Category Archives: role ambiguity

On a Prescription for Burnout


According to New York psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, PhD., who coined the term, burned is a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by a devotion to a cause, a way of life, or a relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.
Burnout is a problem born of good intentions because it happens when people try to reach unrealistic goals and end up depleting their energy and losing touch with themselves and others.
The onset is slow. The early symptoms include a feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion; a sense of alienation, cynicism, impatience, negativism and feelings of detachment to the point that the individual begins to resent work involved and the people who are a part of that work. In extreme cases, the individual who once cared very deeply about a project or a group will insulate himself to the point that he no longer cares at all. The irony of burnout is that it happens to the same person who previously was enthusiastic and brimming over with energy and new ideas when first involved in a job or a new situation.

This type of person generally has a very high expectation of what can be accomplished. As time goes by and all of the goals aren’t achieved, the enthusiasm dies and a sort of listlessness sets in. Instead of lowering objectives or accepting reality, frustration is bottled up and the individual tries even harder. The result is burnout.

Three things are associated with burnout:

role conflict: A person who has conflicting responsibilities will begin to feel pulled in many directions and will try to do everything equally well without setting priorities. The result will be the feelings of fatigue or exhaustion associated with burnout.

role ambiguity: The individual does not know what is expected of her. She knows she is expected to be a good career person but is not quite sure how to accomplish this because she has no role model or guidelines to follow. The result is that she never feels that she has accomplished anything worthwhile.

role overload: The individual can’t say no and keeps on taking on more responsibility than he can handle until he finally burns out.

What to do if you’re burned out

Most experts agree that when you recognise burnout, you have to ask yourself some questions. Try to remember when it was that you began feeling so tired and unable to relax. Were you always under such pressure to succeed? When did this one area of your life become disproportionately important? At what point did you lose your sense of humour and the personal side of your relationships with friends and co-workers? Are you identifying so closely with your responsibilities that you’ve come to believe that if this project falls apart you have failed? The answers to these questions will help you re-establish your values and priorities. The next step ist to make some changes in your life. When your work begins to lose its appeal, it’s time for a change or to have your duties changed, or maybe it’s time to take a break.

Other Solutions to the Problem of Burnout

Establish some long and short term goals that are realistic. Write them down. If you have been neglecting your health, change your eating habits and begin to exercise more. Set aside some time each day for relaxation exercises and allow yourself time to “just let it happen”. Renew your friendships with other people. Talk to them about your feelings. Don’t keep your frustrations and anger bottled up. Analyze how you spend your time. Try to incorporate some time management techniques into your life. Learn to say no when you’re asked to do more than you can handle. Learn to delegate responsibility to others. You are not indispensable. Find the sense of humour you’ve probably lost. Learn to laugh at yourself and at the situation. Most of all, get in touch with yourself, your values and what you want out of life. Learn to recognise when you are driving yourself too hard and when you are depleting your inner resources.

Bibliography: see Andreas Gehmeyr, 15.08.93