Kelly James thought she wanted to be a lawyer, but after four different law jobs in five years, hoping each position would lessen her unhappiness, she was at a breaking point. "I lived for Friday. I'd count the hours until Friday at five o'clock," she recalls.

After one particularly awful case, "I came home, and I cried for two or three hours straight," James says. Her boyfriend finally confronted her. She remembers, "He said, 'If this job is making you this miserable, why don't you quit?'" So, finally acknowledging that job burnout was jeopardizing her mental and physical health, she did.

James is not alone. Many people feel concerned about work-related stress, which can directly impact job satisfaction and performance.

"Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to stress and physical, mental, and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lower productivity, cynicism, confusion…a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give," says Mark Gorkin, LICSW, a Washington, DC-based expert on stress.

It is a rare employee who has not experienced some on-the-job pressure. Ups and downs are part of the natural cycle of work—and life—but when stress continues, unabated, for extended periods of time, burnout can result.

"Burnout itself is a process. It develops through stages," explains California executive coach and psychologist Sandra Paulsen, PhD. She defines the stages as:

  • Physical exhaustion —having reduced energy to maintain activity level
  • Emotional exhaustion —feeling depressed, hopeless, and helpless
  • Changed perspective on the world —feeling cynical, negative, and irritable
  • Pervasive, global feelings of negativity —feeling that you are doing poorly in all areas of life or feeling that you are not a good person