I dream of being a shoe salesman. How much job stress would I have if I sold shoes for a living? Sure, I’d have to deal with people’s smelly feet all day; that can’t be pleasant. And maybe some jackass manager would constantly be on my back to meet some unrealistically high sales quota. But, really, how much stress could there be selling shoes? Do you think they bring their work home with them? Wake up in a cold sweat at 3 AM worrying about whether the latest style in men’s wingtips will be a big seller? And have you ever heard of a shoe salesperson with ulcers? Sometimes I dream of being a shoe salesman.
But even the shoe business must have its stressful moments. All jobs worth having involve some stress. Those of us in service jobs have a particular workplace challenge: dealing with people. And you know how they can be.
Do any of these ten burnout signs sound familiar?
10. A short fuse
Not so long ago I could keep a pretty tight lid on my temper; someone would have to push pretty hard for me to blow up in anger. Not so now. Things that I used to let slip by now cause a major eruption.
9. Impatience with those whom I’m supposed to be serving
Have you ever thought this: “My job would be great if I didn’t have to deal with these customers all the time!” (Instead of “customers”, insert students, clients, litigants, patients, parishioners or whomever your job requires you to serve.) Am I geting angry or frustrated with the people I’m supposed to be serving? Do I avoid returning their phone calls? Do I look for any flimsy reason not to answer their e-mails?
8. “Nothing I do makes any difference.”
Is my head battered, bloody and bruised from beating it against my job’s brick wall? I took this job feeling all eager and optimisitic, but now the situation feels hopeless. I don’t know what more I can do. I feel trapped, backed into a corner.
7. “If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”
This place couldn’t get along without me. If I don’t do it, it might get done, but it doesn’t get done right. I’d like to take a few days off, but everything falls apart when I’m not here. So here I am. Every day. And sometimes on weekends.
6. “When I get home I just plop in front of the TV and numb my brain.”
The activities that once brought me joy no longer do so. I used to love Wednesday bowling nights, but who has time for that anymore? I can’t remember the last time I walked to the park with my son. And sex with my husband? Forget about it. Who has the energy?
5. Short cuts
I cut corners. I don’t read the entire report but just scan it quickly and then go to the last page and read the summary. I don’t have time to think much, and so I assume that the quickest solution is the best solution. My analysis is never penetrating or probing; I am eager to embrace simple solutions to complex problems.
4. “Who am I to complain?”
I compare myself to those whom I serve. I have a nice house in the suburbs. I have two great kids. My wife loves me. How can I complain? At least I’m not getting divorced/going to prison/dying of cancer. I need to suck it up, work harder and do more.
3. “I’m always so, so tired!”
I suffer from persistent fatigue. I have trouble falling asleep and then staying asleep when I do. (All too often I wake up in a cold sweat at 2 AM, usually thinking about some problem back at the office.) Even when I do get a good night’s sleep, it doesn’t seem to help much. And I have all these aches and pains I never noticed before. I probably shouldn’t drink so much, but two or three drinks–and sometimes four–at night help me wind down.
2. Diminished shock threshold
When I first started this job I would recoil in horror at some of the things people did–or had done to them. Now? Not so much. I guess I’ve just developed a thick skin. Nothing shocks me much any more. Have I become numb to the suffering of those whom I supposed to be serving?
1. “Are you OK?”
Have I heard this from the people who love me? Do I blow them off with a quick “I’m fine! Don’t worry so much.” When the people who know me best and care for me the most are detecting an unattractive change in me, maybe it’s time to wake up and do something.
One of my favorite movies is Harvey, the story of Elwood P. Dowd and his inseparable pal, an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey. Elwood is amiability personified. He’s eager to shake your hand, introduce himself and Harvey to you, and then sit and listen–preferrably over a cocktail–to whatever pours out of your heart. Elwood will tell you that as a child his mother informed him he had a choice between being oh-so-smart or oh-so-pleasant. ”Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” He just loves people, any kind of person: “I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”
Of course that’s not normal. Neither is having an invisible rabbit as your best friend. And so Elwood’s mother loads him into a taxi and takes him to a mental hospital–Chumley’s Rest–to get an injection with medication that will make him normal. Once there, the cab driver discovers the purpose of the visit and refuses to take Elwood and his mother back home. He tells them they can just call another cab; he won’t be the one taking them back to the city.
The Taxi Driver:“I’ve been driving this route for 15 years. I’ve brought ‘em out here to get that stuff, and I’ve drove ‘em home after they had it. It changes them… On the way out here, they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me; sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets, and look at the birds flyin’. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain’t no birds. And look at the sunsets when its raining. We have a swell time. And I always get a big tip. But afterwards, oh oh…
Mother: “Afterwards, oh oh”? What do you mean, “afterwards, oh oh”?
Taxi Driver: “They crab, crab, crab. They yell at me. Watch the lights. Watch the brakes, Watch the intersections. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith in me, or my buggy. Yet, it’s the same cab, the same driver, and we’re going back over the very same road. It’s no fun. And no tips… After this he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!”
Like Elwood’s cabbie, anyone whose job entails serving people knows what “stinkers” human beings can be. In order to serve them well we must first care for ourselves. We can’t shift blame for our emotional well-being to someone else. We can’t make excuses for it. We are in charge of–and must accept responsibility for–our own mental health. That means recognizing the signs of burnout and taking steps to correct it. Regular vacation and exercise, attending to spiritual needs, cultivating a supportive group of friends–those are just a few of the things we can do to keep ourselves healthy so we can be oh-so-pleasant at the workplace. And with all due respect to Elwood P.Dowd’s mother, that allows us to be oh-so-effective in the workplace too. Even if you sell shoes for a living.
Watch the theater trailer for Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart:
For more information in much, much more detail, I recommend Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, published in 2009 by Berrett-Koehler Publishing, Inc. And a big thank you to my daughter, Liz Sharda, for passing that valuable resource on to her dad.