Once, long ago, Ed liked his job. As an idealistic young attorney, he had dedicated most of his waking hours to his work at the legal aid clinic. But after four years of unending demands, low pay, bureaucratic snarls and a cramped work environment -- something snapped.
Now he is constantly cynical, irritable and fatigued. He misses deadlines, lacks initiative and just puts in time.
Evelyn throws up each morning before work. Her dread of another day at her counseling job with the community drug treatment center causes her to lose sleep, feel sick and drink a lot.
She feels she's no longer effective on the job, thinks other staffers are out to get her and has fleetingly considered suicide.
These are extreme examples of "the burnout syndrome," says Martha Bramhall a Maryland social worker who has helpedhundreds of people deal with this debilitating process through her Burnout Prevention Workshops.
"Burnout is a widely prevalent, but subtle thief of effectiveness," she says."It is characterized by emotional exhaustion, apathy and disinterest and can spread from one worker to another until it poisons an entire organization".
Workers in any job -- from cab driving to homemaking to brain surgery -- can become burnout victims. "Approximately85 percent of the professional work force," says Colorado psychologist Randy Kunkel, "is at some stage of burnout at all times."
At a recent conference for FederallyEmployed Women, a session on burnout had a standing-room-only audience. National Education Association president (Willard H. McGuire has called burnout among teachers "a major new malady . . . that threatens to reach epidemic proportion."
Human service workers -- counselors, health professionals, police officers -- are particularly prone to burnout, says social worker Bramhall, whose workshops are geared to those in the "helping professions."
"These people are intimately involvedwith the psychological, social or physical problems of troubled human beings," she says. "Those who are unable to cope with the draining, ongoing stresses of such positions may become burned out and react in a variety of dysfunctional and nonproductive ways.
"For example, they may start categorizing clients without considering the person's individual needs -- calling someone 'just another unwed mother like any other.' Or they may apply some derogratory label to make the client seem less human or real -- like 'that coronary in 4-G.'
"Some burnout victims start rigidly applying rules because they are too emotionally exhausted to consider more creative solutions. Others just get negative about everything. A person who once had lots of ideas may now just try to rain on everyone's parade."
A burned out person's health and personal life usually also are affected.
"They may be constantly tired," says Bramhall, "experience physical ailments like headaches and backaches and withdraw from people at work and at home."
The irony of burnout, she says, "is that it's usually the dedicated people who get it. Often they're the ones whoput in lots of overtime and feel they've got to get everyone's problem solved.People who don't care don't burn out."
Bramhall -- herself "twice burned." -- is intimately acquainted with the problem. Her first burnout bout occurred 12 years ago when she worked for a crisis hotline.
"I started out thrilled," she recalled. "But I was working double and triple shifts in addition to getting my degree and raising two small children. I had several draining, chronic callers and little chance to see positive results.
"After awhile, I would lay back withthe other hotline workers, and we'd tell each other 'it's your turn to answer' whenever the phone rang."
Her next job as a psychiatric technician "started out great, then became mired in an irrational hierarchy of command. Plus I was assigned rotating shifts so my body was always trying to adjust to weird hours. I totally lost my sense of humor."
One day she found herself taking out her frustrations by yelling at a severely disturbed patient. Soon after, she quit."But I realized it wasn't just me," she noted. "All around me, really good people were more and more just working by the job description instead of putting their hearts into it".
After reading an article by burnout research pioneer Christina Maslach, a California psychologist, Bramhall decided to go back to school and write her thesis on the problem.
Her research led to development of a burnout prevention and treatment plan that seeks to break the cycyle of emotional and physical exhaustion characterizing burnout victims.
"It touches both attitudinal and environmental causes," she says, "and includes corrective work in diet, exercise, rest, personal relationships and work habits."
Former "burned-out" clients say the treatment program has helped them make changes in their attitudes and job situations that allow them to recapture their enthusiasm for work.
"It took me about a year to go from burnout to health," recalls a former teacher of emotionally-handicapped children. "I had gotten to the point where I would look in the mirror and not be sure who that person was."
A major job stress was a classroom with too few, inadequately trained aides "so I could only go to the bathroom infrequently, with anxiety, never knowing what I'd find when I got back." A second stress was the snarl of paperwork that required "7 days a week, 10 hours aday to get done.
"But Martha helped me see that a lot of the things I was doing made it worse. My own perfectionism was part of my problem. I never took time for myself or a sick day -- except to catchup on paperwork.
"I had let my personal life deteriorate to shambles, was eating lots of fast food -- or nothing at all -- and gettinglittle sleep. I needed to nurture myself, too, to be able to nurture the kids."
Currently in a nonteaching job "getting myself back together" this person "joined a support group, redefined my career goals, started swimming and taking vitamins and became very aware of the pressure problems so I don't let myself get to the burnout point again."
Sums up Eleanor Widman, whose commitment to running a complex volunteer program left her feeling "trapped, angryand overwhelmed:
"I learned that burnout can happen to anyone, and that it's important to ask for help. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your job. And you must never lose your ability to laugh".