Beware of Professional Burnout

By Joel R. Cooper, The Medical Reporter
c 1995, Joel R. Cooper. 
All rights reserved

Consider this article a beep on your emotional existential wake-up 
call of critical importance.
You or your co-workers may be suffering from Professional Burnout and not 
realize it. Or maybe you just
want to prevent burning out. A wise decision. Professional Burnout -- hereafter 
referred to as "PBO" -- is a
serious problem. Not only can it cause executives and their families great 
unhappiness and emotional
pain, but it can also impair their judgment and put their businesses and careers
at risk. 

PBO isn't as easy to spot as, say, chickenpox or strep throat, but it's quite 
common. Estimates vary, but
experts say that a significant percentage of business executives will suffer an 
episode of PBO at some point
in their careers.

CEOs and VPs are a hardy, hard-working bunch -- they had to be to get to where 
they are today. But in
some circles they're dropping like flies...ravaged by burnout...reduced to 
"toast." These executives are
unable to function or, perhaps even worse, able to function but in a compromised
manner that places
themselves or their businesses in harm's way. 

What causes one executive to burn out in the midst of intense work demands and 
another to walk away
unscathed isn't easy to predict. 

"Burnout isn't a neat diagnostic category that you can find in the psychiatry 
books," said Michael H.
Gendel, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of 
Colorado Health Sciences
Center, Denver, Colorado, and a psychiatrist in private practice. "At this time,
there's a lack of hard data
and diagnostic research behind the burnout idea. The right studies and 
prospective studies haven't yet
been done." 

Nonetheless, Dr. Gendel, who has read over 100 articles on PBO and regularly 
treats impaired professionals
with chemical dependency and other components of PBO, believes a diagnosis of 
PBO can be made on
the basis of three main symptoms:

1. Detachment (especially from clients and staff) 
2. Exhaustion (physical and especially emotional) 
3. Loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment.

Who will burn out and who will stay fresh and balanced is a multi-pronged 
question, according to Dr.
Gendel. Some executives seek out and thrive on stress, pressure, and long hours,
whereas others quickly
reach the point of diminishing returns when the workload becomes oppressive. So 
being under stress, while
often contributing to PBO, does not necessarily predict who will burn out. The 
development of PBO is tied to
a number of factors, including genetic predisposition, environment, experience, 
business type and
management, and lifestyle choices.

High stress, combined with a sense of loss of control over one's life and 
business, most certainly contributes
to PBO. Many executives are battling this big-time in today's economic climate, 
where business conditions
and competitive factors rapidly shift -- often without much warning. There's the
additional pressure of
having to deal with staff down-sizing and telling your loyal employees -- the 
people who may have
supported you -- that now it's their time to get the ax. Rounds of layoffs and 
running businesses in a lean
and mean mode have become all too common in corporate America. Often, top 
executives don't lose
their jobs like subordinates do, but they may lose something else: their faith 
in business and perhaps some
of their dignity.

"Business executives expect control, but wherever they turn they discover less 
and less opportunity to be in
control," said John-Henry Pfifferling, Ph.D., director of the Center for 
Professional Well Being in Durham, North
Carolina, and clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina, 
Chapel Hill. "Business
professionals increasingly see themselves as having to change behavior to meet 
criteria set by their
boards, clients and customers, staff members, the state and federal government, 
and more. Anybody who
feels out of control is hurting." 

Another factor involved in PBO are the relentless and unforgiving demands often 
placed on those who
must run a business day in and day out, and not miss any steps or drop any balls
along the way. It's an
environment where emotions don't count and, in fact, often get in the way. 
Business executives can
become emotionally aloof and machine-like, jumping from crisis to crisis, 
denying the emotional pain

"Everything is secondary to running your business and keeping it going," said 
Dr. Gendel. "If you want to play
the game and be really good at it, you learn early on to deny your own feelings 
and just keep plugging

Dr. Pfifferling agrees. "Rarely are business executives granted their right to 
be human, by society, the media,
their clients, and even their own colleagues," he said. "The nature of business 
itself advocates the
suppression of emotions and physical needs while promoting competitiveness." 

"Finding sources of emotional nourishment and replenishment takes a back seat to
being a success in
business," explained Dr. Gendel. "Pursuing high-level business success forces 
you out of a track where you
can develop people skills, relationship skills, and the emotional tools to be an
effective intimate partner,
parent, or friend."

Burnout problems, long in the making, often don't surface for years...when the 
business professional
becomes physically exhausted and emotionally depleted, feels alone with his or 
her problems, and turns to
substance abuse or other self-defeating behaviors in an attempt to bury the 

Another cause of burnout is executives simply trying to do too much, because 
they expect it of themselves
(perfectionism), feel that others expect it (business hero complex), or haven't 
clearly defined their limits to
clients, co-workers, employees, and others (poor communication). 

"You need to define your legitimate, realistic, and feasible expectations of 
what you can do, at what pace
and rhythm, for how long, with what respite," said Dr. Pfifferling. "If you've 
never clarified and shared this with
others, their expectations of you will run your life." 

"Maintaining a powerful family and support mechanism can be one of your best 
anti-burnout strategies,"
continues Dr. Pfifferling. "If you say 'yes' too many times to too many people, 
there's no energy left to nurture
the relationships that nurture you: your friends and family." 

One of the biggest PBO threats executives face is, ironically, their leadership 
role. Being a leader exacts a
price, because it often necessitates a re-shuffling of personal priorities. 
Often, the unwitting victim is one's
personal life.

"My concern," said Dr. Pfifferling, "is that sometimes executives don't realize 
the cost to themselves

According to Dr. Pfifferling, executives have got to stop selling themselves as 
super men and
"invulnerable and having all of this energy to work ungodly hours."

"Corporations and the public itself must understand that executives are real 
people who suffer from fatigue
just like anybody else," he explained. "If you're a business executive, you have
to learn to lose a little bit of
the luster and be willing to shed your super hero image." 

Author's note: For more information about the Center for Professional Well-Being
and its burnout reduction
and stress management programs for executives and other professionals, contact: 

John-Henry Pfifferling, Ph.D., Director
Center for Professional Well-Being
Colony West Professional Park
21 West Colony Place, Suite 150
Durham, North Carolina 27705 U.S.A.
Telephone: (919) 489-9167
FAX: (919) 489-9778