This is the second in a two-part series about burnout

PULLMAN – The past few months have presented a variety of stressful changes for both our nation and university community. Some areas seem to be smoothing out, but there are still the holidays. If anyone knows how to deal with stress and burnout, it is Scott Case, licensed psychologist in Counseling and Testing Services and program coordinator for the WSU Stress Management Program and Employee Assistance Support Services.
Born with a hereditary eye disorder called retinitis pigmentosa, Case began losing his sight at age 15. Originally making his living as an artist, he switched to ceramics and opened a pottery business as his vision continued to deteriorate. Eventually he was forced to close the shop and went back to school in 1990.
Throughout his ensuing academic career, Case had to rely on audio tapes for lectures, textbooks and journal articles. In 2000, while he was working on his Ph.D., his mother became terminally ill and his son was struggling in college. His uncle developed Alzheimer’s, and Case ran into problems with the Social Security Administration, which claimed he owed $20,000.
“I was burned out”
“It became difficult to get up in the morning,” he said. “I gained weight and became despondent and depressed. I came extremely close to giving up on completing my dissertation. I was burned out.”
But Case took some time off and started doing things that gave him back a sense of control. He exercised even when he didn’t feel like it. He reached out to his support network and began using stress management techniques.
Ultimately, he was able to finish the dissertation. He felt re-energized and graduated with just shy of a 4.0 grade point average.
Today, as a licensed psychologist in the university environment, Case deals with burnout in a clientele that can range from undergraduate students to high-level administrators.
“We see a lot of burnout in employees here (WSU),” he said. “There is also a high rate among veterinary and engineering students. And for students and staff already tending toward burnout, the extra pressures of the holiday season can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
Stress vs. burnout
Though burnout may result from unrelenting stress, Case said it is not the same as too much stress.
“Stress by and large involves too much – too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and psychologically. Yet people can still imagine that they’d feel better if they got everything under control,” he explained.
“Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough — feeling empty, devoid of motivation and beyond caring. In burnout, people often see no hope for positive change.
“If excessive stress is like drowning in responsibilities, burnout is feeling all dried up,” he said.
Four stress areas
Since burnout usually creeps up gradually, Case said it is important to recognize and address the symptoms of stress early on. One way of doing that is by “checking in” with yourself on a regular basis.
By this he means looking at the four areas where stress tends to accumulate in humans — thoughts, emotions, body and behaviors. Breaking it into parts can help people identify what’s really happening — for example, thinking “I just want to go home,” or feeling “all clenched and knotted.” Or going home and yelling at the kids when you usually don’t.
Reversing the spiral
In addition to clinical strategies for preventing job and caregiver burnout, Case recommends universal tactics such as eating right, getting enough sleep and making exercise part of your daily routine.
“Acknowledge your own needs and find ways to get them met,” he said. “Poor relationships and isolation can contribute to burnout, while positive relationships can reduce its impact and alleviate feelings of being underappreciated.”
Case also believes you can reverse the spiral into burnout by finding ways to increase your job efficacy.
“It becomes an issue of control,” he said. “The more likely you feel you can affect the outcome, the better chance you have of reversing direction.”
Opportunities to interject creative expression into your work — together with sincere positive feedback — go a long way toward thwarting burnout.
“When you get some return on your investment, it breathes life into things,” he said.