Are you the type of person who jumps into the new year, guns a-blazing, only to find yourself fizzled out a few weeks later? Burnout is real. Here’s how to guard against it.
Whether your resolution this year was to be better at catching burnout before it happens or you’re already toastier than a crouton halfway through January, know this: You are not alone.
We live in a culture where burnout is increasingly becoming the norm, not in the least because the 40-hour workweek that’s supposed to serve as the bedrock of working culture is no more: According to a Gallup poll from 2014, the average US workweek is 47 hours.
And as Paulette Janus, behavioral health specialist and founder of Janus Behavioral Health Services, points out, women in particular pull the short straw here: “The culture of ‘you can do it all’—particularly for women—can lead to having a blindspot for burnout, denying the feeling, or viewing it as a weakness.”
A study conducted by the Society For Human Resource Management found that unfair compensation, unreasonable workload, and too much after-hours work were the leading contributors to burnout. And clearly, it’s not an isolated problem. Dr. Kate Tepper, clinical psychologist at Silver Lake Psychotherapy, notes that “there are certainly tremendous stressors arising from our market-driven culture that thrives on individual competition over more communal values.”
The statistics show it: Compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted. Now, close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work.
But what does that look like in real life? According to Janus, she sees “clients who are experiencing fatigue, insomnia, guilt (feeling as if they are not performing to the level of their expectations or the expectations of others), difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation, using food or alcohol to cope, and physical symptoms such as headaches or increased illnesses.”
And it bears noting that her clients aren’t always coming to her because it was his or her idea: “Clients with burnout come to me because someone in their life, such as a spouse, has encouraged them to do so, because they have been more short tempered or irritable.”
Whatever the case may be, if you’re headed for a burnout, there are a number of measures you can take to circumvent it and check in with what’s really going on.
Check in with yourself
“Just as the airlines recommend putting on your oxygen mask before tending to the person next to you,” says Dr. Tepper, “it’s critical to look after your own personal well-being first and foremost.”
The first step of addressing potential or impending burnout is to take stock of your work situation and your mental health. If you find yourself experiencing an “underlying anxiety about the unknown” or stress about “the internal demands for success, happiness, perfection or ideals,” you might be headed toward a “reactive state of mind: fight, flight, freeze, or faint,” according to Dr. Tepper.
And while that’s obviously not where you want to be, taking the time to address it is essential. “Letting yourself experience this frustration and uncertainty can provide an opportunity to ask questions about what matters most in your life,” she says.
“Self-reflect and identify what is contributing to your burnout.” Then, she says, “Identify what would be helpful to you and realize it is OK to express your needs.”
Communication and collaboration are key, according to Janus. “Assess your work environment and relationship with your manager, as this will determine how open you can be,” she suggests. But, no matter how open or closed they might be, she emphasizes the need to be proactive and address the issues before it’s reached a point of concern and you get called into your managers office to talk.
Janus recommends that if you’re experiencing or anticipating burnout, discuss the particular challenges with your managers and what you need to address them. A key technique in these kinds of conversations, Tepper adds, is “communicating from a place of collaboration” and “being open to the other person’s point of view, as well as voicing your own.”
“After all,” Janus reminds, “if you do not ask, then the answer will always be ‘no.’”
Hit the pause button
Sometimes, literally taking a walk, closing your eyes, or pulling out your headphones can actually make a big difference. “As with many things in life,” Janus explains, “it is often the little things that make the biggest impact.”
“We can’t eliminate stressors,” Tepper adds, “but we want to be thoughtful about the way we relate to them.” When you’re being thoughtful, it requires “a receptive rather than reactive state of mind.” That’s why she suggests smashing that “pause” button when the going gets touch.
Create virtual boundaries
The pressure to always be on can exacerbate a lot of the stressors that lead to burnout. “In this digital age, particularly with email,” says Janus, “I see clients who feel pressure to be constantly available or to respond immediately.”
Thus, it’s imperative to take a break when you need it. And, when you’re still at work, you can still find ways to set boundaries online. “My phone is on ‘do not disturb’ from 10 pm to 8 am,” says Janus. “If I am in the middle of something, I do not answer my phone. That is what voicemail is for. If I am working late on emails, I schedule them to go out the next morning instead of sending them right away because I do not want to give the impression that I am available 24/7.”
Focus on what gives you joy
This is potentially the easiest tip because it’s the most fun. “If you are feeling burnt out at work, focus on what does give you joy,” says Janus. For her clients, these things look like spending time with family, going for a run, taking a yoga class, and reading a book. Her definition of self-care means placing your energy towards activities that nurture yourself.
Tepper recommends these seven essential mental activities for a healthy state of mind, and even suggests play time as a de-stressor.
So whip out that Scrabble board, take yourself to the Dog Cafe, or head to a tennis court. Remember that your whole life isn’t work.
Don’t go it alone
A 2014 study conducted in Britain showed that companionship is the most important thing at work. And a lot of people are missing it.
With this in mind, Tepper suggests that feelings of burnout might be cluing you in to what’s missing in your life. To remedy these feelings, you may be able to start healing what’s missing with the help of a therapist.
Decide whether you’re in the right place
If the feeling of burnout persists, Janus cautions that it might be something bigger: “Ultimately, dealing with burnout may mean big changes such as a new job or even different career.”
A survey of HR professionals found that 95 percent of HR leaders surveyed said employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention. But maybe it’s you who is being sabotaged, not the company.
Unpack the culture of “having it all”
It’s a notion that bears repeating again and again and again: “‘Having it all’ is a myth,” says Janus. Yeah, that might seem disappointing on the surface, but she elaborates: “You can have it all, but not always at the same time.”
This impossible bind that disproportionately affects women has been coined “the double burden,” and it highlights the difficulties faced when you’re expected to be a perfect professional and a perfect family member at the same time.
But as Janus puts it, it’s a matter of recalibrating your priorities, which can feel lopsided at times: “Sometimes you may need to focus on work, other times on family life, and other times on self care. Release the guilt.”