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Over The Cliff (II)



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What can happen if stress gets out of control ?

In Over The Cliff (Part I ) we discussed:

  • Fatigue and Exhaustion
  • Irritability and Agitation
  • Depression

 In Part II we shall concentrate on:

This section explains what happens during these, and suggests strategies in brief to avoid or cope with them.  


What is it? 

It is the gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion...a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give.

Thus Burn-Out is said to occur when highly committed people lose interest and motivation. Typically it will occur in hard working, hard driven people, who become emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted. 

Have a look at the following instances, if you seem to fit into any or most of the following  then beware you have been working too hard and maybe a future burnout candidate.

  • You forgot to keep your date with Brooke Shields.
  • Again you couldn't say no to your boss when he handed 6 extra files for the week end.
  • Forgetting your marriage anniversary was nothing new, but this time round the block you forgot your own Birth Day and no body bothered to remind (wish) you.
  • Cant remember the last vacation you went on.
  • You and the PC have become one.
  • You think 'Bajpay' is some new type of pie.
  • You lose your nights sleep worrying when you delegate work to your colleagues.
  • Its become impossible to last the day without 5 cups of coffee.
  • You got lost on the way home last night.
  • You regularly say hallo to the night watchman.
  • Your sweetheart cant remember when she last heard the three magic words from you. I love U.

Did you identify yourself, if not well and good, if yes time to slow down buddy.

Often burn-out will manifest itself in a reduction in motivation, volume and quality of performance, or in dissatisfaction with or departure from activity altogether.

Burn-out doesn't occur in a single day, it will normally occur slowly, over a long period of time giving adequate warning and time to take evasive action. It may express itself physically or mentally. 

Symptoms of burn-out are shown below:

  • A growing tendency to think negatively
  • An incorrect belief that you are accomplishing less
  • A feeling of lack of control over commitments
  • Loss of a sense of purpose and energy  
  • Increasing detachment from relationships. This may cause further conflict and stress, adding to the problem.
  • Emotional Exhaustion

This occurs when you methodically do what you are supposed to but withdraw emotionally from what you are doing. In the health care industry this could be characterized by a nurse who follows correct medical procedures and is cordial with the patients, but no longer cares about them personally. If you begin to see others as objects rather than human beings, beware, you may be on the burnout path.

Avoiding Burn-Out

If you working very hard, then you should take great care not to burn-out. Those in helping professions or positions that have significant inter personal contact are more susceptible e.g. customer service departments, health care etc.

You can avoid mental burn-out by ensuring that what you do remains fun: there is a limit to your mental energy that you should respect.  One of the first thing that you should do is decrease the pressure on your self by slowing down your sense of time. Try out the following:

  • Do not work in front of the clock: When you have a clock staring at you or over you shoulder, your perception of time is that it goes by quickly. Hide the clock and work at your own pace. You will accomplish more in less time than if you monitor yourself. Of course, you still have to keep loose track of the time, cause have it form the horses mouth your wife wont like it if she has to wait for an hour with the entire weeks grocery at the shopping arcade.
  • Do not set unrealistic time frames: When you foresee a particular assignment to be an hour long it might take up two. Examine the contingencies and allow enough time. After estimating the time it will take to do something, multiply that by 1.5 and you will have a more realistic time frame.
  • Avoid working under deadline pressure: Any time you face a deadline, time will seem to run faster. In some cases you can't do anything about them. Try to arrange time so that you don't face them as often and you will gain a greater sense of control over your time.
  • Get the required equipment: Do not grudge invest in equipment which will help you attain your goals quickly and easily. Get a Pentium III if your 486 drives you crazy while launching your word processor. Very soon you will discover that the money that you spent has got you greater returns as higher productivity lower stress levels and peace of mind. Make these investments intelligently and don't add to your stress by indulging in champagne taste in beer budget.

As you get better at what you do, people may want increasing amounts of your time, and will rely on you more and more. It is easy for commitments to get bigger: people tend to be quite happy to consume other peoples mental resources without worrying about the consequences. You must learn to say 'No' to commitments that you do not want to take on - otherwise you will be in severe danger of burning out. The next time your boss dumps some more responsibilities try one of the following:

  • "Do you think that with my current commitments I can do this new project justice."
  • "I appreciate your confidence in me, but my other responsibilities would prevent me from doing an excellent job."
  • "I'd be happy to handle this assignment for you, but realistically I cant do it without neglecting the file that you handed me yesterday. Of tasks y and z which would you like me to do? Which can I put aside."
  • "Of course I can do this for you but currently I have x, y and z lined up in queue. Will it be okay if I get back to you sometime next week or will that be too long a wait for a file as important as this."

What ever you say or do, do it with great tact and professionalism. All the while stay as flexible as possible and be humble and true in your statements. Your boss will appreciate it and your relation will improve resulting in a lower stressed work enviornment.

If you are in Danger of Burning Out...

If you feel that you are in danger of burning out, or are not enjoying what you do, the following points can help you correct the situation:

  • Re-evaluate your goals and prioritise them
  • Evaluate the demands placed on you and see how they fit in with your goals
  • Identify your ability to comfortably meet these demands.
  • If you are over-involved, reduce the commitments that are excessive
  • If people demand too much emotional energy, become more unapproachable and less sympathetic. Involve other people in a supportive role. You owe it to yourself to avoid being bled dry emotionally.
  • Learn stress management skills
  • Examine other areas in your life that are generating stress, such as work or family, and try to solve problems and reduce the stress
  • Get the support of your friends and family in reducing stress
  • Ensure that you are following a healthy lifestyle:
    • Get adequate sleep and rest to maintain your energy levels
    • Ensure that you are eating a healthy, balanced diet - bad diet can make you ill or feel bad.
    • Get adequate regular aerobic exercise
    • Limit your caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Perhaps develop alternative activities such as a relaxing hobby to take your mind off problems
  • Acknowledge your own humanity: remember that you have a right to pleasure and a right to relaxation

Late Stages of Burn-Out

If you are in late stages of burn-out, feeling deeply demotivated and disenchanted with your job or life, get help from a good psychologist.

If You Have Burned Out...

If you are so demotivated that for a time you do not want to continue with what you do, then take some time off. Alternatively try to switch to another area of activity within your organization. If you come back later, you may find that you start to enjoy work again, and can take on only those commitments that you want.

You may, however, find that you have absolutely no interest in continuing with what you are doing. In this case it may be best to drop it altogether. If you are the sort of person who has burned out, i.e. highly motivated and hard driving, then a complete change of direction may be appropriate. It is very likely that you will find another area in which you will excel. You will discover that you are only demotivated and listless in the area in which you have burned out.

The difference is that you will have already burned out once: next time you now know the signs to look for and the things to watch. Providing that you learn these lessons you will be able to pace yourself, and control your energy much more effectively. This will help you to control stress so that you operate at stress levels where you can give your optimum performance.


Where an individual has been under sustained stress for a long period of time, has suffered serious life crises, or has reached a stage of exhaustion and demoralisation, then breakdown may occur.

This may show itself physically as a heart attack, angina or a stroke, or may show as 'nervous' or 'mental' breakdown, where the sufferer becomes mentally ill. In the latter case symptoms may not be seen by the individual, but may be obvious to partners, friends and colleagues.

'Breakdown' sounds sudden and dramatic - in the case of physical breakdown it may be. Mental breakdown, however, may be slow in onset, and may be mild or severe. The boundary between prolonged unhappiness or exhaustion and breakdown is blurred - one definition of breakdown may be that the sufferer finally carries out some act that makes it impossible to continue functioning normally in society.

Symptoms of nervous breakdown may be:

  • uncharacteristic, uncontrollable, irrational behaviour
  • intense and excessive anxiety
  • severe depression
  • obsessive activity - persistent performance of an irrational activity, or of a normal activity to an irrational degree
  • manic depression - depression interspersed with periods of euphoria
  • destructive and self-destructive behaviour:
    • sobbing
    • screaming
    • shouting
    • violence
    • self-mutilation
    • suicide
  • doing stupid things:
    • giving up a good job
    • breaking up good relationships
    • shoplifting
    • becoming dependent on drugs
  • schizophrenia

Where breakdown appears to be underway, seek professional help immediately.


Next Up: Action Plan