Battling Professional Burnout
Ten years ago, Robert Loiseau’s life unraveled.
“I am a lawyer, but at the time I was running a business of which I was a principal, doing management consulting services on troubled businesses,” Loiseau explained. “It’s stressful when you are appointed by a court or hired by somebody to go in and take over a company. You have to fire people; you have to do unpleasant things—even shutting the company down. That takes a toll.”
Although Loiseau had struggled with mental illness for the majority of his life, the stress of his job compounded with the collapse of his 25-year marriage in the early 2000s, open heart surgery in 2005 and a cancer diagnosis in 2006, was more than he could handle. He started to have suicidal thoughts.
“I was just tensed up,” Loiseau recalled. “It was hard to go to work, it was hard to be productive at work because of the pressures all around. The pressure of running a business, making a payroll, bringing in new business, taking over a business, dealing with personnel issues—and that’s just the business side of it. Talk about the personal side: you’re divorced, you’re single. It’s draining.”
Through his therapist, Loiseau learned about a professional burnout program at The Menninger Clinic. In a moment of desperation, he reached out.
“When I called, they said they had to check to see if they had a bed available,” Loiseau said. “My heart sank. A few minutes later they came back on and said they did have a bed for me. I packed up a few things, went to Menninger and stayed for eight weeks.”
Downstream of burnout
Menninger’s Professionals Program serves high-performance business personnel who are struggling to manage their careers and relationships because of stress, addiction or psychiatric disorders.
“We get our patients usually downstream of burnout, but burnout is not a psychiatric diagnosis yet,” said Robert Albanese, M.D., program director of Menninger’s Professionals Program. “That means we don’t have specific diagnostic criteria that have been statistically validated.”
Yet there are certain traits that these patients manifest time and time again: exhaustion, cynicism, detachment and a lack of a sense of professional achievement—the feeling that you are spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere professionally, Albanese said.
“Medicine, law and business make up 80 percent of our patient population,” he added. “Overwork has a certain mystique in these fields and people tend to praise you for it. … That lends itself to not being mindful. Sometimes, I observe to patients that they have sacrificed their relationships on the altar of their careers. There is a lot of pressure to do that—not only from the hierarchy of your career, but also your internal motivation to achieve and also your family’s lifestyle—the big boat and the big house.”
When Loiseau checked into Menninger, he had been self-medicating with prescribed Xanax and alcohol.
“My dual diagnosis was and remains major depression and generalized anxiety disorder,” Loiseau said. “The anxiety disorder piece of it is what you notice first. By anxious, we are talking about waking up in the morning with a knot in the pit of your stomach and not knowing whether or not that knot will go away. Having panic attacks,sweating profusely, shaking, no appetite, just about unable to function. And this continues today, very irregularly, but there are times it still happens to me. You feel bad to begin with, and then on top of that, your body is reacting this way—jittery and anxious.”
The Professionals Program includes individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, pharmaceutical therapy and exercise.
“The Professionals Program is a matrix and we individualize by diagnosis with the patients,” Albanese said. “We believe that a healthy body is a healthy brain is a healthy mind. Our patients have access to a personal trainer once a week, we have a chaplain service and an internal medicine team that the whole campus uses and they help manage our patients’ health.”
During his stay at Menninger, Loiseau shared a semi-private room and immersed himself in the healing process. He learned new coping techniques, including exercise, meditation, yoga, and the importance of telling somebody when you’re suffering.
“You’re in a very safe environment when you are in a place like that. You don’t have to worry about feeding yourself; you have a structured day,” he said.
Learning to be mindful
After completing his treatment, Loiseau went back to work.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” he said. “You have to not only reintegrate as the president of the company, but also do substantive work. And I picked a task that had a hard deadline; it had to be done and filed with the court. I did it and it was so painstakingly slow and difficult. Years earlier, I could have knocked it out in an hour. It took days, but I finished it.”
By the end of 2010, Loiseau was burned out again. Only 57, he was too young to retire, so he made a career change and started working for nonprofits.
Although he is still fragile, Loiseau is in a much better place than he was when he checked into Menninger a decade ago. He has remarried and currently serves as the president and CEO of the Non-Profit Housing Corporation of Greater Houston, which offers affordable housing to seniors, veterans, the homeless and individuals with special needs in the Houston area.
While it may be impossible to find complete satisfaction at work all the time, Albanese recommends taking note when exhaustion or cynicism creeps up.
“Part of the way to avoid burnout is to be mindful,” Albanese said. “Being a good steward to one’s psychological resources requires monitoring those resources and noticing if you are getting irritable, cynical or feeling disconnected from people, feeling like you’re less effective at work. This is something that we don’t do as physicians, attorneys and executives. We are not good at that, but we have to learn to be good at it so that we don’t get burned out.”