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How To Avoid Job Burnout – Prevention and Treatment

Updated on May 28, 2016
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Burned Out On the Job?

A burned out wreck.
A burned out wreck. | Source

"Burning the Candle at Both Ends"

One way that Job Burnout can be described is burning the candle at both ends.

What does this mean?

For one thing, it means working too many hours without adequate rest - The worker burns out like a short candle! New mothers and dads are often subject to this, as are ambitious employees, athletes, and business people. However, anyone who works too much and does not see to it that they recover with rest, a good diet, and some sort of recreation will eventually crash and burn. It may take longer for some people than for others, but it is inevitable.

Another description of job burnout is the result of doing what you are good at in your work, but not enjoying it or actually disliking it. This involves a loss of motivation that kills a worker's spirit and productivity. It can even lead into depression and several other conditions and illnesses. Consistently participating in this type of painful job-related stress -- erven if you think it is just "boredom" -- will result in not being able to function well at all after a period of time.

In fact, under severe enough stress from work, usually along with additional stress from family and/or friends, some people suffer a psychological condition known as a fugue state. Experienced by far more men than women, an individual under too much stress reaches a point of threshold in which they forget who they are and simply drive to another city or state and begin a new life. Sometimes they are found and sometimes not.

However, of the individuals who have been found, it was discovered by physicians that the stress-related diseases and conditions (i.e., gastric ulcers, high blood pressure, skin conditions) they had been suffering were cured or much improved. Thus, job burnout is a real condition and not something to take lightly.


Burnout - Origins of the Term and the Condition

The origin of the old saying (or idiom) about candles brining at both ends comes from the Olde English language of a few hundred years ago.

When a clerk was required to work late, a single candle like Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim used in the Dickens holiday story was not enough to produces adequate light for working. Since there was usually only one homemade candle available, the clerk might light the wick at both ends and lay the candle sideways on a holder in order to double the amount of light produced.

However, such a candle buirngin at both ends burned up twice as fast. So, the old saying means that someone is working extremely hard, but will only last half as long as someone who works at a normal pace. In the worst case scenario, burnout out leads to unemployment, illness, and even disability.

Documented Causes of Job Burnout

  • Unclear job expectations, or the rules change every day.
  • Lack of control over one's job -- No sense of autonomy. Micromanagement from above.
  • Dysfunctional company or department.
  • Poor match between the job and one's values.
  • Poor job fit -- Skills, work hours, physical demands, etc.
  • Extremely high levels of mental or physical activity is required liong-term, sometimes without breaks during the day.


Top Warning Signs and Characteristics of Burnout

Some of the positions that provide the setting for the most job burnout include:

  • Customer Service People
  • Healthcare Workers
  • Air Traffic Controllers
  • Managers, Supervisors, Team Leaders, Shift Leaders
  • Teachers
  • Child Care Workers
  • Military Personnel in Combat
  • Workers on rotating hours in high-demand positions
  • Workers on very minutely-detailed tasks
  • Volunteer Workers

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Confusion | Source

Look out for all of these signals, and there may be others as well:

  1. Chronic, long-lasting exhaustion, fatigue, feelings of being run down.
  2. Insomnia or oversleeping or alternating of the two within a week.
  3. Depressed immune system and increasing frequency of colds and infections of many kinds.
  4. Increased dental problems; teeth grinding.
  5. More missed days of work.
  6. Confusion, disorientation, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate.
  7. Anger directed at people that are making demands, i.e. boss and family. Rising levels of anger over time.
  8. Self-blame for fulfilling the demands of others against one's will..
  9. Sarcasm and cynicism.
  10. Negative attitude, becoming worse over time.
  11. Irritability and agitation.
  12. Feelings of being overwhelmed.
  13. Loss of the ability to organize and set priorities.
  14. Decreased work output.
  15. Explosive episodes of unprovoked anger.
  16. Tension headaches and migraine, increasing in frequency.
  17. Indigestion, stomach ulcers.
  18. Dermatitis and other skin conditions.
  19. Weight loss or gain.
  20. Chest pain and /or shortness of breath.
  21. Feelings of loss of control.
  22. Panic attacks.
  23. Crying jags.
  24. Paranoia and suspicion.
  25. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, which are depression.
  26. Increased frequency and magnitude of risky behaviors and acting out.
  27. Increased use of substances such as drugs, alcohol, nicotine.
  28. Road rage.
  29. Interactional problems with friends and family; efven separations and divorces.
  30. Changes in frequency intensity, and interest in usual sexualty activity - increases, decreases, variety seeking, sudden shift into uportected sex with multiple partners.

Burnout increases people's likelihood of developing myocardial infarction, ischemic heart disease, stroke and sudden cardiac death. Studies also point to an increased likelihood of type II diabetes, male infertility, sleep disorders and musculoskeletal disorders among those with the extreme physical, mental and emotional fatigue.

— Burnout harms workers’ physical health through many pathways: Psychological Bulletin Vol. 132,No. 3

Practical Ways to Handle and Prevent Burnout

There are ways to prevent job burnout and other kinds of job stress.

First of all, take breaks!

Have lunch at least a few times a week, if you are not already doing so. Even if you do not like coffee breaks, take a short break in the morning and the afternoon, because ideas will gel and come together in this off time and your body will be refreshed as well.

Remember that Benjamin Franklin took a nap every afternoon, and much of the word does this, even closing down all businesses in town to do so. In Japan, business people often take a 2-3 hour dinner and are then able to work with much increased productivity, if they need to complete a project. They make this dinner a social time for the office as well, so there is the additional benefit of team bonding.

Vacations are important, so take them! As a wise man once said about work, "If you put your hand in a bucket of water and bring it out, does it leave a hole?" The answer is NO.

There was a man who worked factory double shifts 7 days a week at Timkin Roller Bearing in the old Columbus OH plant for several years. He retired on a Sunday night and died of a massive cardiovascular accident on Monday morning.

At one time, in the former USSR, workers were required to work 365 days a year - 7 days a week without holidays or vacations. This ruling was changed, possibly because people were dying from the prolonged work.

You can die if you don't take a break and have time for yourself. The brain and the rest of the nervous system needs the break. What happens when you use the same wiring on a lamp and keep the light on 24/7/365? - The bulb burns out or the cord catches fire. Your nervous system is the same way - too much work and go-go-go and the protective sheath around each nerve wears away. Have you heard anyone say that their "nerves are raw"? Well, that's because they are. Rest repairs them, even when we don't feel them needing the repair. (That's why a major technique used in torture is to keep someone awake for a prolonged period of time or wake them up every time they fall asleep.)

Maybe you like to be so important that the workplace falls apart if you are not there. Well, if you do, that is not a good thing. In fact, some companies are eliminating the condition of depending too much on any one employee by using only part-time or temporary workers.

If you don't like this condition, and the company seems to depend on you too much, to your deteriorating happiness and health, then take a stand in a businesslike discussion about this with your superiors and then take vacations.

There are many other things you can do to help yourself, and you can also ask for help from others. There are numerous materials and resources available for you to use in preventing and handling Job Burnout and others types of job related stress. You can find some of them in the links below, including and Ebay links.

The American Psychological Association offers practical help for Burnout stress at their online page entitled "APA Help Center" see link below.

© 2007 Patty Inglish MS


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