by The "Stress Doc"
Mark Gorkin, LICSW

Years ago, a magical moment whirled me in a mystical web. I was consumed by the path of "academic flashdancing." I succumbed to the "burnout tango." Now let me not just walk the talk, but deromance the dance: "Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental, and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion...a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give." Whether at work or school (or even in a marriage), to prevent it you must get it. To provide a framework both for understanding and, hopefully, inoculating against future burnout, let's begin with "The Stress Doc's Vital Lesson of the Four 'R's":

If no matter what you say or what you do, Results, Rewards, Recognition, and Relief are not forthcoming, and you can't mean "no" or won't let go...trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair.

Have I captured your attention? Let's examine some of the progressive signs of being caught up in this erosive spiral. Here are the first two of "The Four Stages of Burnout":

1. Physical, Mental, and Emotional Exhaustion. Maybe you are still holding it together at work (or school). Still, can you relate to this sequence? As soon as you get home, you head for the fridge, get out the Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry's, turn on the tube, collapse on the sofa, and you're comatose for the rest of the evening. Doing more with less, having plenty of responsibility but not enough authority, or juggling an unmanageable schedule is taking a toll. (For those grappling with all three stressors...automatically proceed to stage two, if not three.)

Normally, you pride yourself on doing a thorough job, a high quality performance. Now you are looking for shortcuts, if not cutting corners. And this gnaws at your self-esteem. There may even be pangs of guilt. A case of the "brain strain" is developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion. If stress levels continue unabated, you may be ripe for the second stage.

2. Shame and Doubt. Perhaps this scenario is familiar. A supervisor (or professor) asks you to take on a new assignment. You want to...but this voice inside silently screams, "Who are you kidding!" So what's happening? You're not feeling confident about the future; and you're feeling pretty lousy in the present. Not surprisingly, you may even start discounting your past accomplishments. Beware...This is not a logical process; it's a psychological one. Now you wonder if colleagues, friends or family members will detect that something is wrong. While projecting a competent image has been the norm, now this voice inside is relentlessly shouting, "Impostor!"

And then you catch yourself emitting heavy, labored sighs. When do people often engage in deep, labored breathing or sighing (other than when calling those 1-900 numbers)? When experiencing a deep sense of loss and change perceived as uncontrollable. Is chronically grappling with a profound sense of vulnerability or uncertainty anyone's favorite state? Certainly not mine. No surprise then that some folks will "progress" to the third phase: "Cynicism and Callousness."

Are you starting to feel I've been looking in your window? Or, as a reader recently e-mailed: "Have you been a fly on the wall in my house?" Let's not be premature. We still have two more stages to go. And next time, we'll check out your attitude. Until then...Practice Safe Stress!


Chris Thurman, Paul Meier, Richard Flournoy, Don Hawkins, Frank B. Minirth (Editor),Beating Burnout : Balanced Living for Busy People: How to Beat Burnout, before Burnout, Arrowood Press, 1997

Barbara Bailey Reinhold, Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload, and Burnout and Revitalize Your Career, Dutton/Plume, July 1997


The Four Stages of Burnout: Part II

Mark Gorkin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, speaker, trainer and "Online Psychohumorist," known throughout the web, AOL, and the nation as "The Stress Doc." Specialty areas: organizational change and conflict, team building, creativity and humor. (1616 18th Street, NW #312, Washington, DC 20009-2530, (202) 232-8662).


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