February 11, 2013

Work Burnout: How Do I Know if I'm Getting Toasty?

A few weeks ago a reader asked me to address the issue of work burnout and how it affects the decision to retire. In September 2011 I did take a look at the issue with the post,  How do you know when to retire. Many of the reasons listed were related to job dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Since this subject is a very important one I decided it was time to take a fresh look. To retire just because you have had a rough stretch at work or you have a strong urge to chuck it all is usually not wise. Launching a satisfying retirement takes planning and is a process that should begin well before you accept your last paycheck.

At the same time, staying employed after your mental and physical well being begin to suffer is not wise either. I found several excellent web sites that might help you take a fresh look at your situation to determine if your problem requires action.

What are some of the signs that help you know it is time? The site, HelpGuide.org has a short list that may help you decide if you are on the road to burnout at work:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either  dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated
  • At stress.about.com I found a burnout quiz. Answer the twenty questions and the results are summarized to help you determine if you are at risk for at work burnout. Scientific? No. Something I'd use to decide whether to retire or not? No. Helpful to look at your situation? Yes. Just by answering the questions you have the chance to think through your condition.

    The Mayo Clinic web site has an excellent review of the subject. For example, there is the suggestion to ask yourself these questions:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?  

  • The site continues with overviews on what causes job burnout, who is most at risk, the consequences of ignoring the problem, and importantly, how to handle it.

    From personal experience I can say that I did suffer from many of the symptoms of job burnout for two years before I retired. My radio consulting business was in serious decline for two major reasons: I had stopped trying to learn anything new in my field and was content to just offer the same solutions to client problems that had worked for the previous 15 years. I simply wasn't motivated to put in the effort to "grow" my knowledge, and that meant a slow death for the company.

    Secondly, I was sick of the travel, being away from home all the time, and knowing my marriage and family life were suffering. I saw no reasonable way to continue doing my job while protecting my relationships. So, my wife and I decided it would be best to close the business and take a very early retirement.

    It is important to note that this decision was not made hastily. For the better part of a year I struggled with the financial aspects of retiring at least 5-7 years before I thought I should. Betty and I discussed all the pros and cons of my retirement and what affect it had on her work, too. My personal identity was tightly wrapped with the business. I had no hobbies or passions waiting for me.

    But, the decision was one of the most important I have ever made. I was on the road to ruin and needed to get off before i crashed my life and my marriage. Work burnout is real and powerful. Just be sure you have thought everything through. A satisfying retirement does not follow automatically.


    1. Good post Bob! Many of those bullet items are true for me currently as I wind down my working career, still ~5 years to go though. I use to get depressed about it but by actively planning for the next chapter of my life I find excitement in the planning for it. So instead of running from work, I'm running towards that next chapter. That change in perspective does help me! I have put a countdown widget on my blog for retirement and that provides my timeline for having things in line to be ready (as much as one realistically can) for the next chapter.

      1. That is a great approach, Scott: "Instead of running from work I'm running toward that next chapter." I wish I had that attitude back when my business was slowly sinking beneath the waves!

        It sounds like my approach to vacations: the planningng is every bit as fun as the actual trip.

    2. I fell pretty much where I thought I would on the "burnout quiz" - squarely in the middle. Like Scott above I will still continue for awhile, but have stopped trying to derive my life's worth from my job. I do not want to move up (have turned it down on four occasions in the relatively recent past), do not want to move overseas (at least for work), and realize where work falls in my life (much lower on the priority scale than in the past). I believe as we get older, providing we have planned reasonably well, you get to a point of comfort in knowing you can check out when you want. When the burnout quiz gets decidedly negative, move on. In the meantime I am about to shove off for another five hour drive to multiple customer and internal meetings. Travel is starting to be a drag, but the flip side is that I really look forward to getting home. One negative becomes a positive, I guess. Another timely post, Bob. Thanks.

      1. Safe travels, Chuck. I don't envy you the 5 hour drive. My 1.5 million miles on various airlines almost did me in.

        Knowing when the pull the plug and if you are financially able to do so are the keys.

    3. Excellent article Bob.
      I could not agree with the Mayo questions more.
      I think it is important for a person in burn out to realize that if they retire quickly that will most likely need several months or even years of decompression. I thought I could retire and immediately begin enjoying life again. It took me a great deal of time to learn to just be still and enjoy life again. I had a great deal of guilt that I was simply not just enjoying retiremnt.
      Betty hit this a bit when she relayed that the first years were learning curves of letting go and learning to enjoy.
      Personally, my time on the couch reading has begun to refresh me so I can more fully participate in my next step:)

      1. I have been exchanging e-mails with a woman who retired 18 months ago and is frustrated with her inability to find something that ingnites her. I offered her some suggestions, but the most important one was that this process cannot be rushed. It took me at least three years to settle in enough to stop worrying all the time.

        Reading on the couch on a cold winter day = heaven.

    4. I moved up my retirement date when i more fully realized that I was short-changing my fifth-graders via fewer assigned essays, not looking to introduce new books into our guided readings, cutting back on the kinds of projects I would assign, etc. All due to extended feelings of ennui and fatigue, which I used to combat by "re-inventing" my teaching. But I found that I just wasn't able to do that anymore. So I crunched the numbers and when I found that I could, I did..... retire about four years before I had originally planned. No regrets yet..... :)

      1. Your story and mine mirror each other. While are being paid to do something, if you find yourself looking for shortcuts it is time to look at alternatives. Such a performance isn't fair to the clients (kids) and yourself.

        My clients made my lack of interest clear: they walked away.

        Thanks, Steve.

    5. Wow. Banjo Steve hits it right on the head for me. I'm counting the school days until I can retire-63.
      "Ennui-" wish I'd said that. I'm an English teacher. Or rather, in six months, I can say, "I was an English teacher. Now I'm retired!"
      Great post, Bob.
      Jeff in OK

      1. You are short, Jeff, as we said in the Army...6 months and counting.

    6. Thank you for this post. I have 5 months, 3 weeks and 2 days left before I retire. I'm beyond burned out and am concerned about long-term effects of stress on my health. But, my pension takes a significant jump at 30 years and I need that to make it financially. So, I plod on. But have found that I have less energy every day to do the things I enjoy and want to do. From the comments above, it sounds like it can take awhile to get your mojo back after retiring? I have a long list of things I want to do, so I hope that I'm not just a pile of jelly after I retire rather than the person I want to be. Thanks for your insights!

      1. Yes, it will take awhile for your body and mind to adjust. Give yourself the freedom to simply "be" for as long as it takes to flush the stress and start anew. Frankly, it took me well over a year to find my balance and then another year or more to establish a pattern that worked for me and interests to keep me engaged.

        You worked for 30 years...allow yourself enough time to get ready for (hopefully) the next 30!

    7. Ran across this while googling burnout on a Monday morning after dragging myself to work. am nearly 63, can't really afford to retire yet but answered yes to all but one of the Mayo questions. Gotta figure something out because I know I am shortchanging my employer guess im just tired after 40 years of working and two downsizings and one "we want to go in a different direction" in the past 15 years

      1. You have been through a lot. Obviously, I don't know your situation, but sometimes with careful budgeting and a shift in priorities folks can retire sooner than they thought possible. Give it all a top to bottom look. If not, give your best effort until you can. You, your coworkers, and your employer will benefit.

    8. Glad I ran across your blog. I won't get anxious if it takes time to overcome the burnout.

      1. Welcome, Craig. Give yourself plenty of time to decompress and let your body and mind heal. It took me almost 2 years.