A strong work ethic is inscribed into our national character, but at what cost?
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The Responsibility Project
Twenty-five years ago, Ruth Luban was working hard to build her counseling practice in Ashland, Ore., where she was specializing in the treatment of patients with eating disorders. It was demanding work that tackled a particularly intractable disorder. She was also busy raising two active sons as a single parent, running the house and playing competitive tennis herself. Like so many Americans, she was all go, all the time.
And when Luban started feeling tired at work more days than not, she reacted in a typical American manner. "I just drank more coffee," she said. "I had to keep on keeping on. I was the sole support for my sons." But the coffee fixes didn't do the trick, and soon her physical exhaustion progressed to mental exhaustion. She found herself less able to focus on her patients. She was experiencing mismatched emotional reactions to everyday events: for example, when the eminent violinist Jascha Heifitz died – someone Luban admired but had never met – she grieved the loss as deeply as if it were a close family member. It became nearly impossible to go to work every day.
Luban was suffering from what experts now call job burnout. Although burnout is a word people use casually to refer to any state of exhaustion, to health care professionals "job burnout" refers to a specific syndrome involving serious emotional and physical symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic and other health care practitioners, emotional symptoms of job burnout may manifest as a sort of professional spiritual deflation: a loss of interest and satisfaction at work, inability to be productive, lack of patience with coworkers or clients, or career disillusionment. Physical symptoms can be severe and include headache, backache, chest or other pain, dizziness, faintness, eating and digestive problems, and sleep problems. In advanced stages, burnout can lead to relationship problems, alcohol and drug abuse, and chronic clinical depression. Researchers and therapists even have a standardized approach to measure burnout severity, the Maslach Burnout Inventory, based on a questionnaire that's filled out by the patient.
Although people in helping professions, such as therapists or teachers, face an elevated risk of burnout, it can strike people in any business, profession or company.
Unlike the occasional rough patch nearly everyone experiences from time to time, job burnout is the result of months or years of ongoing stress lasting far longer than the body is designed to withstand. This erodes normal mental and physical resources, and interferes with the ability to bounce back to normal after a relaxing weekend or two-week vacation.
The sort of ongoing stress that leads to job burnout could be the result of conditions inherent to the profession – treating cancer patients, for example. A dysfunctional company environment could trigger burnout, or a manager that puts unrealistic demands on employees. People who feel they have no control or authority to make decisions at their job, who have a sense of powerlessness, can suffer ongoing stress. Some people simply aren't a good fit for their company or profession, and every day takes a little more out of them.
The recession hasn't helped. Many companies have shrunk employee rosters to lower payroll costs. Among those most often pink-slipped: middle management. The cuts may have indeed saved money, but by thinning out the ranks of middle managers that provide support and guidance to workers in the trenches, many companies have inadvertently created the conditions for burnout.
Okay, so some people are burned out on their job: unfortunate, to be sure, but is it a problem for the rest of us? Well, yes, especially if the sufferer is your doctor or surgeon. Research shows that doctors are somewhat more likely than people in other jobs to experience burnout. In a study conducted by the American College of Surgeons, Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, 9 percent of surgeons admitted to making at least one major medical error as a result of burnout.
Still, job burnout is a problem many are reluctant to acknowledge. The work ethic is inscribed deeply in our national character, as is paying rent and eating. Many people are unwilling to admit to their family or bosses that they can barely stand to look Monday in the face, or that every email or new assignment is making them physically ill, for fear they'll be branded weak or lazy, lose out on a promotion or even get fired.
If you're experiencing unexplained and persistent physical or emotional symptoms over an extended period of time, such as headache, physical exhaustion or dizziness, health professionals suggest you see a doctor to rule out other medical conditions.
In early stages, steps to reverse burnout can include self-management techniques: learn to say no at work and enforce a more reasonable pace; take more frequent breaks and personal time to exercise; engage in a hobby; spend more time with the kids or the spouse; develop healthful rituals, like exercising the same time each day. It is also important to try and identify specific symptoms and address them specifically and proactively. For example, if your stomach and digestion is in turmoil, develop more healthful eating habits and plan your meals. Likewise, if you feel your job is wrong for you, find someone with good perspective to discuss your career goals.
In later stages of burnout, you may need to find a therapist or counselor to understand the problem clearly and form a healing strategy. Tell people close to you what you're going through. Don't deny, hide or rationalize the problem any longer. In any case, take it seriously. Experts say it's hard to generalize about the long-term prognosis for job burnout sufferers. Some can stay in their jobs, some need a long break, and some will need to find a new job or even a new career.
Luban, for example, planned to take six months off, but it was two years before she could resume her work. When she did return to counseling, she made treatment of people suffering workplace issues such as burnout a central part of her focus, leading her to publish an audio series on burnout and later a book for downsized workers, "Are You a Corporate Refugee?"
Obviously, taking a long break from work is nearly unthinkable for many who have mortgages and tuitions to pay, cars to fix, retirement accounts to fund, and so on. But getting out of a work situation that's frying your mind and body may be the only way you can keep supporting yourself and your family – while holding onto your health.
Paul Karon is a writer based in Los Angeles, CA. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Variety and Men's Fitness, among other publications. He has also contributed to National Public Radio and has written for television.