Blowing Out the Burnout

Retired Lamb County District Attorney Mark Yarbrough discusses how to wave goodbye to burnout during TAC's County Management Institute

 
Everywhere a person goes, a silent predator lurks in the shadows, waiting to steal away bit by bit those things that matter most: the love of life, the motivation to achieve, the ability to care about just about anything. 
This monster is called burnout, and newly retired Lamb County District Attorney Mark Yarbrough knows it well. For six years, from 2005-2011, he suffered from burnout: the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive, long-term stress. 

The symptoms of burnout are similar to the symptoms of depression. Both are characterized by disinterest, withdrawal and fatigue. Burnout is often accompanied by feelings of failure, self-doubt and helplessness, while depression may include thoughts of hopelessness or suicide. But medically, the two are polar opposites: depression is linked to high levels of the hormone cortisol, while burnout is linked to low cortisol levels. Treatment for depression might involve anti-depressants that would aggravate burnout; burnout ends through positive lifestyle changes.

“The symptoms of burnout are chronic fatigue and then all these –isms. Negativism, cynicism, self-criticism,” Yarbrough said, speaking at TAC’s County Management Institute. He described his own symptoms: he was mad all the time, tired all the time. He didn’t care what happened anymore; he just felt worn out. Everything seemed duller. He felt like nothing he did mattered or made a difference and that other people just didn’t care what he did or what he said. He stopped taking on new responsibilities and started working late so he wouldn’t have to interact with so many people during the day. “My office staff called me the night crew,” he said. 

Many people with burnout try to cope by turning to food, alcohol or drugs. They come into work late, leave early, or just skip it altogether, he added. 

Burnout affects millions of people: teachers, preachers, police, doctors, nurses, caregivers, attorneys. 

“Burnout doesn’t discriminate,” Yarbrough said. “The main people that get burnout are people that help other people.” 

For Yarbrough, the burnout had started after a terrible tragedy following Christmas in 2004, and it was exacerbated by a long federal trial that lasted years. 

“It’s crazy. 2004 had been a really great year for me. I’d just finished 12 years in office, I’d just been elected to my fourth term,” Yarbrough said. His college-aged son was home for Christmas and his 16-year-old daughter Ashley had given him the craziest Tommy Hilfiger tie she could find as a gag Christmas present, which he promptly returned to the store, 50 miles away from his home. Life was good.

But Ashley was on the basketball team, and Dec. 28 was game day. The two talked about her competition — “This team you’re playing is really aggressive,” Yarbrough told his daughter — and Ashley drove to the game early to warmup. 

“That was the last thing I ever say to Ashley,” Yarbrough said. On the way to the basketball game, Ashley’s car rolled over, killing her. 

There was no obvious reason for the accident. Ashley hadn’t been speeding, drinking, texting or talking on her cell phone. There was no traffic. “She wasn’t doing anything wrong and nothing should have happened, but it did,” Yarbrough said, adding that he drove by the scene on the way to the game. “I can remember running to Ashley. Still today, eight years later, I will wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, in the middle of the day sometimes, and I’m right there. I’m there. I can feel my heart, I can feel my feet moving toward her.”

Yarbrough got that Tommy Hilfiger tie back from the store.

Just weeks later, a case that Yarbrough had prosecuted back in 1996 sprung back to life. In 1996, a convenience store clerk named Evangelina Cruz, a wife and mother of four children, was working when two men came in and shot her nine times to steal the $297.66 from the cash register drawer. Yarbrough helped prosecute the suspects, 22-year-old Alberto Sifuentes and 48-year-old Jesus Ramirez. They were both found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. But in 2005, defense lawyers in the case filed an affidavit with the court that essentially said they hadn’t done a good job. Eventually, their convictions were overturned. The attorneys sued the Texas Rangers, the police department, the county, and Yarbrough personally for $24 million in federal court. The lawsuit lasted years, wrapping up with a six-week trial in 2011. The plaintiffs lost, but Yarbrough was exhausted from the ordeal.

His burnout symptoms grew. At the time, Yarbrough knew something was wrong but not what it was. He went to counseling for depression. He fasted. He prayed. 

And then one night in December, Yarbrough woke up with an epiphany. “It was like God speaking to me,” he said. The epiphany was that he’d been suffering from burnout and he knew what to do about it: he was going to give burnout the F.I.N.G.E.R. and help others do it, too. He started writing a book and finished the first draft in just 10 days. Now, the book has five-star reviews on Amazon.com and Yarbrough is giving lectures across the state and elsewhere on burnout.

“To me, it was like a calling. This is what I was supposed to be doing,” Yarbrough said. “It saved my life.”

Here’s how to give burnout the F.I.N.G.E.R.:

F — Fun. Find ways to laugh and make others laugh. Watch YouTube videos, search for jokes, buy gag gifts — whatever tickles that funny bone, do it, because the cost of not laughing is too high, Yarbrough said, adding that it’s important not to take mistakes too seriously.

I — Important.  Focus on the three most important things in life: family, friends and faith. Work, while necessary, can be replaced or tweaked or changed, while family, friends and faith are the foundations of life. Fortunately, Yarbrough said his son, Alex, always finds creative ways to make him remember what’s important and what’s not, such as one April Fool’s Day prank when Alex posted on the website Craigslist that his father was selling tickets to a big Final Four game. All day long, Yarbrough received texts and phone calls about the ad, and now he still gets a laugh from it. “You don’t go to a lot of funerals where people say, ‘Man, he just wished he could’ve worked a lot more Sundays,’” Yarbrough said. 

N — Notes. It’s important to keep meaningful notes in a special spot so that they can be read and re-read when times get tough, Yarbrough said. “If somebody sends you a Facebook message, ‘thanks so much for what you did for me,’ keep that note. Because when you’re going through burnout, you need to be able to have those notes and be able to look back and say, you know what, I did make a difference to somebody, somebody did appreciate something I did, it was helpful to somebody,” he said, adding that notes can be from family, friends, coworkers, residents: as long as they are uplifting, thankful or funny, they should be kept. “We’re so lucky. Ashley wrote notes for everything,” he shared. “Put them in a jar, put them in a shoe box. … Those notes mean more to me than anything.”

G — Giving back. When people suffer from burnout, one of the best ways to get outside themselves is to volunteer and do community service, Yarbrough said. “When you’re going through burnout, it’s all about you. It’s all about how bad I have it,” Yarbrough said. “If you start giving back to others, it shifts that emphasis.”

E — Escape. Find a happy place. Pray. Read. Nap. Listen to music. Exercise. Go skydiving. Visit a water park. Swim with sharks. Or pigs. Have an adventure. And if none of those things can be done, Yarbrough recommends finding a picture that brings a rush of positive memories and plastering it everywhere it can be posted: on your phone, your desktop, your car. “A photo were you can just look at it and it will take you to that moment,” he said, adding that his photo is of his feet on the beach in Jamaica. It’s also important to use vacation days, he said, whether the day is spent actually on vacation or relaxing and watching Redbox videos. “In 2011, Americans gave up 226 million vacation days,” he said. “You cannot afford to do that.”

R — Remember. Remember that things aren’t so bad. Things are pretty good. Living in America, most people have clothes, cars, houses, food. Be grateful and remember that no job, no life, is perfect. “I know you may have to put up with a lot of crap, but how about the lady that has to follow the elephant around at the circus?” Yarbrough said.