Beware of Professional Burnout

Beware of Professional Burnout

Consider this article a beep on your emotional beeper...an existential wake-up call of critical importance. You or your co-workers may be suffering from Professional Burnout and not realize it. Or maybe you just want to prevent burning out. A wise decision. Professional Burnout -- hereafter referred to as "PBO" -- is a serious problem. Not only can it cause executives and their families great unhappiness and emotional pain, but it can also impair their judgment and put their businesses and careers at risk.

PBO isn't as easy to spot as, say, chickenpox or strep throat, but it's quite common. Estimates vary, but experts say that a significant percentage of business executives will suffer an episode of PBO at some point in their careers.

CEOs and VPs are a hardy, hard-working bunch -- they had to be to get to where they are today. But in some circles they're dropping like flies...ravaged by burnout...reduced to "toast." These executives are unable to function or, perhaps even worse, able to function but in a compromised manner that places themselves or their businesses in harm's way.

What causes one executive to burn out in the midst of intense work demands and another to walk away unscathed isn't easy to predict.

"Burnout isn't a neat diagnostic category that you can find in the psychiatry books," said Michael H. Gendel, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, Colorado, and a psychiatrist in private practice. "At this time, there's a lack of hard data and diagnostic research behind the burnout idea. The right studies and prospective studies haven't yet been done."

Nonetheless, Dr. Gendel, who has read over 100 articles on PBO and regularly treats impaired professionals with chemical dependency and other components of PBO, believes a diagnosis of PBO can be made on the basis of three main symptoms:

1. Detachment (especially from clients and staff)
2. Exhaustion (physical and especially emotional)
3. Loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment.

Who will burn out and who will stay fresh and balanced is a multi-pronged question, according to Dr. Gendel. Some executives seek out and thrive on stress, pressure, and long hours, whereas others quickly reach the point of diminishing returns when the workload becomes oppressive. So being under stress, while often contributing to PBO, does not necessarily predict who will burn out. The development of PBO is tied to a number of factors, including genetic predisposition, environment, experience, business type and management, and lifestyle choices.

High stress, combined with a sense of loss of control over one's life and business, most certainly contributes to PBO. Many executives are battling this big-time in today's economic climate, where business conditions and competitive factors rapidly shift -- often without much warning. There's the additional pressure of having to deal with staff down-sizing and telling your loyal employees -- the people who may have supported you -- that now it's their time to get the ax. Rounds of layoffs and running businesses in a lean and mean mode have become all too common in corporate America. Often, top executives don't lose their jobs like subordinates do, but they may lose something else: their faith in business and perhaps some of their dignity.

"Business executives expect control, but wherever they turn they discover less and less opportunity to be in control," said John-Henry Pfifferling, Ph.D., director of the Center for Professional Well Being in Durham, North Carolina, and clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "Business professionals increasingly see themselves as having to change behavior to meet criteria set by their boards, clients and customers, staff members, the state and federal government, and more. Anybody who feels out of control is hurting."

Another factor involved in PBO are the relentless and unforgiving demands often placed on those who must run a business day in and day out, and not miss any steps or drop any balls along the way. It's an environment where emotions don't count and, in fact, often get in the way. Business executives can become emotionally aloof and machine-like, jumping from crisis to crisis, denying the emotional pain within.

"Everything is secondary to running your business and keeping it going," said Dr. Gendel. "If you want to play the game and be really good at it, you learn early on to deny your own feelings and just keep plugging away."

Dr. Pfifferling agrees. "Rarely are business executives granted their right to be human, by society, the media, their clients, and even their own colleagues," he said. "The nature of business itself advocates the suppression of emotions and physical needs while promoting competitiveness."

"Finding sources of emotional nourishment and replenishment takes a back seat to being a success in business," explained Dr. Gendel. "Pursuing high-level business success forces you out of a track where you can develop people skills, relationship skills, and the emotional tools to be an effective intimate partner, parent, or friend."

Burnout problems, long in the making, often don't surface for years...when the business professional becomes physically exhausted and emotionally depleted, feels alone with his or her problems, and turns to substance abuse or other self-defeating behaviors in an attempt to bury the pain.

Another cause of burnout is executives simply trying to do too much, because they expect it of themselves (perfectionism), feel that others expect it (business hero complex), or haven't clearly defined their limits to clients, co-workers, employees, and others (poor communication).

"You need to define your legitimate, realistic, and feasible expectations of what you can do, at what pace and rhythm, for how long, with what respite," said Dr. Pfifferling. "If you've never clarified and shared this with others, their expectations of you will run your life."

"Maintaining a powerful family and support mechanism can be one of your best anti-burnout strategies," continues Dr. Pfifferling. "If you say 'yes' too many times to too many people, there's no energy left to nurture the relationships that nurture you: your friends and family."

One of the biggest PBO threats executives face is, ironically, their leadership role. Being a leader exacts a price, because it often necessitates a re-shuffling of personal priorities. Often, the unwitting victim is one's personal life.

"My concern," said Dr. Pfifferling, "is that sometimes executives don't realize the cost to themselves personally."

According to Dr. Pfifferling, executives have got to stop selling themselves as super men and women...as "invulnerable and having all of this energy to work ungodly hours."

"Corporations and the public itself must understand that executives are real people who suffer from fatigue just like anybody else," he explained. "If you're a business executive, you have to learn to lose a little bit of the luster and be willing to shed your super hero image."

Author's note: For more information about the Center for Professional Well-Being and its burnout reduction and stress management programs for executives and other professionals, contact:

John-Henry Pfifferling, Ph.D., Director
Society for Professional Well-Being
21 W. Colony Place, Suite 150
Durham, NC 27705 USA
Phone (919) 489-9167
Fax (919) 419-0011

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