Burnout: How to recognize it's stoking and steer yourself toward greener pastures

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Updated Feb 16, 2022

We truckers, more than many others, have nothing but time to think. Self-evaluation is a norm, and as I’ve written before, it can also be a barrier to progress when it morphs into a tendency to let the ANTs (or automatic negative thoughts) overpower us during those hours upon hours hauling.

Self-evaluation can be useful, too, of course, whether brought about by basic time to reflect or something more difficult. There’s nothing like conflict in a personal relationship -- breakup, divorce, and the like -- to force someone to take a hard look at their life. Professional conflict, too: that dispatcher, safety director, even shop personnel you just can’t seem to get along with, the guy who always just rubs you the wrong way, creating mistrust.

Additionally, a death in the family might force us to look at the direction our lives are going and contemplate the time lost with those who’ve passed on. Again, time for the trucker comes to the forefront. Time is the one thing we can never get back.

When stress becomes more than the value extracted from the time commitment, burnout can be the result. For some, it’s a very real, and sometime career-ending, element of life on the road. Burnout is distinguished by three main features: a cynicism that leads a mentally exhausted driver to struggles to identify with the work. A feeling of diminished professional ability then follows.

Burnout might result from added work responsibilities, communication breakdown in relationships, a lack of social support or community, and/or poor self-care.

We proceed to burnout in five stages.

The honeymoon phase -- when taking on a new assignment, we experience the initial high of job satisfaction with a burst of energy and creativity or renewed commitment.

Awareness of difficulty over positivity – we see the tough days ahead more than the good ones, creating stress.

Chronic stress – when even the good days are dominated by the stress.

Exhaustion begins to imprison your thoughts.

Habitual burnout – the stage where all of the factors seem to overwhelm, and just why becomes too hard to figure out. Burnout’s mental and physical signs begin to take a toll with a sense of failure or self-doubt, a feeling of helplessness, of defeat, or of being trapped. We become detached and feel alone, losing motivation.

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Attitude toward the work changes dramatically, becoming more cynical, more negative until there is a lack of satisfaction in the job or a decreased sense of accomplishment.

If you have found yourself experiencing these things, you can fix them without totally giving up on your work. You can become more selfish, for instance, learning to say no instead of taking more on at work at every suggestion. Define your job description, and scale back to the basic form of functioning.

Build new relationships at work and in your community. Go off-grid, so to speak, for a time and set the technology aside for more creative personal projects. That is, read a book for enjoyment, pick up a hobby, meditate. As I’ve written about in the past meditation and/or mindfulness practice can be very beneficial to both physical and mental health.

There is perhaps no better way to get out of your own head than helping others through their own issues, handicaps, or shortcomings. Do something meaningful for someone else. Still, keep your task list minimal; don’t take on too much, and really evaluate what you can let go of.

Finally, consider a change of scenery -- for a driver, that can mean a different route, or an extended vacation or time off.

Only you can decide the best course of action, but for the professional driver failing to take action, compromising safety might be the ultimate result, along with declining health long-term. And I’ll say that sometimes, for some people, the only way to fix burnout is to get out. That may require adjusting your priorities, changing companies or hanging up the keys altogether. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.

But be careful. Often, it’s only greener because there is more manure for fertilizer.