Gift 9 - How to Handle Job Burnout
by Robert W. Bly

Are you bored by your job? Do you find yourself looking at your watch every ten minutes, eagerly awaiting the arrival of 5 o'clock? Do you ever feel that you're wasting your life, or that you'd rather be doing something other than chemical engineering?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you're not alone. Most people reach a point where they are unfulfilled by their work. But they may not know why they're unhappy or what they can do about it. If this describes you, you may be suffering from
job burnout.

Job burnout is a steady, increasing dissatisfaction with your job. It can range from mild boredom to a lack of interest in one's work to severe depression and physical illness.

One business expert claims that 90 percent of Americans hate their jobs. The figure is probably lower among professionals, but a great many chemical engineers and technical managers I've met have admitted that they're less than thrilled with their daily routine.

Everyone has their ups and downs, and just because you have a rotten day now and then doesn't mean you should rush to see a career counselor or resign in a huff. People suffering from job burnout, however, are unhappy
almost all the time.

You can't always tell when job burnout strikes: in many instances people who feel unhappy or depressed are not able to pinpoint the reason. But job burnout victims often share common feelings and frames of mind. The following checklist will help you determine if you're a victim of job burnout.

Checklist of Symptoms

Boredom. Every now and then we have a day when we feel we'd rather be strolling in the park than stuck in the office. That's only natural. But people experiencing job burnout are bored almost all the time. They are turned off by their assignments and have little enthusiasm for the job.

Do you work too hard? Do you feel pressured by time, by deadlines? Do you say things like, "I wish there were 26 hours in the day"? If so, watch out! Overworked people are likely to suffer fatigue and stress that can eventually lead to job burnout.

Surprisingly, being underworked is even more likely to lead to burnout than being overworked. The fact is, most people want to work and feel as if they're contributing something to the company. If you don't allow employees to work at their full potential, they'll feel unproductive and unsatisfied.

One woman recently hired by a government agency complained to me "I beg for more projects at work, but the supervisors just won't give them to me. I feel like I'm wasting my time. What's the point of being at work eight hours a day if I can complete my assignments by 10:30 in the morning?"

After only six months on the job this woman is already sending out resumes and looking for a new position. She hopes to land a job with private industry where, she feels, her talents will be put to better use.

Stress. Stress causes different symptoms in different people: nervousness, fatigue, sleeplessness, heartburn, headaches, stomach aches, constipation. And job burnout is a stressful situation: it's no fun having to wake up each morning to go to a job you despise. So, if you feel stress and are exhibiting its symptoms, job burnout could be a possible cause.

Time consciousness.
Do you find yourself glancing at your watch more than four times an hour? Did you ever think that an hour had gone by, but when you looked at your watch, it had only been five minutes? Does the second hand on the of time clock seem to move too slowly these days?

Job burnout victims are extremely time conscious: they use the progression of time to help get them through the day. And, they find that time on the job passes much more slowly than time at home. People who enjoy their work, on the other hand, find that the business day passes quickly.

Difficulty concentrating. When you enjoy what you're doing, it's easy to tackle the work with enthusiasm and vigor. But job burnout victims have a hard time applying themselves to their work because they find it boring and unfulfilling. If you find yourself staring at the same piece of paper for hours...or reading the same paragraph over and over. . . or you constantly feel drained and drowsy during the day. . . you may be a prime candidate for burnout.

Low self-esteem.
According to the American work ethic, you are what you do. So if you don't think much of what you do you won't think much of yourself.

Job burnout victims can get caught in a vicious cycle of self-degradation. Because they're dissatisfied with their job, they think work is a waste of time. And then they feel worthless because they think they're failures in their careers. Finally, other people have an uncanny knack for sensing when we're feeling low, and some of these people will kick you when you're down. They'll take advantage of you when you're at your weakest, and you'll resent yourself for it even more.

Withdrawn. As self-esteem sinks lower and lower, the burnout victim becomes overly introverted and withdrawn. He doesn't socialize or communicate with coworkers because of his work inflicted inferiority complex. He looks at coworkers who are seemingly satisfied with their jobs and says to himself, "These people are doing okay. So it must be me not the company or the job."

Can't face the day. A
close friend of mine got to the point where the first thing he did upon waking every business day was to throw up. The thought of going to work was that distasteful to him. If getting out of bed to face the work day is an agonizing struggle, you're probably an advanced case of job burnout.

A Look at Some Cures

Okay. Let's say you think you're suffering from job burnout either a mild case or a severe form. You know you have a problem. What do you do about it? Here are 10 suggestions--10 ways to avoid and overcome job burnout:

1. Ask for more work. Not getting a chance to work to your full potential is one of the biggest reasons for job burnout.

Why don't managers delegate more to their staffs? One reason is that they never learned how: most managers in the chemical industry started as engineers, and engineers are doers, not delegators. Another is that a poor manager makes himself feel more important by hogging all the work and leaving staffers in the dark.

Working under a manager who refuses to delegate makes people feel frustrated and useless. If you're not being used to your full potential, ask for more work. Tell your supervisor that you can tackle more ..and that you want more to tackle.

"But I'm not sure you can handle more," your manager replies. Fine, you say. I'll prove I can. Tell your manager to increase your workload just a little bit at first. Once he sees how efficiently and quickly you complete the assignment, he'll be happy to give you as much as you can handle.

Unfortunately, some managers are never going to delegate. If you're stuck working for one of these monsters, changing jobs may be your only way out. (We'll take a look at that option a little later on.)

2. Take on different work. People joke about being stuck in a rut. But it's no joke. One business executive I know defines a rut as "a grave without a cover."

Life shouldn't be a grind. It should be enjoyable, fun...even thrilling.

So if you feel stuck in a rut, get out. Break your daily routine by doing something new. For example, if you've always wanted to write but never tried to do it, volunteer to write an article for your house organ or a trade journal. If you've always thought sales would be fun but never tried it, volunteer to staff the booth at your company's next trade show exhibit. If you're interested in computers but haven't had much chance to work with them, sign up for your company's in-plant course in BASIC or word processing.

3. Learn something new. Some people end up spending their professional lives rehashing and reworking the same limited bits of knowledge they picked up in school and their early training. For instance, an advertising writer I know of complained to me that because he had become a specialist in automobiles, he had essentially written and rewritten the same set of ads for a dozen different clients over the course of his 25 year career.

Of course he could have broken out of this at any time. He could have studied a new area to write about, such as consumer electronics or soap or medical products. But he didn't. And the longer he stayed within the narrow confines of automotive copywriting, the harder it became for him to try anything new.

Life and work become dull when you stop learning. So don't. Make it a point to broaden your knowledge, master new skills and learn new things. For example, instead of throwing away college catalogs and course solicitations you receive in the mail, sign up for a course in a new technical topic that interests you--biotechnology or perhaps fiber optics. Or, if you don't have time for night school, you can read a book, attend a lecture or study a paper.

Rehashing the same data base of knowledge you've always carried around in your brain is safe and easy. But it's also boring and can lead to job burnout. When you're continually learning new things about your work, you keep the interest and excitement level high.

4. Do something new. Go on a cruise. Learn to play the clarinet. Build a cedar closet.

It doesn't have to be work-related. The simple act of doing something new will boost your spirits and give you a new outlook on life -- a positive attitude that will spill over into your job.

By continually trying new things, you become well rounded. And well rounded people are the most content personally and professionally.

5. Become more active in your own field. Somewhere along the way, you may have lost the zest for engineering, science or business that you had when you first started. The daily grind of nine-to-five has worn you down. And you've forgotten why you became a chemical engineer (or whatever it is you do) in the first place.

You can escape job burnout by rekindling your interest in your profession. Join your professional society, if you haven't already. Become active: attend meetings, read journals, present papers... you can even run for office in your local chapter. Take a course or teach one. Take responsibility for training one of the young engineers in your department. The people who are active in their field are usually the most successful and the most satisfied with their careers.

6. Restructure your job. A secre­tary at an advertising agency ex­plained to me the source of her career blues.

"I took a secretary level job to get my 'foot in the door' in the advertising business. But, although this is my first job in advertising, I have a pretty extensive writing background mainly in employee communications for several large firms.

"I thought that in an ad agency I'd get an opportunity to put my writing skills to use. But it hasn't worked out that way. I know I could write good copy, if given a chance. But my boss thinks of me as strictly a secretary, and he has never given me the opportunity to try my hand at an ad or commercial."

Perhaps you too have been forced into a role against your will. Maybe you had hopes of doing "creative" engineering but found yourself handling dry routine procedures day after day. If you're unhappy with your job as it is, you can solve the problem by redefining your role in the organization.

First, look for opportunities things that need doing but aren't being done. Then volunteer to take this work on.

For example, let's say you're a technical manager who would rather be doing something else like computer programming. If your department needs to develop engineering software and you're fluent in FORTRAN, you could take responsibility for writing the programs. As your department's need for customized engineering programs grows, more and more of your time could be devoted to writing the software. By satisfying a need, you've also restructured your job to suit your tastes.

Of course, you can't always write your own job description. Some bosses won't allow it. And neither will some corporate structures. If that's the case, more drastic action may be needed to get your career back on track.

7. Attack the problem head-on. "All this sounds nice, but not realistic," you complain. "My problem is much more difficult than that."

Fine. Then you need to assess the source of your job burnout. And attack it head-on.

For example, maybe your life is being made miserable by a co-worker who refuses to cooperate with you. The two of you are supposed to be working on some of the same projects, sharing information and ideas. But your "partner" is a loner who gives you the cold shoulder whenever you try to get together.

Confrontation is unpleasant, so you could remain silent and try to make the best of it. But you won't be solving the problem you'll just be running away. And you'll only grow more miserable as a bad situation stays bad.

The better tactic is to confront the uncooperative co-worker head on. Tell your co-worker you have a problem you want to discuss in private. Then, tell him your feelings that you want to do a good job, but you can't unless the two of you can find a way to work together productively and without friction. Be direct. Say: "It seems that whenever I approach you you're not available. Have I done something to make you not want to work with me? Is there a way we can get together on this?"

In many cases, the source of our unhappiness at work is another person--a person who is making life difficult for us. By confronting difficult people with the fact that they are being difficult, you force them to admit their poor behavior and take steps to correct it. Which makes life easier for everyone.

8. Change departments. Sometimes, the person creating the problem for you can't be made to change. Or there may not be another job or task in your department that can provide you with career satisfaction. In that case, changing departments may be the answer.

This is a fairly common occur­rence in industry. For example, engineers who would rather deal with people than equations can move into technical sales. Or a telecommunications analyst who is bored with phones but fascinated by computers might switch to the DP department.

9. Change employers. If there's no place in your company where you'd be happy, then maybe you should change companies. The unfortunate fact of professional life is that many places are bad to work in, many bosses are tyrants, many companies are poorly managed (although most aren't).

If you're in one of these places, the best thing you can do is get out. By all means, keep your job-hunting a secret. And don't quit your present job until you get a new one.

On the other hand, don't rush your resume to the printer at the first sign of trouble. Changing jobs is a major step. Are you sure your problem can't be solved by less drastic measures, such as a change of assignment, a heart-to-heart talk with the boss, a week's vacation? Try and make things work out. Only when you're convinced that you can't improve your present situation should you put yourself back on the job market.

10. Change fields. Changing careers is an effective cure for severe job burnout. If you've had it with what you do for a living, maybe you should do something else.

There are a number of reasons why people hesitate to choose this option. One is the feeling that they studied for a specific career, and they'd be wasting their education if they moved into a field for which they were not formally trained. But that's faulty reasoning. The real and tragic waste is working at a job that no longer fulfills you.

The second reason is financial. People worry that they'll have to take a severe pay cut when they switch fields, because they'll be starting at entry level. But that's not always the case. True, you may not make as much as you're making now. But you'll probably earn enough to maintain your present lifestyle. If not, your savings can see you through for the year or two it takes to reach a respectable salary in your new profession.

The third factor is that people fear radical change. But the change doesn't have to be radical it can, in fact, be small. For example, a technical writer who is sick and tired of turning out operating manuals doesn't have to join the circus to find happiness. Maybe a different type of writing --say, newspaper reporting--will be enough of a change to break his career doldrums.

The decision to change jobs or professions should be made only after a lot of careful thought and soul searching. But change is called for when you're stuck with a bad case of job burnout. After all, you spend more than a third of your waking hours at your job. Doesn't it make sense to have a job you like? As an old Scottish proverb advises:
Be happy while you're living, for you're a long time dead.


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