by The "Stress Doc"
Mark Gorkin, LICSW

The Four Stages of Burnout: Part I

The first of this three part series on burnout covered the stages of:

1) Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion and
2) Shame and Doubt.

And now we're ready for the third stage. Better check your "tude."

3. Cynicism and Callousness. In response to that prolonged feeling of insecurity or vulnerability, some folks feel there's only one thing left to do: put on the heavy armor. They develop an attitude: "Look out for #1." "Cover your derriere." "No one's getting to me." And, in the short run, the strategy often works. If you become sufficiently abrasive or obnoxious, people start avoiding you. But this hard exterior can eventually become a burdensome, self-defeating strategy

Here's an example. Years ago, I was leading a workshop at a construction industry conference. There was a guy, I'll call him Joe, who was head of a large plumber's union. Now Joe was basically a down to earth, nice guy who found himself becoming increasingly bitter, with that hard attitude. And it was scaring him! Now granted, Joe was in a position that pulled him in all directions - compelling demands, favors, complaints, bribes! Still, what do you think was Joe's biggest stress trap? That's right, this "good Joe" was such a "nice guy." What can't nice guys and nice gals do? They can't say no. Nor are they confident establishing their boundaries. They have difficulty with authority - being one or interacting with one. These nice folks tend to avoid conflict; they don't want to hurt others' feelings. They are not comfortable with anger, or don't know how to express their frustration or displeasure in a focused manner. Their personal mantras are being "fair" and "accommodating", while feeling deep rejection when other's aren't fair or accommodating.

These accommodators, despite having a full workload plate, when asked to take on new work will just smush their peas and bread into the mashed potatoes and allow others to pile on more stuff. Hey, being a team player doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your integrity or health. There's an option: "Sure I'll help you with this new demand and deadline. But for me to give the assignment the attention it deserves, we'll have to renegotiate my priority list and timelines." (I'm not saying there aren't extraordinary and emergency situations. But there is a difference between urgent and important. When everything is urgent, nothing is important!) Setting realistic limits is not a negative reflection on your work ethic or your ability to go the extra mile. Without boundaries, that mile often morphs into a marathon. Remember, someone once said, "Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away."

Joe was really worried. He thought he was going through a split personality process - going from Dr. Jekyl into Hiding. I had to reassure him that there wasn't any genetic transformation occurring. Without realizing it, he had been sucked up by the progressive burnout whirlpool.

And there's another reason for paying attention to this process. Burnout doesn't just facilitate a hardening of the psyche. When your stress starts to smolder into frustration and anger; then turns to suspicion and mistrust as you enclose yourself in embattled armor or a crusty shell. This is not just how you harden an attitude, but it's a formula for hardening the arteries, as well. Cardiovascular complications, high blood pressure, even premature heart attacks can ensue. Which is why, usually, I'd rather people hit the fourth stage of burnout than linger in the third. Of course, "Failure, Helplessness and Crisis" sounds terrible. But consider this: "hitting bottom means there's no more downward spiral." And, if you can reach out, there's nowhere to go but up.

Next time, the fourth and final stage of burnout. 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 III

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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