Beast of Burden

It looked like fun when you were a kid, remember?

Grownups working looked like fun when you were a kid, remember?


Performing your job well without crashing and burning is to understand the physics of music; if the violin strings are too loose, the tone is harsh, too tight and the strings snap.

Those of us working in the middle of our lives have some qualities in common: we are, some, now in positions where the stress levels can be extremely high, and we work many, many hours. In the current culture, to add value to a company, an unsettling number of us feel as if we have to constantly be in learning mode. Others of us are grappling with the idea that we could be inched out by younger talent-at any moment. Add the modern company’s relentless quest for relevance in quickly changing markets, and you have a tenuous job market for baby boomers.

Another thing many of us have in common is that we have a tendency to be defined by our jobs – not a good thing.

“The more we put time and energy into success and/or our approval and job identity, the less energy we have to put into other facets of who we are,” says 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.

“You burn out because you are not free, because your dream has not been given any power. It’s almost always somebody else’s dream.”


Does it have to be lonely at the top?
Baby boomers in upper management and CEO positions are, obviously, hard workers; they’d have to be to get where they are, but this makes them prone to ignoring signs of stress, because stress is so often attached to reward.

“It’s not an addiction, but it is real close,” Pfifferling says. “So, we need to be aware of it and say ‘What other facets of my being exist, so I don’t put all of my eggs in one basket? Then when the inevitable changes, disappointment and failures occur, I don’t go down the tubes because I am my job.'”

Middle-aged, hard-working folks are ripe candidates for burnout. A bad month or even a bad week at the office can spin our lives out of control, affecting our health and our relationships to friends and family, who can (if we are paying attention) act as barometers for our emotional health. Three symptoms of professional burnout include: detachment from staff and family; physical and, particularly, emotional exhaustion; loss of satisfaction or sense of accomplishment.

In fact, your job could be making you physically sick, those sleepless nights rending the  sheets during a due diligence phase can be robbing your immune system of what it needs making you more vulnerable to illness. Professionals often literally stay in crisis mode at work, the culture now more stressful than even just a few years ago, the demand higher, and the pace faster. It’s not our parent’s work culture. Nor is it even the office of our twenties and our thirties.

All jobs have periods where the work load is intense, but if your burden is so heavy that you are stressed (self-inflicted or not) at work all year long, you will certainly burnout, and because so many boomers plan to work past retirement, some have forgotten how to say no and “get back to where we once belonged.” Ironically, or not so ironically, our time spent so loosely way back when may have actually made us more sensitive to the corporate structure, notes Pfifferling.

“I believe that this generation because of our valued commitment to work/life balance, and that there are other facets of what makes up a whole person, not just my identity as a worker bee, makes us more sensitive to the manipulation and our use as a commodity,” he says.

The trite, as usual, often remains true. Getting get out of the office entirely and going on vacation really can ameliorate stress. Learn to leave work at the office where it belongs. Don’t bring your laptop home, and do not turn your desktop at home on when you get home.

Another stress reducer is feeling valued at the office. Those who are heads of large staffs might want to get out of self every now and again and take the pulse of their employees to see how happy they are. When the staff is happy, the boss is appreciated. It’s a simple, big, feel good feedback loop that Americans have a tendency to overlook in their rush but one that someone in the company might want to keep an eye on if that company is to thrive.

Communicate directly
One of the core causes of professional burnout has to do with unclear expectations, says Pfifferling.

“When expectations are uncertain, ambiguity takes over. When either side projects, we therefore have a much easier chance of having a clash of expectations, which is a synonym for the burnout process, because a clash of expectations produces emotional exhaustion,” he says.

Time to consider that second career?
If you’re muttering about your job more than you used to, you may be in what is called the “brown out” phase just before burnout. If so, it could be time to start thinking about phasing out of the corporate world entirely and considering that little non-profit you’ve been dreaming of for years or even early retirement. What good is getting “up there” both in age and on the ladder if we don’t have the heart or the time to enjoy the view or the wisdom we’ve worked so hard to earn?

Simple steps for detoxifying work:

Make a list of what goes well at the end of every day, because as humans we have a tendency to remember only what goes wrong.
·    Take small vacations that take you not only out of the work environment but anything that reminds you of it.
·    Remember that life is about balance, and that includes fun, friends and family.
·    Indulge in something pleasurable or relaxing every day without fail. This will help uproot old tracks that keep you obsessed about your job.
·    Create a good sleep environment and get enough sleep every day.
·    Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.
·    Eat healthy. It will support your mental health.


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