Symptoms of Job Burnout

Burnout is a diagnosis given when 3 elements are present:

  1. A person is emotionally exhausted. He is overextended by the emotional demands of work.
  2. A person becomes cynical and treats the people around her callously and with irritation, has a detached attitude toward work, and often experiences a loss of idealism.
  3. A person has a reduced feeling of accomplishment. This experience is often labeled inefficacy. She starts doubting her ability to do her job competently. This negatively impacts her productivity and ability to cope.

Is there hope for people going through burnout?

Experiences associated with job burnout and other forms of suffering can be great teachers. In my academic research, I found recovery from burnout can have positive benefits for recoverees. This kind of growth fits with the psychological concept of posttraumatic growth.

In their book on posttraumatic growth (Trauma & Transformation: Growing in the Aftermath of Suffering), Tedeschi and Calhoun discuss “the experience of personal growth or strengthening that often occurs in persons who have faced traumatic events.” There are three broad categories that capture the way people change as a result of this growth. These categories are reflected in the results of my research on job burnout recovery:

Posttraumatic Growth CategoriesHow this shows up in Burnout Recovery
Changed sense of selfEmpowerment (recoverees discovered the ability to act, make choices and assume accountability), experienced an increase in success and confidence
Changed relationshipsRelationship change
Changed philosophy of lifeShift in meaning (personal meaning was highly valued and was reflected in desire to help others and make contributions to teams)

My burnout

Before I left the business world to enter graduate school in Clinical Psychology, I was a high tech and management consultant. What I remember most about my job burnout is it was painful. I experienced my job as meaningless and draining while before burnout, I enjoyed my job a great deal. During burnout, going to work every day required teeth-gritting determination. Getting on planes and traveling to new cities lost all of its fun and sense of adventure. I was exhausted. I was cynical. No about of reassurance made me feel like I was as good at my job as I used to be.

Eventually, I was assigned to a project that obligated me to make a 3 hour daily commute. During that project, I was drawn to psychology lectures. I found that the meaning issues that were arising for me could be held in existential and transpersonal frameworks.

My burnout was my inspiration for studying post-traumatic growth, job satisfaction, resistance to change and how people stay centered in the face of difficult circumstances. It ultimately led to my academic research on how people recover from job burnout.