How's your fatigue factor – do you feel overwhelmed by your job? Have you hit the wall? Are you feeling toasted? Fried? Exhausted, flat, whipped, wiped, bummed, burned? Wonky, groggy, lethargic, spaced, displaced, depressed about work? How about cranky, edgy, agitated, pessimistic, hypersensitive, paranoid, resentful or angry?
Although fatigue can take many forms, many of us simply complain about our symptoms without giving serious thought to their causes. There is a common mistake made by employees these days to toss every significant decline in energy and motivation – particularly if it seems work-related – into a big bucket labeled "burnout," an overgeneralization that may lead down a seriously flawed restorative path. Most of us assume that the best way to deal with any and all fatigue is to rest – get more sleep, a much-needed vacation, perhaps a sabbatical to "relax and recharge the batteries" and improve work-life balance.
In fact, there may be a lot more to your lethargy, lassitude, sleeplessness and short fuse than you think. The causes of your symptoms may be different or more complex than you believe, leading to what engineers call "attribution error," meaning that if the diagnosis is wrong, the remedy is likely to be off target. You may pursue the wrong "cures" for your fatigue, trying solutions that are ineffective – or that may even exacerbate the situation. By analogy, aspirin won't cure a vitamin deficiency, and a dose of multivitamins will not rid you of your headache.
Without wading through a technical treatise on physiology and psychology, let's take a practical entry-level look at what happens when we're crashing and burning. Some focused self-assessment can provide a more accurate understanding of your emotional and physical fatigue – a better feel for what's really going on, how serious it is, how long it may last, how best to deal with it, and whether you're going to need help getting back up to speed.
First, it's important to distinguish between being Worn Out, being Stressed Out or being Burned Out. While causes and symptoms may overlap, each of these conditions raises different issues you should address. Being Worn Out is a statement of simple physical exhaustion – the direct consequence of prolonged mental and physical exertion that creates a need for rest, recharging, physical replenishment, perhaps sleep. It's important to understand that being worn out is not primarily a psychological stress reaction. Sure, it may feel stressful, but this form of fatigue is largely responsive to external reality factors: long hours, intense activity, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, etc. It responds well to rest, whether that means total temporary withdrawal from all fatigue factors (sometimes called a vacation) or at least a realignment of life forces so that more energy is flowing into your battery than is being drained.
Being worn out is a temporary condition. Once your battery is recharged, the self-protective symptoms of fatigue abate and you can comfortably entertain the idea of re-engaging your active world. Indeed, once your energy equilibrium is restored, more rest – too much rest – may be counterproductive. Action-oriented people may get edgy and impatient if their renewed energy is not put to use.
Another way of keeping the battery charged, of course, is to remove or diminish the forces that drain it. People experiencing repeated exhaustion will do well to "reframe" their work and personal lives – perhaps by exploring a career change, a change of setting, or even a modification of life and career goals to "lower the bar" and make life feel more manageable. This often is not easy, but the results can be striking, even exhilarating.
For years, Jack Flannell (not his real name), a successful lobbyist with a major law firm, put in the long hours. He loved his work and pursued it with all his energy, days, nights and weekends. An unexpected heart attack (probably triggered by a freak virus) at age 47 forced a complete realignment of his life and work. He now must attend cardiac rehab four times a week, a regimen likely to go on indefinitely. And those ol' billable hours...well they just have to suffer a bit. The result: Jack feels better physically. He has found new reserves of energy, and he finds his stamina now is sustainable. He reports his overall "performance envelope" actually is improved and that he addresses life with a better sense of perspective. He still is a successful lobbyist. And he doesn't get worn out.
Being Stressed Out is different from physical exhaustion. Although stress may create physical feelings of fatigue, loss of initiative and a desire to sleep, its causes are primarily internal and psychological. The symptoms derive from the ways in which one's psyche perceives and explains what is happening.
Feeling stressed out is a signal that one's internal coping mechanisms are somehow being overtaxed. People respond to emotional stress in various ways and have very different levels of resiliency. Emotional stressors such as death of a parent, loss of an intimate relationship or a job, divorce, moving, interpersonal conflicts, or economic uncertainty do not directly drain the battery in the same way that running a marathon does.
As psychologist Albert Ellis, founder of the Rational Emotive Therapy Institute in New York, has noted, it is how we explain and interpret events – what he calls our "explanatory style" – that shapes our reactions to events. Those reactions may be long-lasting or even indefinite; whether you yell "Get over it!" to yourself or others advise you to "deal with it" or "get on with your life," you do not magically diminish your distress by ordering it to go away. Our explanatory style is not a direct measure of reality. Rather it represents the "lenses" and "filters" through which we perceive reality – which explains why to optimists most events have a rosy glow, while pessimists feel that if nothing has gone wrong it's just about to.
For over 30 years, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania have studied explanatory style -- with a particular focus on the factors that lead to depression and pessimism (or support their opposite, resiliency). Their research proved that some people have a marked tendency to personalize stressful events ("It's my fault"), to experience stress as pervasive ("Everything is going wrong"), and/or to feel that the effects of stressful events will be permanent ("I'll never be treated fairly"). They are prone to experiencing (and re-experiencing and re-experiencing) stressful events in terms of personal loss. In fact, this how psychologists define depression: it's the feeling that one already has lost something of value, whether it be love, acceptance, security, esteem or opportunity. On the flip side, anxiety is the disproportionate fear that one may suffer such loss in the future.
Many of us experience threats to our coping mechanisms in primarily in emotional terms: pessimism, obsessive thinking, paranoia, hypersensitivity, a sense of futility, etc. For others, stress reactions tend to express themselves most strongly in physical symptoms: fatigue, sleep issues, allergies, weight gain or loss, susceptibility to illness, etc. Stress fatigue often feels very different from exertion fatigue. "It's doesn't feel like a 'healthy' tiredness," says Marsha, a banking executive who has spent the last 18 months on guard against corporate back-stabbing. "It feels heavy, like lead attached to my ankles. It's hard to fire up and get going. I never feel rested, no matter how much sleep I get." Doctors and psychologists often use the word 'lassitude' to describe this particularly oppressive form of fatigue, one in which motivation and initiative drop as dramatically as one's energy.