Are you a candidate for burnout?

by Terry Goodwin*


[Picture by Yaron Livay from Peace of Mind is a Piece of Cake - see book offers]



Burnout is a popular term  to describe the condition  of fatigue or frustration commonly associated with over-achievers.  In their efforts to achieve unrealistic goals, such people deplete their energy and, ironically, it is usually people who have been most energetic and enthusiastic about their work that run the greatest risk of burnout.

The enthusiasm exhibited at the beginning of a project gradually recedes as expectations of success or achievement fade.  The person becomes listless, impatient, physically exhausted, and tends to lose all interest.

There are several warning signs of the onset of burnout.  The failure to set priorities when faced with alternative and conflicting areas of responsibility is one.  Another danger is when the person is left without a clear indication of his or her role; with no guidelines they will feel that they have failed to achieve what may have been expected of them.  Frequently the problem is associated with the individual's own willingness to take on too much responsibility.  Burnout arises when they finally have more than can be handled by one person.


There are some clear and effective steps to be taken when burnout signs appear.  The onset of feelings of tiredness and inability to relax needs to be explored.  Have you always been under pressure to succeed?  If not, try to recall when this driving force first became over-important to you.

Can you identify a period when you started to lose your sense of humour?  Can you recall when you first started having disagreements with your friends and colleagues?  Was there a time when your responsibilities became a matter of overpowering personal involvement, when your were identifying with them to the extent that you measured your own personal success or failure with that of the work you were doing?

If the answer to even some of these questions is "yes", it is a clear indication that it is time to re-evaluate your values and priorities.  When work is no longer a pleasurable challenge, it is time to consider what changes need to be made.  Do you need to change your priorities?  Do you need to change your duties?  Do you need to change your job?  Or do you simply need a break?


 [First prepare a written list of two columns.  Then write down the following questions on the left hand side.]

What are my short term goals and long-term desired outcomes?

What has been happening to my personal relationships? 

Am I open enough with other people?  Do I talk to them about my problems and my feelings?  Do I share my anxieties, my fears, my frustrations?

Do I do enough physical exercise?  What can I do about this?

Am I too tense?  Should I learn some relaxation techniques?

Do I eat too much or too little?  Should I change my eating habits?

Do I drink too much or too little?  Should I change my drinking habits?

Do I smoke?  Is it time to give up?

How might I incorporate some time management techniques into my life?

Do I automatically take on extra work when asked?  What would happen if I learned to say "No"?

Now consider the questions carefully, giving no less than ten minutes thought to each question. Then write your answers in the right-hand column.  Then go through the answers, one by one, again giving no less than ten minutes thought to each answer.

Have you been totally honest with yourself?

Might you be blaming yourself for past situations that no longer have any relevance to your current activities?  Not only can you not alter a past that no longer exists except as a historical event, but you cannot alter the you that existed in the past.   That was someone else, somewhere else, doing something else.  Time to move forward.

If you don't know where you're going, any road will lead you there.

There are no prescriptions that anyone can provide to deal with your burnout which will be more effective than those you can provide for yourself, once you allow yourself to become aware of your needs.  It is your own well-being that is at stake, and it has to be your own choice.  You need to get in touch with yourself, with your values and what you want out of life

At the end of the day do you want to be at the end of your tether, or would you rather be looking forward to a bright new day?  Silly question.  But how many people, I wonder, suffering the symptoms of burnout, take time out to ask themselves that silly question?

I recall reading about a survey conducted with geriatric patients in a nursing home.  They were asked what they might do differently if they could re-live their lives.  Amongst the variety of answers, one response stood out loud and clear: they would spend more time reflecting on what they had achieved and enjoying their successes before it was too late.

The time to start is now.


Terry Goodwin was a senior marketing executive at Finexport Ltd in London and Bangkok until his retirement in 1992, since when he has been in private practice as a marketing consultant.