Losing the Fire

updated 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Psychologist Beverly Potter likes to call herself Beverly Burnout. It's not that she hates her job—far from it. Potter, 56, is a specialist in counseling people who do. A leading authority on the causes and prevention of burnout, a problem estimated by some researchers to affect as much as 25 percent of the U.S. and Canadian workforce, she is a former staff trainer at Stanford University, where she received her doctorate in counseling psychology. She frequently conducts seminars on preventing burnout for both the rank and file and executives of such top Silicon Valley companies as Hewlett-Packard. The author of three books on the subject—most recently 1998's Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work (Ronin)—Potter likens burned-out workers to the Greek mythological character Sisyphus, who was condemned for eternity to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it tumble back down just before it reached the top. "This version of hell is suffered every day," she says, "by people with forever full in-baskets or who work under extreme pressure." Potter, widowed in 1997, spoke recently with staff correspondent Ken Baker in her Oakland office.

What exactly is job burnout?

Burnout is a motivational problem caused by feelings of helplessness. People who believe they can't increase their job satisfaction regardless of how they perform are burned out.

What are the first symptoms?

Anger is a big one. People on the phone annoy you. You just get more and more annoyed with customers or the computer so that you may start a pattern of slamming things around or swearing under your breath. Or a person might act bored or just not get things done. Burned-out workers often feel over-whelmed by negative emotions like frustration, depression, anxiety and despair that can lead to complete nonfunctioning in their jobs and lives. A lot of job-related stress is another sign. Also substance abuse.

What is the biggest cause of job burnout?

Loss of control. When a person starts to feel—it doesn't matter whether it's accurate or not—a loss of control, it decreases motivation and is extremely stressful. Former White House communications director George Stephanopoulos is a classic case. As he describes in his memoir, he became so depressed by his job that he started seeing a psychiatrist and taking the mood-elevating drug Zoloft. As a presidential adviser, he was stuck with endorsing things that violated his values, plus there was this sense of continuous crisis. But by quitting and becoming a TV commentator, he has regained control.

Have you ever been burned out?

I am the poster child for what I preach. My husband, Sebastian, ran our publishing company, and after he died suddenly, I found I knew nothing about its everyday operation. I didn't even know how to run the financial software on his computer. It got very demoralizing at times, but I figured it out and took control.

Which professions are most susceptible to burnout?

Those in which you have to help or assist others, such as social workers, teachers and doctors. There is a lot of pressure in these jobs—to make people feel better, to give them an answer—and often a huge workload.

Are bosses less likely to burn out?

Yes, because people in management have at least the illusion of control over what happens to them. But middle managers are an exception: They've got pressure from above and pressure from below.

What should workers do if they love their jobs but hate their bosses?

Before you start looking for another job, try to change what is going on in your current one. So if you have a bad boss, try to figure out what that person is doing that you can't stand and try to change it. For instance, if the boss tends to be too vague, try to get clarity by asking more questions concerning your assignments.

Are you less likely to burn out if you are well paid?

Not necessarily. Plenty of people have lots of money but are burning out big time. What people really want is more control over their work.

Has the current boom economy decreased burnout?

With more options, there is less tolerance among workers, who think, "Why should I put up with this when I can just go get another job?" But that doesn't mean there aren't as many dissatisfied workers. People keep hearing about their buddies making better money in other jobs, and they grow dissatisfied. So in your mind you can turn a reasonable job into a bad job.

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