Occupational Burnout: When Work Becomes Overwhelming
How to Fight Burnout at Work
If you're feeling stressed out, depressed or over-tired by your job, you may be suffering from work burnout. Performing the same job over a period of years can be mentally and physically taxing on anyone. However, it's possible to overcome this experience with good support, firm boundaries, and a focus on self-care in and out of work.
Identifying and Treating Burnout
Know what burnout feels like.In a nutshell, burnout comes from working to exhaustion. It’s different from being tired: it tends to manifest as a feeling of pointlessness or despair that lasts for weeks or months. If you’re feeling no motivation for a job you used to be passionate about, that’s a reliable sign of burnout.
- Burnout is especially a problem for perfectionists, overachievers, and anyone else who holds themselves to really high standards.
- It’s also common in high-stress or emotional fields, like counseling and some types of nonprofit work.
Know the secondary signs.Burnout starts as emotional exhaustion, but it can very quickly affect your mental and emotional health as well. If you’re concerned about feeling burned-out, keep an eye out for signs of stress. The signs may vary depending on how your mind and body react to difficult situations, but may include some of the following.
- Exhaustion or insomnia.
- Impaired concentration.
- Anxiety and depression.
- Loss of appetite.
- Constant fidgeting.
- Increased susceptibility to illness.
Evaluate your job responsibilities.If you’re feeling burnt-out and assign the blame to your job, look a little deeper. Are you equally exhausted by all your work duties, or does the stress come from a particular area? In some cases, you can relate your burnout to one or two tasks instead of the whole job.
- Are you able to delegate some of the more stressful tasks to spread them around your team? If you only have to perform a particular duty once a week, it may bother you less.
- You may not be able to eliminate every stressful situation that arises at work, but you should still figure out what your stressors and priorities are.
Keep a stress diary.If you're interested in the patterns that lead to your burnout, keep record of them. Every time you feel especially stressed or exhausted at work, write down the date, cause, and effects of your feelings in a specially designated notebook. After you've been doing this for a few weeks, you can look over old entries to see if you recognize any consistencies.
Talk to your doctor.Stress and depression can have profoundly serious effects on your health; they aren’t just “in your head,” and you don’t have to deal with them alone. Check in with your GP about your situation at work. They may be able to help you identify your stress responses and manage them, or they may refer you to a therapist or specialist.
- Therapy can be helpful in managing stress and burnout, whether or not you have an official mental health diagnosis.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, helps you develop workable strategies to respond to stress and anxiety. It is often recommended to those experiencing burnout.
- If therapy doesn't help on its own, you may be prescribed antidepressants.
Coping at Work
Talk to your boss.If your boss is sympathetic, they will want to know that you need support. (Especially if you work in a high-stress field, you will probably not be the first person they have met to suffer burnout.) Depending on your relationship with your boss, you can bring up burnout in a standing meeting, or set up another meeting to discuss it. Focus on creating solutions together, not complaining, and remember that everyone needs support at work at one point or another.
- You may say something like "I've been finding it hard to focus on counseling others, because I continue to think about our students' problems when I go home. Do you have advice about maintaining a good work-life balance?"
- If you're having trouble managing expectations, you may also say "I feel like I'm having trouble managing expectations and accomplishing everything that's expected of me in the time I have. Can we review my job description again and prioritize my duties?
Go to Human Resources.If your burnout is due to an external problem--or if your boss is a contributing factor--you may want to skip talking to your boss and shoot an email to HR instead. Again, it’s important to focus on the problem at hand and at finding ways to cope, instead of just dumping your frustrations.
Manage relationships with peers and employees.Of course, it isn't only entry-level workers who can struggle with burnout: it can happen to those who are managing or working alongside others, as well. The good news is that when you're in a position of power, it can be easier to set boundaries. Express your needs as clearly as possible, and make it a priority to help the folks you manage learn to manage themselves independently.
- If a particular coworker is cramping your style by visiting your cubicle when you are working, bring up your problem when they do it.Say politely but firmly, "I'm working to meet a deadline right now, but I'd be happy to chat with you about that this afternoon."
- If you're struggling with inefficiency in your employees, meet with them and try to work out a time-management plan. This will help them work better without you having to micromanage.
Seek other opportunities within your job.Ask your boss if you can shake things up by focusing on different projects for a while. You can even put in for a transfer or a promotion, or simply a move from one department to another.
- Those facing nonprofit burnout can look into volunteering in a different department. For instance, if you work in development at a refugee resettlement agency, you might find clarity and focus by volunteering to mentor a newly-arrived refugee for an hour a week.
- If you’re looking to apply for a job within the same company, make sure to give your boss a heads-up.
Vary your work routine.If your hands are tied and you have to keep working on the same projects, you can still shake your day up. Check in with your boss about different ways in which you can complete old projects in new ways. A new routine can be a refreshing jolt to your creativity.
- Work from home or a coffee shop if you’re focused on writing or other flexible pursuits.
- If you have to stay in the office, see if you can work in a different room, cubicle, or conference room.
- Do tasks in a different order than you might otherwise.
Focus on your own responsibilities.Your job might be stressful enough on its own; if you feel responsible for other peoples’ workloads, too, that makes your day even harder. If you’re a manager, do your best to strike the balance of making sure your employees get their work done without you doing it for them.
- Don’t feel like you have to say yes constantly. If someone asks you for a favor and you really don’t have time, it’s perfectly fine to tell them that you can’t help at the moment.
- If you have an enormous workload that seems insurmountable, it often really helps to write down all your duties and prioritize them (on paper).Limit this list to your tasks--no one else’s!
Consider taking an extended leave of absence.Some jobs may offer non-paid time off or leaves of absence, which are a wonderful way to get out of the rat race if you’re feeling desperate. If a leave of absence sounds like a relief, check your employee handbook to learn about your organization’s policies.
- In many cases, leaves of absence are unpaid. Make sure you can survive a certain period of time without a steady income.
Look for a new job.Sometimes different responsibilities in a new setting is what it takes to fight work burnout. If you really can’t bear the idea of continuing to work at your organization, consider trying to lock down a different job.
- Be careful if you’re still employed. Depending on your relationship with your boss, you may want to give them a gentle heads-up that you’re seeking new employment.
- When looking for a new job, it’s important to keep in mind what bothered you about your last job, whether that’s long hours or abrasive clients. This way, you know what to avoid.
Taking Care of Yourself
Take short mental breaks.Just as your body would get exhausted if you walked for eight hours without a break, your brain will get tired if you stare at a computer screen all day. Step away from your desk and do something that doesn’t have to do with work. If you’re able to, some experts recommend taking a five-minute power break for every hour and a half of desk work.
- Bring a book or a craft project, like cross-stitch, to refresh your mind.
- Walk around the office or outside.
- If it’s cold or rainy, grab a coffee and head to the break room for a quick respite.
Eat right.A proper diet will keep you physically fit and help you cope with the stress of work burnout. Protein, carbs and fat will keep you energized and awake. Food is also a psychological tool, and looking forward to your lunch might be enough to buoy you through a tough morning. Never underestimate the power of a delicious sandwich to brighten your day.
- Packing lunch gives you control over your diet, and saves money. For best results, assemble your meal the night before work, and bring it to the office with you in the morning.
- Find a healthy deli or diner near your work. It may become a new social hub for you and your coworkers.
- Snack on healthy proteins and fats. Try nuts, string cheese, or even beef jerky.
- Coffee can help, but don’t over-caffeinate. Too much caffeine can give you the jitters, and even exacerbate anxiety.If you’re burnt out, that’s just what you don’t need.
Get some rest.Different people need different amounts of sleep, but many adults have one thing in common: they simply don’t get enough. If you want your mind and body to work as well as they can for you, make time in your schedule to recharge.Eight hours of sleep is the stereotypical golden standard for adults; you may need more or less, but set a sleep schedule and stick to it.
Work out to relieve stress.Many people who are feeling anxious, depressed, or burnt out find that adding exercise to their schedule helps them blow off steam.There are all kinds of sports and workout plans out there--even if you don’t think of yourself as athletic, there’s probably some physical activity (like biking or hiking) that you like.
- Yoga is one of the most well-known exercises for managing mental turmoil. You can start practicing at a gym or studio, but there are plenty of internet resources that will help you do yoga in your own home. Many of them are even based around managing stress.
Plan some time off.If all else fails, get out of the office for a little while. Use your vacation or personal days, and instead of spending them in bed, get out and see the world. Make sure to check in with your boss or HR department to confirm that you’re taking time off correctly.
- Take a weekend trip to a new place.
- Do a staycation with friends and treat your city the way a tourist might.
Socialize outside of work.Despite the way you may feel when you’re in the depths of burnt-out despair, there is life outside your job. Spending time with the people you care about outside of work will remind you of that. If you avoid taking work home with you (when possible), you may find that your home and social life recharge you enough to focus more on work when you’re actually at the office.
- Hang out with your relatives as much as possible. Whether you’re blowing bubbles with your kids or your grandmother, your family’s love can do a lot to ground you.
- Meet a friend you haven’t seen in a while for coffee.
- If you’re having trouble making friends outside the office--maybe you just moved to a new city and don’t know anyone--don’t feel bad. Try joining a meetup group that relates to one of your interests.
- Try not to focus on things you cannot control. If there is an aspect of your job that simply cannot be altered, do your best to focus on the positive tasks.
- Remind yourself why you are at work. Think about your fiscal responsibilities and those who depend on you to bring home a paycheck.
- Keep your work area clean and organized. Reduce clutter. A cluttered desk might make you feel overwhelmed and stressed.
- Refuse to work overtime if it is not mandatory. In some cases the extra money can come in handy, but if you're suffering from burnout at work, try not to spend more time there than you need to.
- Ask if you can work part of the week from home. Even a day or two each week can help.
- Don't skip lunch. Always take the time allotted for your lunch to step away from work and enjoy a mental break.
- Don't take work home with you. Separate work from your personal life and do your best to put work out of your mind while at home.
- Don't eat lunch at work. If possible, go to a nearby restaurant or deli for lunch. A change of scenery, even if just for an hour, can help fight burnout at work.
Video: Dealing with burnout and fatigue- How your brain needs fun and passion in your life.
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