Column: Dr Avdesh Sharma


Do you belong to the growing tribe of professionals and executives who are constantly in a state of ‘overdrive’—living fast, doing everything quickly, getting upset at delays, frustrated by incompetence and never settling for anything less than the top spot? If you do, then better watch out, for such a high-achieving hard-driving lifestyle insidiously takes its toll on your mind and body, slowly burning you out and turning you into a shell of your former self. Incidentally, it is not usually possible to keep the pace forever and the roller coaster style is ultimately counter productive.
One of the most common and often unidentified syndromes of occupational stress is ‘Burnout’. It is an extreme reaction to a continuing stressful situation. It is used to include ongoing unresolved job stress that is seen in a variety of people-oriented service industries, high flying executives who constantly juggle job demands, impossible expectations of the boss, difficult co-workers and deadlines dangling dangerously over their heads. It has become extremely evident in the service industry, specially BPOs where time zones of work also change.

What Causes Burnout?
Every job has some built-in difficulties, some obstacles and problems to tackle. But these alone do not cause burnout. It is rather the person’s lack of control over his or her job situation that leads to uncertainty, frustration, reduced motivation and eventually burnout. It could also occur if you have reached a career plateau with little chance of advancement or moving up the organization or where no clear-cut criteria of success are present. Jobs that make no demands on you are equally prone to a burnout syndrome.

Stages of Burnout:
Burnout progresses through several recognizable stages:

Stage of Job contentment
The individual is happy with the job he does. He puts in more and more energy, but if this energy is not replenished in time or adequately, it gradually leads to the second stage.

Stage of Fuel shortage: 
The person begins to feel tired, suffer from lack of energy and disturbed sleep. He starts complaining that he is unable to do as much as he once could. Creativity is at a low, he tends to avoid making decisions and becomes increasingly cynical. 

Stage of Chronic symptoms: 
He may start feeling physically ill, showing symptoms like bodyache, nausea, tension headaches or back pain. There is a tendency to wake up in the morning feeling tired. A once calm, easy going person becomes chronically angry or short-tempered. 

Stage of Crisis:
Symptoms become critical. Periods when the person’s thoughts are not riveted on the job become increasingly common. The mind is constantly preoccupied with work problems, even when watching television or at a family dinner. At times there is an overwhelming urge to escape from it all—the job, the family, the whole way of life. 

Stage of Final breakdown: 
Finally the person feels unable to continue. There is serious deterioration in the functioning of one or more of the organs of the body, mind and existential crises of the soul.
If you’re on the road to burnout, you will probably experience several of these symptoms before the final stage of burnout occurs. Take a good look at yourself, your feelings and symptoms and at your job. If you are experiencing signs of fuel shortage, be warned to do something before you reach the state of chronic symptoms. If you are already experiencing some of the above mentioned symptoms, there is no time to waste before you take appropriate steps. If you are already in the crisis stage, drop everything and take immediate action to prevent a breakdown. 

Symptoms of Burnout:
Absenteeism Hostility
Alcoholism Indifference
Apathy Irritability
Boredom Isolation
Cynicism Job Dissatisfaction
Defensiveness Low morale
Disillusionment Marital Problems
Depression Malaise
Drug Dependence Pessimism
Exhaustion Resentment
Frustration Suicide Thoughts
Hopelessness Withdrawal

Burnout is an extreme and severe response, not to be dismissed casually and will probably require professional intervention that deals with both the individual and the organization, he or she works in. Ultimately burnout syndrome has far reaching impact on both the productivity and economy of organisations and the country, apart from crippling the individual concerned. 

—Dr. Avdesh Sharma is a celebrated mental health expert and Heads 'Media and Public Education Committee' of 'Psychiatry in Developing Countries Section' of World Psychiatric Association.

December 2007

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