A few years ago, I spoke about burnout at a national meeting of an association of specialist physicians. I’m always a little nervous when speaking to physician colleagues, and this was no exception.
A few minutes before the presentation, I was doing something near the back of the room.
“Excuse me, Dr. Biali!”
I turned and looked over. This gruff voice came from one of the conference attendees. He apparently had taken a chair out of the formal group area and was sitting, alone, right next to the back doors.
“Just wanted to let you know I won’t be staying,” he smirked. “I have a tee time at 1:30, so just ignore me if I leave early.”
His tone sure didn’t help my nerves. I thanked him for “letting me know,” steeled myself, and went to the front of the room to give the presentation.
As I usually do, I shared my personal story of burnout and depression. I also described the key hallmarks of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization/cynicism, and decreased accomplishment/effectiveness. The presentation went well, and led to a lively Q-and-A session.
The next day as I was packing up to fly home, the phone rang. It was the gentleman from the back of the room. He was calling from the airport.
“I wanted to say that I’m sorry if I was a bit hard on you before your talk,” he told me. “I ended up staying for your whole presentation.
He continued: “Thank you for helping me understand what’s wrong with me. For years now, my family has been complaining that I’ve changed. They say I’ve become negative, cynical, and irritable. I felt terrible, because I thought I’d become a different person than I used to be. I realize now that it’s burnout. I’m terribly burned out.”
This was one of the most precious moments of my entire career. I will never forget that call.
Since then, I have heard so many versions of this now-familiar story. People who used to be happy, motivated, friendly, and engaging, become withdrawn, cranky, and disengaged from coworkers and clients or patients. The cause: prolonged work stress and the resulting burnout.
When this happens, people that you used to like working with (or helping) now seem annoying or irritating. Everything starts to feel like a burden. You catch yourself snapping at people from time to time, more and more, though it seems in the moment that you have good cause.
It happens so gradually that you often don’t even notice it. Everyone else does, though.
If this sounds like you, I encourage you to seek help and support from a qualified professional. It’s also important to get medical advice from your doctor: Burnout and depression may overlap, and other mental health or medical conditions can cause similar symptoms. (This post is not intended to provide or substitute for professional medical or psychological advice)
* Burnout is usually a result of a system problem. There are a number of things you can do to increase your resilience and well-being and improve your response to stress, but most likely things at work will need to change, too. Some things you may have some control over – see my post on Why Lack of Boundaries at Work Can Lead to Burnout.