are no ups or downs. It's a flat effect. They have difficulty getting up in the morning, and the things they used to enjoy doing don't provide the relief they once did. They will be much more introverted, but will have difficulty controlling their emotions -- the slightest thing might set them off."

Burnout can be caused by being stressed over a long time period, often with feelings of being overwhelmed.

"A lot of people think they can take a vacation and it will go away, but that's not the prescription," says Huff. "The way to cope with burnout is to look at what is creating it."

Is there dissatisfaction with the job, or are there unreasonable expectations? Is it the environment in which you work? A professional counselor can help you step back and analyze the source, because oftentimes, other problems, like drinking and drug abuse, can be linked to burnout.

"I think what a person has to ask themselves is, 'Why do I prioritize things the way I do?'" says Huff. "Why do I place importance on some activities? Do we really need to work 12 or 18 hour days, or is it something that we're making a self-requirement?"

How you are coping with stress also needs to be looked at. What's working and what's not? Do you need to try something new?

"I think having others look at your behavior, or even getting feedback from your colleagues, can give you some direction," says Huff. "Generally, your colleagues will have the same level of stress, and they may be coping better. Find out what's working for them and what work habits are allowing them to get the job done.

"Stress is something we're all exposed to on a regular basis. How we deal with it depends on our attitude toward life. Some people can be put in a stressful situation and not really be stressed. Other people can be put in a minor stress situation and almost lose control." How to reach: Agnes Huff, www.ahuffgroup.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.