Overcoming Job Burnout
How to recognize and deal with the symptoms of job burnoutt

by Natalie R. Cooper

I thought I was just a typical working mother - tired, guilt-ridden and stressed out. Work had ceased to be meaningful, but there were days that I still enjoyed it - and anyway, what could I do? We needed the money and health insurance. I felt trapped, overwhelmed and helpless; carried along by the current of time from one part of my busy life to the next ("What, time to cook again? Didn't we just have breakfast?").

Sometimes I would feel so "in over my head" that my chest would tighten and I would experience shortness of breath. And anything could bring on these reactions, from a last minute demand from my boss to the realization that I didn't know what to make for dinner. I just wanted to drop out and hide from my life for a while, but being a responsible wife, mother and employee, I kept plodding along.

Then I happened upon an online quiz about burnout - and realized I was a textbook case. Burnout is a real physical and mental condition with real symptoms, almost all of which I was experiencing: chronic fatigue, irritability, digestive problems, depression, and a feeling of helplessness are just a few warning signs of burnout. People experiencing burnout describe their situation as feeling "overwhelmed," "trapped," or "drowning" - many of the words that reflected my own state of mind.

Some of the more surprising signs of burnout include taking senseless risks at work and becoming suspicious of one's boss or coworkers - like playing solitaire or checking personal emails when your boss is in the next room or suspecting a coworker of trying to make you look bad. You might also find yourself using more stimulants, such as coffee or caffeinated sodas, in a desperate attempt to fight the chronic fatigue.

Causes of Job Burnout

Burnout is not stress, although constant stress is one of the causes and earlier stages of developing burnout. Interestingly, burnout often starts with a life change that comes with high expectations for happiness and/or success, such as a new job. If the job changes, underutilizes the employee's skills, or is not what the employee expected - or if she never receives positive or useful feedback - stress may result. Short-term stress, like the kind that comes with working on a project, can be exhilarating and rewarding, helping you to get your job done. It's when the stress is chronic and unrelenting that burnout is most likely to set in.

For me, burnout resulted from a variety of factors. I'd been at the job for 3 years, during which time I went from being a busy executive assistant involved in several aspects of our small company, to a not-so-busy executive assistant with long hours but few projects. As my boss turned over more of the running of the company to another department, and that department in turn hired assistants with more specialized skills, my responsibilities dwindled. The projects I'd been working on were replaced by failed direct-marketing projects dreamed up by a boss who also felt bored and redundant.

To make matters worse, my boss enjoyed micromanaging me to the extent that, at the end of each day, I was required to submit a list of every activity I had worked on that day. Being an independent spirit and a self-starter, this treatment left me feeling underappreciated and under constant pressure to perform, with no positive reinforcement.

And although I didn't mind working, I was constantly aware that I was missing huge chunks of my toddler daughter's childhood because of a job that basically consisted of failed projects and "busy work." Trapped, helpless and despairing? You better believe it. I had to make a change.

Solutions for Burnout

For starters, it can be helpful just to know that the fatigue, helplessness and the physical symptoms you're experiencing are not all in your mind. They are not signs of weakness - they are part of a larger problem that you can take steps to solve:

  • Unless you hate your job and everything about it, first try fixing what is causing the stress. If your company is large enough, you may be able to transfer to another department. If not, perhaps you can steer your job in the right direction by volunteering for projects that interest you.

  • If you do hate your job and there's no possibility of improving it, begin looking for another one in your field.

  • Research what additional education you might need in order to do what you really want to do.

  • If you aren't sure what you want to do, and you're a person of faith, pray for guidance every step of the way. A strong connection with God will help with both the decisions you'll have to make while planning your future and the stress you're feeling right now.

In my own situation, I decided to begin doing freelance work part-time with the hopes of eventually working at home full-time. Research and working on developing my new "job" - as well as choosing and suggesting projects at my full-time job that help me to gain experience - have helped me to overcome my burnout and have inspired more hope for my future.

The key is to take charge of your life and begin working - even in a small way - to create the job situation that is right for you. Realize that you have chosen your path in life up until now, and you can choose to change direction any time you wish.

Natalie Cooper is a freelance writer living in Monsey, NY with her husband, 2-year-old daughter and 2 cats. She is also the owner of www.nataliecooper.com, where she not only showcases her work but also provides suggestions, links and moral support for other women wishing to explore work-at-home and freelance options."

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