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Preventing Burnout

Chapter 19: Preventing Burnout

Tools for Personal Growth

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is burnout and are you experiencing it?
Rate in your journal each of the following feelings from 1 to 10 as it applies to your life.
             1                       5                                    10

         never        occasionally       frequently experienced

  1. overstressed, tightness in back and shoulders, having difficulty sleeping
  2. feeling of being under supported, sensing that others are uncaring
  3. a sense of being lackadaisical
  4. chronic feeling of being sick,overtired, or having general fatigue
  5. state of having concerns on my mind, being worried
  6. asking Why do I stay here?
  7. feelings of guilt
  8. disillusionment on the job or with home life
  9. feeling of being let down
  10. speaking of work or home setting as if I am not the real me when there.
  11. feeling of helplessness, feeling like a victim
  12. desire to be allowed to be the real me at home or on the job
  13. feeling that many expectations are heaped on me
  14. blaming others for everything
  15. lack of caring for family, coworkers, others
  16. a feeling of self-righteousness
  17. feeling and acting very defensively
  18. maintaining an unapproachable attitude
  19. questioning personal values and judgments
  20. feeling of being intimidated by people
  21. asking Is this all there is?
  22. lack of interest in the outside world
  23. cutting self off from family and/or friends
  24. saying I'm working harder than ever before but experiencing fewer successes.
  25. feeling unappreciated
  26. escaping into increased workload
  27. desiring to run away
  28. continuous state of depression
  29. not willing to take time for a vacation because there is so much work to do
  30. frustration with the system
  31. feelings of paranoia
  32. not looking forward to coming to work in the morning
  33. daydreaming or fantasizing during the day
  34. sense of failure in everything you try
  35. tendency to catch more colds, and to stay sick longer; having psychosomatic illnesses
  36. withdrawal from important relationships


Interpretation of Results
Each of the above feelings has been used to describe burnout. If you have rated three or more items 8 or higher, you are a candidate for burnout.

What are some factors leading to burnout?

Factors contributing to burnout, which is a loss of focus on the job or at home, include:


External factors
  • Place of work or home is stressful, disorganized
  • People on the job or at home are stressful, anxious, tense, hostile
  • Focus of control is outside of yourself and in the hands of others, either supervisors, customers, or family members


Internal factors
  • Motivation to do your best at home or on the job all of the time
  • A reaction to a specific negative or stressful stimulus on the job or at home
  • Mourning for self-image of being special
  • Depression over not being “good enough”
  • Not being able to meet idealistic vision of self as a competent worker or family member
  • Feeling of being more enlightened than others; frustration at not being able to see the results of such enlightened opinions or ideas in the behavior of others.


Organizational dynamics
  • People relating poorly; e.g., tense hostile, uncooperative
  • The lines of authority strictly enforced
  • Unrealistic expectations concerning family or coworker organization
  • Maintenance by authority fixtures of family members or coworkers as underdogs
  • Excessive exercise of control and power by others
  • Lack of supportive mechanisms


Roles expectations
  • Expectations and behavior of your role as being restrictive and confined, either at home or on the job
  • Excessive work hours, overtime, less time to spend at home
  • Requirements for appropriate dress or uniform being restrictive; not able to relax at home
  • Needing to be appropriate at all times at home or on the job


What belief system contributes to burnout?
  • I should be together all the time and should not experience problems like other people.
  • Satisfaction in helping others is reward enough for me. (This seems to ignore: low motivation to be responsive on the part of others, absence of positive feedback from others, and minimal recognition from others.)
  • My efforts will always be appreciated by others.
  • There is status and prestige in holding my position.
  • I can make dramatic changes through my efforts.

What are some tips for handling burnout?

  • Recognize the symptoms of burnout.
  • Learn to ask for help.
  • Be aware of the limitations of your family, your job, and yourself.
  • Maintain discipline in daily responsibilities and duties.
  • Take time out during the day.
  • Diversify responsibilities, put more variety in both your job and your homelife.
  • Take short vacations at least twice a year.
  • Try to change little things that gnaw at you and accommodate to those you can't change.
  • Organize your time so you can concentrate on vital tasks.
  • Admit burnout is a real problem for you; don't try to cover it up.
  • Distinguish between stressful aspects of your job or homelife that you can change, and those you can't change.
  • If too much time is being taken away from the satisfying aspects of your life by unimportant, trivial duties, establish a set of priorities for yourself. Discuss your priorities with your boss and your family members.
  • Make a list of the things you hate most on the job or at home. Dispense with or delegate all you can.
  • Alternate major tasks in which results won't be seen for awhile with those that will have immediate productive and gratifying results.
  • Reach an awareness of your motivation in dealing with your family or in entering your specific career field.

What are some ways to prevent burnout?

  • Be informed of the expectations, scope of responsibilities, opportunity for advancement, supervision, job description, workload, evaluation criteria, benefits, and salary of a job before accepting it.
  • Identify goals and evaluate accordingly both at home and on the job.
  • Maintain personal growth both at home and on the job.
  • Seek out helpful supervision for your work both at home and on the job.
  • Develop an active outside life with a variety of interests.
  • Personalize your work and home environment with meaningful pictures, objects, colors, etc.
  • Feel comfortable with yourself, set limits for yourself, and know how far to become involved with family and colleagues.
  • Encourage and practice good communication skills.
  • Provide for flexible working conditions.
  • Seek out encouragement for trying new ideas.
  • Find your own decompression techniques activities such as meditation or exercise that relieve tension and put you into a more relaxed state.
  • Build a support system for yourself with those who can discuss your problems and help look for solutions. Don't just air gripes, but look for solutions.

Frustration reduction exercise

The following exercise is intended to help you think of ways to reduce frustration on the job. The goal is to be able to respond to all situations with an active solution to prevent burnout as well as reduce your stress level.


In your journal write a creative, assertive, stress reducing strategy of how you would deal with or respond to each of the following job-related situations:

  1. You learn that a customer with whom you have had a successful relationship died in a car accident last night.
  2. You have had a rough week at home. The kids have been acting up and your spouse has been complaining because you have been spending too much time on the job.
  3. The noise in the office has been getting greater and greater over the past month. You have been unable to concentrate and when you have clients in the office the noise has become disturbing.
  4. Last night a coworker told you that he has had it working with you; he no longer desires to work with you, and would prefer if you never speak to him again.
  5. Your supervisor has just asked you to write a report due at the regional office tomorrow.
  6. You have had a series of impossible customers this past three months. You can see no movement toward the closure of sales with any of them.
  7. You are convinced after this last staff meeting that none of the coworkers in your office understand you or your ideas. You are sure you have the answer to improving the quality of the work in your office, but none of your colleagues will listen to you.
  8. You have just received your annual performance evaluation. You received an intermediate satisfactory in all categories. You feel that this seriously underestimates the quality of your work for the past year.
  9. You have just realized that you have no power to change the things in your company that you feel need changes. You see no open channels through which to express these concerns.
  10. You have been averaging fifty hours a week on the job and in job-related work at home. You arrive at work this morning and listen in staff meeting about how your office has been falling behind in its report writing and recording. You feel like you are being singled out as one of the ones most deficient. 
  11. You have been feeling that the harder and more conscientiously you perform, the less likely you are to be recognized and rewarded for it.
  12. You are convinced that you will never be as good at the work in your office as one of your more experienced coworkers whom you admire. You are filled with dread whenever anyone in the office asks to discuss a work-related situation with you.
  13. You have been having problems at home. You have tried not to bring your problems to work. Last night you broke into tears and couldn't sleep all night. You arrive at work this morning red eyed and still in a daze.
  14. You had a bout of flu last week, yet you came to work every day. You had a lot of work with action pending, and you felt you could not miss that week. Today you are called in by your supervisor and informed that you have been reported by her superior. It seems that the week you were ill you filled out your travel form incorrectly and charged $114.30 rather than $11.43. Your honesty and integrity are in question, and you must clear this matter up with your supervisor's superior. 
  15. You avoid bickering at all costs. The office has been in a turmoil this past two months because of ill feelings between two of your colleagues. You have found the office unpleasant, and today you are about ready to blast these two for the tension they have been creating.
Steps for handling what's bugging you on the job and a debugging plan:


Step 1:  Read through the following items and rank them by what bugs you most. 
#1 = most bothered to #10 = least bothered.

Frustrations on Job

Rank in Order from 1 to 10
  • Not enough money
  • Too many hours
  • Dead-end career
  • Too much paperwork
  • Not sufficiently trained for the job
  • Not appreciated by customers or clients
  • Not appreciated by supervisor or boss
  • No support for important decisions
  • Feeling powerless
  • System not responsive to customers' needs
  • Negative office politics
  • Sexism on the job
  • Position held has poor public image
  • Lack of community support for my work
  • Disappointment with peers
  • Bureaucratic red tape
  • Not accomplishing what I expected to
  • Other issues which you list here:


Step 2:  Now that you have ranked your frustrations on the job, prepare an action plan for your top five frustrations designed to lessen the stress they create for you on and off the job. In planning to overcome your top five priority frustrations:
  • Utilize brainstorming
  • Write as many alternative solutions as you can think of in your journal.
  • Do not try to evaluate any of them initially- You will not be able to think of many solutions if you criticize them before you get them down on paper.
  • Quantity is the desired outcome; quality will follow in the next step.


Step 3:  When you have exhausted your brainstorming for the top five frustrations, evaluate each possible solution by putting it into one of the following categories:
  1. Category: Status quo solution Description: If you do things no differently what do you think will happen? Usually the answer is: I'll go on complaining and nothing will change.
  2. Category: Fantasy solution Description: The magic wand solution, where you indulge in a fantasy. For example, The offending party will disappear from the face of the earth.
  3. Category: Realistic solution Description: An example, I'll write a memo to the manager documenting my coworker’s unprofessional conduct.
  4. Category: Old solution Description: This may include steps that have been tried previously without success. Example: I'll have a talk with the supervisor about the harm she is doing.
  5. Category: Least desirable Description: An example: I'll give up on solution the situation and quit the job.
Once you have categorized your list of brainstormed solutions, you have recognized that if debugging is to occur, some positive action is necessary.


Step 4:  Decide on the steps for your plan to reduce a priority frustration. Weigh the costs and benefits of each solution listed. What is likely to be accomplished? How unpleasant will it be to carry out? Is it likely to have consequences that you want to avoid, e.g., making you lose your job?


Use value judgments here: Do I want to do this? Is it worth it? What consequences am I willing to risk to resolve this frustration?''


Follow this outline as you write your plan of action in your journal:

My Personal Debugging Plan

First Priority Frustration:
Steps I will take to overcome this frustration on the job by the following dates: (List and date each step.)


Second Priority Frustration:
Steps I will take to overcome this frustration on the job by the following dates: (List and date each step.)


Third Priority Frustration:
Steps I will take to overcome this frustration on the job by the following dates:


Fourth Priority Frustration:
Steps I will take to overcome this frustration on the job by the following dates:


Fifth Priority Frustration:
Steps I will take to overcome this frustration on the job by the following dates:


Step 5:  Once your actions have been chosen, make a commitment to act within a definite period of time. Set realistic time limits that allow for no excuses, no procrastination.

I commit myself to the above plan by this date:

Caveat: If there is something you can do about the frustrations that bug you, yet you choose not to do it, then you lose your right to complain. You have decided (whether explicitly or through subsequent failure to carry out the plan of action) to go on living with the problem. No “yes… but's” please.