Burnout's weight OTR: Face the facts with these steps to ease adverse impact

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“What state are you in?”

I can’t count how many times over my decades trucking I was asked that question. As we all know, things can change on that score rapidly, sometimes several times in a day. 

But have you ever woken up one day and just felt physically exhausted from the get-go? Well, that can be the state you’re in, too. Maybe it’s on account of long hours the days and weeks prior, break-down freight, maybe you had to throw tarps. Or maybe that exhaustion is welling up from a deeper source. 

I’m here to tell you burnout is real, and can manifest as physical exhaustion brought on simply by repeated or prolonged stress. But it’s mental and/or emotional as well, often related to work, and always stress-related. Difficulties in relationships, romantic or professional, stoke the fires. With the current state of our economy, added days on the road to meet obligations, or trying to do too much at once, boost those stressors rapidly.

Lethargy, depression, cynicism: All are typical manifestations of burnout, when an individual feels out of control of how a job is done, or when the job conflicts with their sense of self. Likewise if you don’t have adequate support on the job or at home, or if personal goals go unmet and you feel undervalued. 

You could face burnout if you don’t, or just can’t, fashion responsibilities to equal your calling, or take a break when you truly need one. Unaddressed, it just gets worse on both physical and mental health fronts -- fatigue, headaches, heartburn or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Some of us turn to food or drug and alcohol use for comfort.

[Related: Driving through depression's dark valleys

"When you put yourself out there and help others with no agenda, the benefits you receive can alter your outlook, and the brain chemistry that underlies it." 

All kinds of work can be taxing, that’s sure, but OTR trucking is unique given its sometimes stress-inducing nature -- from the moment we hit the road to the search for a parking spot at the end of the day. We get that 10-hour break, but life is such for many of us that we won’t entirely shut off for that time. There’s accounting for costs to be done, planning for the next days and weeks and oh so much more.

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If you feel like you are out of fuel before you even start, take steps to ease the adverse effects of burnout and reexamine your work life. Over the years, I have done several things to neutralize the impact. As I’ve suggested before, go off-grid, setting aside communications technology in favor of personal creative projects. Likewise, mindfulness practice and/or meditation can help both physically and mentally. Build new relationships at work or elsewhere in your community at home.

One route toward new interactions that can form the basis for new relationships? Serving others. I cannot fully explain it, but when you put yourself out there and help others with no agenda, the benefits you receive can alter your outlook, and the brain chemistry that underlies it. Having a sense of purpose increases well-being and offers challenges, goal attainment, growth. There is something straightforward about making a difference in the lives of others. It can bring big benefits for your mental outlook on life.

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

Physical exercise can also help, and if you have been using food or other substances to cope, it will get you back on the right track to healthy living.

Chronic stress doesn’t always come from the job, though. Personal relationships can take a toll, and overwhelming feelings of failure dog us, especially OTR and away from home when anchor relationships begin to spiral out of control. Non-work burnout can then filter into your career and increase the stress you face on the road, particularly if you blame yourself or the job for the relationship challenges. 

On top of that, a lot of us OTR aren’t great at asking for help with mental health. But burnout, if left unaddressed, can leave you with a sense of dread about work and increasing irritability or anger. Neither are good to carry with you on the road piloting 80,000 pounds. A diminishing ability to be patient and have compassion or empathy for others generates an uncaring attitude, also known as compassion fatigue.

But you don’t have to feel alone. Data suggests more than half of the working population in the United States has suffered from burnout at one time or another.

Keep an eye out for opportunities to serve, to help others through it, too. Watching someone you care about or work with struggle with burnout can be difficult, but do what you can to be empathic, offer an ear and be an active listener. Encourage self-care, and, if possible, offer to take some of the burden.

If the person you see struggling is looking back at you in the mirror, don’t be hindered by stigma or stereotypes. Burnout can derail careers and relationships -- your loved ones and the work family, so to speak, will greatly appreciate your efforts to help yourself.

[Related: Steer out of the ruts with mindfulness practice]