Is your first thought when your alarm goes off each morning — “Oh no, not again?”
When you finally roll out of bed, down a cup of coffee, and make it to your desk, even the simple task of opening your email inbox seems like a feat of superhuman strength. You struggle to focus, you’re increasingly irritable toward your team members, and you can’t muster up any enthusiasm about your daily work tasks.
If this sounds all too familiar, there’s a reason: you’re burnt out. But you? Burnt out? You keep writing these indicators off as normal work stress. After all, your job isn’t always a walk in the park—that’s why you take home a paycheck.
Unfortunately, you’re far from alone. In our hustle-obsessed culture, burnout has become a widespread epidemic.
A recent Deloitte survey found that 77% of respondents have experienced burnout in their current job, and in May of 2019, the World Health Organization included burnout as an occupational phenomenon in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
But, despite these alarming facts, this constant state of exhaustion and overwhelm is still somewhat normalized. You wear busy as a badge of honor, and often ignore the early indicators that you're careening straight toward burnout town.
So, how can you tell if you’re actually burnt out? And more importantly, what can you do about it? Let’s dig into what you need to know so that you can kick that feeling of dread to the curb and reignite some excitement about your work (and life).
What Is Burnout?
There’s a seemingly fine line between some normal work-related anxieties and full-blown burnout, and it’s true that the two are closely related.
“Work stress that is not mitigated and supported becomes burnout—just as putting your body through stress will eventually lead to illness,” explains Dr. Emily Anhalt, psychologist, co-founder, and chief clinical officer of Coa.
Burnout is way more than a bad day or a groan-worthy project. It’s a persistent feeling of disinterest, disdain, hopelessness, and fatigue in regards to your work life.
Psychologist Christina Maslach, a professor at UC Berkeley, states that burnout consists of three distinct components:
- Exhaustion: You’re wiped out emotionally, physically, or cognitively (or all of the above). Even rest or sleep don’t help you feel replenished.
- Cynicism: You bring a sour attitude to the office each day. You aren’t engaged with your work, and you often feel irritated, short-tempered, and detached from your team.
- Inefficacy: You feel like you can never keep up with the demands of the workplace, despite the fact that you know you were skilled at doing so in the past.
Recognize yourself in one or all of those indicators? Resist the temptation to beat yourself up—this isn’t all on you.
“Conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity,” says Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, psychologist and leadership development expert who is writing a book for McGraw Hill titled The Burnout Fix.
“According to this perspective, people are the problem. However, extensive research suggests otherwise. A big contributing factor is a social environment in which a person works in.”
That’s right. You aren’t at fault for the root cause of your burnout (we promise!). However, you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to fixing the issue.
5 Different Ways To Deal With Burnout
Alright, so maybe your loved ones, colleagues, and inner conscience are right and you really are inching toward burnout territory. What can you do about it?
Taking a vacation or a brief break from work is oft-repeated advice. It’s well-meaning, but it’s really just a band-aid on a bullet wound. In fact, some research indicates that the average vacation actually offers no improvements in people’s levels of energy or happiness upon returning to work, especially if there’s stressful travel involved.
If you’re truly dealing with burnout, it’s going to take more than a few days with your toes in the sand to patch things up. You need to change your circumstances, otherwise that time off will just be a momentary pause from reality—and you’ll end up back exactly where you started.
How do you make that happen? Here are a few tactics to try.
1. Own The Problem
I’ll spare you the clichés about how the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. You get it.
But, when it comes to your working life, you tend to avoid assigning labels and shoulder a lot of the burden. You may convince yourself that if you can just rearrange the pieces correctly, wake up a little earlier, or focus a little harder, everything will be better tomorrow.
That’s hardly ever the case. Working harder won’t fix anything, and it certainly won’t kick burnout to the curb. If anything, you’ll just pile more stress onto your already overflowing plate.
Instead, addressing this issue is going to require conscious changes to your attitude, workload, and habits. Recognizing that you need to make those changes is the most important first step in banishing burnout. Exactly how you do that will be personal. Maybe you need to journal about the problem and your typical response that you’d like to adjust, or perhaps you want to talk it out with a friend over coffee.
Don’t be afraid to try a few different things to find what works for you.
2. Learn How To Mentally Detach From Your Work
Maybe you pack up and clock out each day at 6PM. But, do you ever really leave work? Or are you just changing scenery?
You might exit the office, but constant connectivity makes it harder than ever to truly leave work behind. A reported 81% of U.S. employees check their work email outside of normal working hours. And, a Gallup study found that many employees are working well over 40 hours per week.
It’s no wonder you’re exhausted—life can feel like it’s a hamster wheel of constant professional to-dos and obligations, with almost no breaks.
Rather than a one-off vacation, you need to learn how to be better about mentally detaching from your work when your day is done. Research shows that being able to do this on a consistent basis actually makes us more resilient in the face of stress, as well as more productive and engaged when we’re on the clock.
So, how do you make this happen? There’s no one right answer for everybody.
Maybe it means coming up with an end-of-day routine (like clearing the coffee mugs off your desk and making your to-do list for the next day) that helps you transition from “work mode” to your personal life. Or, perhaps you want to be so bold as to remove your work email account from your phone so you aren’t tempted to check it (or at least turn off the notifications!).
Don’t be afraid to try some different strategies out and find what works for you. It’ll take a little getting used to (and guilt might creep in), but your brain will be grateful for the much-needed rest time.
3. Have The Hard Conversations
Sometimes it’s not your attitude or habits that need to change—it’s your workload itself. The American Institute of Stress reports that workload is the number one cause of workplace stress, with 46% or respondents pointing to that issue.
If you’re spread too thin, burnout is going to continue to happen unless you reduce your task list to something more reasonable.
Obviously, you can’t always drop items off your to-do list on your own, especially if you work on a team. You’ll need to approach your supervisor to have a candid discussion about the fact that you’re feeling overworked and that you would like their support and guidance in adjusting your workload.
Come prepared to that meeting with a list of your current obligations and duties, and clearly explain to your boss that you’d like to either delegate some of those responsibilities or identify which ones should be prioritized when you’re unable to tackle them all.
Be concrete about what your desired plan of action would be, so that you aren’t presenting your manager with a completely open-ended issue of, “I’m overworked, please help!”. Plus, that’ll increase your chances of getting what you need out of that meeting.
This type of discussion can be nerve-racking, and it’s totally normal to have some concerns about coming off as a lackluster, unmotivated, or whiney employee. However, remind yourself that proactively discussing this with your boss is far better than the alternative of completely burning out and becoming totally disengaged with your work.
4. Practice The Art Of Doing Nothing
“Nowadays, many of us aren’t comfortable with doing ‘nothing’, being still, or pausing,” explains says Dr. Jiménez. “Instead, we either engage in compensatory leisure (going out to a club or drinking to blow off steam) or spillover leisure (going home, collapsing on the couch, binging on Netflix while mindlessly scrolling your social media feed).”
Guilty as charged? Thought so. “Unfortunately, these types of leisure do not necessarily offer physiological and psychological replenishment,” Dr. Jiménez adds.
One of the best things you can do for that brain of yours is, well, nothing at all. That’s right—enjoy some dedicated quiet time when you can sit and focus on your breathing or, as The New York Times recommends, mindlessly gaze out a window.
If that sounds far too strange for you to get used to, Dr. Jiménez recommends that you at least take stock of the activities that truly replenish you and integrate those into your life on a consistent basis. Even something as simple as taking your dog on a hike will do a lot more to recharge you than scrolling through Instagram for the 18th time today.
5. Track How You’re Doing Over Time
Your day gets busy (heck, that’s why you’re burnt out), which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for self-reflection. It’s not often that we check in with how we’re feeling—we just keep our heads down and keep powering through.
That’s exactly how burnout manages to sneak in like an unwanted house mouse.
“Burnout is not an 'on and off' switch. Burnout is actually very insidious; it creeps up on you slowly but surely over time,” says Dr. Jiménez.
Needless to say, it’s important to practice being more in tune with your emotional state. “It is much easier to prevent burnout than to fix it,” says Dr. Anhalt. “People should not wait until they’re completely exhausted to [practice] self-care.”
Dr. Jiménez says she likes to equate it to a gas tank. “We know when we’re in the green, when we’re half full, and when the tank is running low,” she says. “The trick is monitoring your wellbeing to ensure your proverbial gas tank is staying in the green.”
She recommends setting some time each week to track how you’re doing in the core three components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. You could do this in a journal, a Trello board, or even an app that’s specifically designed for tracking your mood (here are a few options!).
“If one area feels lower than the others, it gives you space to pause, reflect, and address the potential causes,” Dr. Jiménez adds.
Are You Ready To Banish Burnout?
Dealing with burnout isn’t a treat, and it’s easy to think that time or a vacation will be the answer. In reality, dealing with burnout requires way more than a few days spent out of the office.
Think of it this way: if your desk is messy when you leave for a vacation, it’s more than likely still going to be that way when you get back, right? That same concept applies to feeling burnt out. A momentary break doesn’t actually change your circumstances.
The good news is that you aren’t totally powerless here (even if you feel like you are). Use this as your realistic guide to beating burnout, so you can get back to tackling your work days with a feeling of enthusiasm—rather than dread.
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