(The following article previously appeared in Veterinary Economics Magazine)

Even though I had wanted to be a veterinarian since I was 7-years old, after 12 years in practice, I found myself at the point I didn’t know if I could stand another day in the office. I was frustrated, tired and worn out by the constant stresses of practice that included staffing headaches, client turnover, and financial strains. On top of it all, the stresses at work were having a profoundly negative influence on my personal life.

I felt disjointed and disconnected from those I most cared about. My life was out of balance and nearly out of control. The pain of burnout became so bad that I started abusing alcohol and drugs in an effort to numb myself so I could make it through another day. I even contemplated suicide before I finally woke up and realized the practice of veterinary medicine didn’t have to be so hard and unrewarding.

In fact, life itself didn’t need to be such a struggle. It was at that point I finally sought help, and with that help I turned, not only my practice around, but also my life.

Burnout – The Sinister Epidemic
Professional burn out is a growing concern in the business world. There’s no question that running a business or being employed by one offers many challenges that can leave the most dedicated professional as burned out as an overcooked French fry. National statistics suggest that healthcare professionals are just one group being adversely affected by the stresses of their jobs.

According to data collected by the Gallup Organization in 2001, less than 30 percent of American workers are fully engaged at work, and 55 percent are ‘not engaged,’ while another 19 percent are ‘actively disengaged,’ meaning not just that they are unhappy at work, but they are regularly sharing those feelings with their colleagues.

These statistics suggest to me that at least 1 out of every 5 people at work is in some advanced stage of burnout.

The 4 Facets of Burn Out
Burnout is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual shut down and exhaustion usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. It’s like trying to run a car with a dead battery, with no water or oil in the engine, and no fuel in the tank. Let’s look closer at the four inter-related facets of burnout which are: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual facets.

In a state of burnout you are often physically exhausted and frequently overwhelmed by work and life in general, which complicates matters because it increases the chances of stress-related illnesses. Mentally, you may experience confusion, a lack of clarity and often an overall negative attitude. Emotionally, you may become depressed, frustrated, resigned, fearful and angry, while spiritually you feel disconnected, empty, wondering if this is all there is to life.

You can think of each of these four facets of burnout as a different colored string, with the four strands wound together in a tangled gnarl. The question is where do you start to un-raffle the knot of professional burnout. Here are a few strategies that others have found to be effective.

S. T. O. P.
S. T. O. P. is an acronym for a powerful strategy that can be used in stressful situations, and that can help you prevent or recover from burnout. The steps are:

S – Step Back

T – Think (which is often quite distinct from the flurry of thoughts that run through a burned out mind. Often, the best thinking in with burnout is more of a meditative, or prayerful form of contemplation.)

O – Organize your thoughts (i.e. The insights that may start to surface from the above step)

P – Proceed

Taking such STOPS on a regular basis gives you the opportunity to recover from the stresses that build up at work. Unfortunately, as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz point out in their book, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, (Free Press, 2003), most of us approach our work and lives like a marathon runner rather than a sprinter, so it’s small wonder that so many of us burnout before we reach the finish line.

Short STOPs of 10-15 minutes sprinkled every couple of hours throughout the day are a good place to start. Then, add in longer periodic STOPs such as regular organizational meetings to look at the larger picture of where everyone is. Consider also the occasional company picnic or other ways for the entire team to recharge and be rejuvenated. One of the most important types of STOPs often missing in a busy professional’s schedule is vacation time that is truly time away from work for rest and rejuvenation.

(Next week, we’ll examine additional ways to avoid and/or recover from burnout.) In the meantime, why not practice a few STOPs this week and see what happens with your overall experience of life?