You don't have to choose between staying involved and staying sane; come back from the edge—and make burnout less likely to happen again.

by Darylen Cote


Jane was a wreck. With several PTO fundraisers happening at once, the regular meetings and programs, and a looming school board presentation on the results of a parent survey, she felt completely overwhelmed by her job as PTO president. She found herself snapping at her family over little things. She awoke each morning exhausted, with endless to-do lists running through her head.

When a fundraising committee chair asked a perfectly legitimate question about one of her decisions, she took it as a personal attack. She responded with uncharacteristic anger and tears, followed by chagrin that the incident had so distressed her. Though she recognized that her reaction was out of proportion and apologized, she wondered why she agreed to accept the leadership position in the first place. She certainly didn’t need this pressure.

How did Jane get to this point? What moved her enthusiasm for her parent group and its important work to the edge of anger and helplessness? Jane’s problem has a name and, fortunately, there are steps that she and others who recognize themselves in her experience can take to prevent this kind of situation from recurring.

Coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1980, the term "burnout" grew from an analogy to a building where fire had gutted the inside. The crumbling outside shell of the structure remains, but the inside is burned out. The condition is precipitated when a person’s devotion to a cause, a job, a way of life, or a relationship fails to produce the expected reward. An imbalance exists between the individual’s needs and the rewards derived from the particular job (whether paid or volunteer). The result is overwhelming stress.

Descriptions of burnout typically include these characteristics: fatigue, loss of idealism, emotional numbness, dissatisfaction with one’s accomplishments, pessimism, lowered resistance to illness, and withdrawal from key relationships. Some also include in the definition an inability to concentrate, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Burnout differs from systemic clinical depression in that burnout is situational and can be reversed by changing the job or your approach to it. That’s not to say that simple answers will jump up and smack Jane or her fellow PTO members with lightning intensity.

Caring too Much

The onset of burnout is usually slow and may go unrecognized until the person feels so negative that she begins to resent her work and the people who are a part of it. Ironically, it is a problem born of good intentions and commitment to a particular issue or area, such as children and their education. People try to reach unrealistic goals (like several fundraisers at once!) and end up depleting their energy.

They lose touch with themselves and others as they blame themselves for not meeting the goals, try to work even harder, and push those around them to do the same. In a vicious cycle, working harder only results in further stress and burnout symptoms until the person who once cared very deeply about the PTO and its work no longer cares at all.

The title of Christina Maslach’s 1982 book says it all: Burnout: The Cost of Caring. The very fact that Jane cared so much in the beginning and had such high expectations put her at risk of burnout. At first, because she cared, she worked very hard for the PTO. Her enthusiasm and skills were noticed and respected. More demands were made on her time and energy. She was sought after for committees and eventually accepted a leadership role. She also had a hard time saying no to good ideas. She felt pulled in many directions and did not set priorities.

Like many people, Jane did not pay much attention to replenishing herself. She continued to give and give, going without sleep, cutting back her exercise program, and resorting to many fast-food meals. Eventually, coming close to burnout was the inevitable result of not recognizing the limits of her ability to give without taking care of herself.

Taking Charge

What should a person do when burnout has begun to drain the meaning from her work? As in much of life, striking a balance is easier said than done. Here are a few ways to re-establish a sense of control over your workload, reconnect to why you were enthusiastic in the first place, and restore balance in all the facets of your life.

Establish some long- and short-term goals that are realistic. Write them down. Prioritize them. Goals are an essential part of solving problems. The overall problem of a PTO leader who is burned out is the difference between what is happening and her expectations for what should be happening. A goal is a clear, specific, measurable, realistic statement of what needs to be accomplished to manage the situation or some part of it more effectively. Goals are critical, but plans for achieving a goal need to be flexible enough to adjust to contingencies. Anticipate barriers, and ask yourself: Who can help? What resources are needed and available? What is the time line necessary for the plan? Would the plan actually accomplish the goal? Do you like the plan?

If you have been neglecting your health, change your eating habits and begin to incorporate more exercise.

Of course, this is easy to say and hard to do. But no one can function properly without rest, exercise, and the right fuel. If you concentrate on the long-term rewards and think about how much more energy you have when you practice these self-care steps, achieving goals in this area may become more appealing. Many resources exist for tips on how to prepare fast, nutritious meals for you and your family, as well as information on the benefits and how-to of exercise.

Set aside some time each day for relaxation exercises (10 minutes will do), and allow yourself time to "just be." This is another area that’s easy to skip. We often get so caught up in the "noise" and busy-ness of our lives and our work that we forget to allow time to breathe and let stress drain away. Take the time! Some people call it "wandering time."

Renew your friendships. Rediscover what you have in common with your friends. As you catch up, talk to your friends about your feelings. Don’t keep frustrations and anger bottled up. Your friends can provide a safety valve. They may be able to offer another perspective and help keep you from getting things out of proportion. Avoiding isolation fosters the closeness that can bring new insight and reduce depression.

Analyze how you spend your time. Try to incorporate time management techniques into your life. Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) and First Things First (Covey, Merrill, and Merrill, 1994) offer a unique perspective on how to prioritize the use of your time: Learn to say no when you’re asked to do more than you can handle.

Again, this is easy to say and hard to do. When the cause is as important as the PTO mission, it’s difficult to set limits. But if we don’t learn this skill, burnout is absolutely inevitable.

Learn to delegate responsibility to others. Though it may feel as if projects will not get done if you don’t do them, you are not indispensable. It is true that there is an art to delegation, but it is equally true that if you don’t ask for help, you certainly will not get it.

Find the sense of humor you’ve probably lost. Learn to laugh at yourself and at the situation. In fact, lack of laughter or a sense of fun as you work can be another symptom of burnout. PTO work doesn’t mean having a party at every meeting. But increasing the time for informal chatting or even finding cartoons or other materials to lighten the mood can go a long way toward re-establishing your own enjoyment and that of others.

Learn to recognize when you are driving yourself too hard, why you feel the need to push, and when you are depleting your inner resources.

Balance is the key. Try to sort the essential from the nonessential. You will save time and energy when you focus on your own personal mission and how the work of the PTO connects with that mission. You soon will begin to feel more centered.


# Allan Kenyon 2008-07-18 14:05
Excellent common sense.

Thank you!
# Allan Kenyon 2009-02-18 05:26
Great advice to get and stay in track..

Allan Kenyon
Personal & Business Coach

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