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Burnout, What It Is and What To Do About It

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 15th 2008

"My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!"   Edna St. Vincent Millay, "First Fig" from A Few Figs from Thistles (first published in 1920).

 One of the daunting problems that many people face at work is what is described as "burnout." Burnout causes lower productivity, depression among individuals who experience this, lost work time in days absent from work, inattention to detail and poor performance. People in all types of occupations and careers, from Medical Doctors and Lawyers to Teachers and Social Workers and even Psychologists, experience burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term emotional exhaustion, diminished interest, and of feeling like a robot or automaton at work. What once might have been enthusiasm about entering a profession or type of job is replaced by a sense of cynicism. What once might have felt like satisfaction at doing the work is replaced by a feeling of failure or the fear of failure. What once felt meaningful now feels meaningless. The individual now wants to retire early or quit in order to escape from what feels intolerable.

What Causes Burnout?

There are many factors that lead to burnout and the reasons may vary from one individual to the next. Overall burnout is caused by: 

1. Feeling overwhelmed by more crucial tasks than any one person can accomplish.
2. The belief that one is not effective and that other people are.
3. A conviction that only luck has prevented one from making a serious error.
4. An awful notion that one's incompetence will be discovered with dire consequences.
5. The feeling of constant pressure, urgency and demand that things get done. 6. Accumulating stress that often is the result from having to work alone or with very little help or assistance.

It must be emphasized that burnout is not the result of a pre existing depression. To the contrary, there was an absence of depression prior to entering the type of work followed by a slow build up of disillusionment about the work.

What to do about Burnout?

The problem of burnout is easier to identify than to find solutions for. There was a time when it was thought that changing careers every seven years could help avoid burnout. However, this is something that is impractical for most people, not to mention the fact that it might not be a cure. Some thoughts and suggests might be worth looking at.

Avoiding or Stopping Burnout:

1. Do not agree to taking on more work than you are capable of doing. In other words, do not be so fast to volunteer for new projects.
2. Limit your work hours so that you have liesure time at home and with your family.
3. Be certain that you are getting enough sleep. Americans are notoriously sleep deprived.
4. Engage in exercise and athletic activity. The athletics should be played strictly for fun. Too many people turn their athletic rivalry into another stress where they are consumed by the need to win.
5. Do not insist on perfection in your performance at work. As part of this it is important to look towards others at work or in your profession for advice and support. Be happy with work that is well done rather than perfeclty done.
6. Utilize meditation and listening to soft and calming music during some of your time away from work.

Do you exprience burnout?
How does it affect you and what are you doing about it?


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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