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Burned Out? Or Just Bummed?

How to tell the difference, fix it, and rediscover your happy place


by Sarah Mahoney

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These days, the phrase “burned out” is as common as “I hate my job.” But while burnout may seem like a foregone conclusion (at least to the millions of people shackled to a BlackBerry), it’s not as common as you think. “It’s a description that gets tossed around a little too freely,” says Christina Maslach, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley .

And while today’s workers are more stressed than they used to be, frayed by longer commutes, economic worries and the pressures of living in dual-income families, “there’s no evidence that true burnout is any more common than it used to be,” explains Ronald Downey, PhD, professor emeritus of industrial and occupational psychology at Kanas State University.

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Over a lifetime, most people experience many ebbs and flows in career satisfaction. For a true burnout diagnosis, Maslach says, experts look for three things:

1. Exhaustion. “People say things like, `I wake up and I’m already behind.’ Their tank is empty, and there is no replenishment.”

2. Negativity and cynicism, perhaps directed at coworkers or customers. “At this point, we see people shift from trying to do their best to doing the bare minimum,” she explains. “This is when teachers stop writing comments on papers, for example, and just give check marks.”

3. A negative response to oneself, including a feeling that you’re just not as effective as you used to be.

When all three happen, it’s official: Your job has you fried to a crisp.

Rx For a Burned-out Soul

At this point, you may be saying, “Who cares whether I am clinically burned out or just plain miserable? Get me out of here!” But it matters. If you are burned out, a carefully chosen job in the same field may be your best next step: Why give up on accounting just because you work for a lousy firm, or are trapped with dysfunctional clients? But if your distress wells up from a deeper unhappiness, you may be ripe for a career change.

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It can help to take a look around you. Are many of your colleagues also unhappy? Maslach says people often blame themselves, when the real problem is organizational, reporting that “Researchers have found that it’s much more likely to be chronic minor irritations that wear people down, not any big crisis.” Workplace civility is a huge problem: One recent Canadian study on burned-out nurses found that the number one factor wasn’t hours on their feet or a too-heavy caseload. It was snarky, sarcastic coworkers; rolling their eyes was the top complaint.

Downey says it can also be helpful to ask yourself if the misery stems from internal or external causes: “I hate my boss” is a very different problem than “I’m bored to tears with what I’m doing.” External factors, including unhappiness with management, coworkers or company dysfunction, can be fixed with a new job in the same field, as long as you do plenty of homework about workplace satisfaction before accepting the position.

“Internal factors are more complex,” he says. “Academics have long treated the problem with sabbaticals,” he says, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to take an extended break to work on new projects, it’s an effective way to recharge batteries. Other proven techniques that buffer against burnout (and also help with general unhappiness): Making a checklist of the things that matter most to you, to reassess your priorities; taking more daily breaks; increasing your level of regular exercise, and broadening your social support—including spending less time with toxic colleagues, and more time with people who are upbeat and enthusiastic.

Two Roads To Happiness

Some people conquer burnout by making a wholesale change, while others find ways to refresh themselves without changing jobs.

Holly Xerri went for the big rejuvenation. Now 57, the Oceanside, N.Y. entrepreneur started an advertising company at 29, then spent the next two decades running every detail of that business herself—meeting with clients, buying paper, “even following postmen around to make sure coupon books didn't just get left on a radiator in apartment lobbies.”

Over the years, it wore her down. “It was hard to get out there,” she recalls. “I was so tired. And I started to dislike my clients. I felt they had no respect for me, and wasted my time with endless complaining.”

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So nine years ago, with a single keystroke, she put the business up for sale. “The next day I got a call from a buyer and sold it for a good amount of money. It was the happiest day of my life.”

Xerri, who admits she is a Type A perfectionist who brought much of that exhaustion on herself, has carried those lessons into her latest venture: CamiBands, selling lacy clothing extenders online. These days, you’ll find her working even longer hours, but now it’s entirely on her schedule. “I work from home, and can stay in my bathrobe all day if I want. I do not go to trade shows or craft shows,” she says. And in place of the endless stress of dressing up and always be on for client meetings, she can throw herself into the creative part of the job, designing with new fabrics and style.

Of course, a new career isn’t the answer for everyone.

Sarah Baldwin, a marketing executive in Highland Park, Ill., admits she frequently feels “fried crispy” by the constant scrambling for the next assignment, in an economy that’s often downright hostile to older workers. (She’s in her mid 50s, and has worked with such brands as Nutrasweet, the Ice Capades and, most recently, Goodnighties, a fabric technology aimed at reducing hot flashes.)

While a career change isn’t in the cards right now, Baldwin has found her salvation by diving into art. While she had always soothed herself with needlepoint, she started doodling about 10 years ago, and was soon enhancing her drawings with water colors. Then she took an acrylics class. These days, she signs up for studio classes at a community art center, and pours her passions into oil painting in her off hours.

No, it doesn’t erase all her stress. But it does offset her work frustrations. “After reading nothing but memos for 25 years,” she says. “painting refreshes me.”