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Recognizing and preventing burnout

It's a workplace version of depression. If you're not aware of it, you can irreparably damage your career and your personal life. Here's how to avoid it.

I don't know about you, but I've experienced job burnout, and it isn't pleasant.

In case you're not acquainted with this somewhat poorly understood phenomenon, burnout is sort of a workplace version of depression. You know, you used to whistle while you worked, and now you'd rather get a root canal than get out of bed to go to work.

Burnout is bad news. If you're not aware that your work stress and frustration have reached the boiling point, you can find yourself in a near-constant state of irritability or anxiety. You might end up doing things you'll later regret and damaging your career or your personal life.

In addition to high-stress jobs like emergency workers, air traffic controllers, and doctors, I was surprised to find that high-tech professionals are prone to burnout, according to a number of studies.

There are three things you need to know about burnout: how to recognize it, what to do about it, and how to avoid it.

How to recognize burnout
This is not rocket science. If you complain about your boss or have an ongoing feud with the jerk in the cubicle next door, that's not burnout. If you used to enjoy or at least tolerate your job, but now you're constantly stressed and frustrated, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight, then you're probably experiencing burnout.

If you recently took a swing at your boss, then you've been there for a while.

What to do about burnout
Again, not rocket science. It's like peeling an onion. First, take a vacation. That's right; you have to try this old standard first. Get some perspective, and see if that helps. Try to determine the source of your stress, and change it--transfer to a different group, ask for a raise, whatever.

If that fails, then get out. I'm not kidding. You can figure out what went wrong and psychoanalyze yourself later. There's just too much at stake. Find yourself another job, take a break, if you can afford to--whatever it takes. Just get out. Get some distance and perspective, put yourself back together, and start over.

How to avoid burnout
Avoiding burnout usually comes down to recognizing the source. If it's an individual or a one-off thing, then it's probably not going to become a chronic problem. If it's a company, then switching companies might do the trick. If it's your profession, then it's time to consider a different one.

Times of crisis often lead to the discovery that you might be on the wrong path. Sure, it's tough, especially if you've put a lot into your career, but it happens. What's worse: changing careers or being miserable for the rest of your life and ending up a bitter old person?

Bottom line
Burnout happens. It happens in high-stress jobs, and it happens in the high-technology industry. Sure, your job is important. But your career and your personal life are more important. Staying in a job where you're burning out may earn you a few paychecks, but it may cost you far more in the long run.