Burnout Prevention and Treatment
If you think you, a family member, colleague, or friend might be on the road to experiencing burnout, consider whether and to what extent the following 11 warning signs are present.
Three symptoms characterize burnout: exhaustion; cynicism, or distancing oneself from work; and inefficacy, or feelings of incompetence and lack of achievement. Research has linked burnout to many health problems, including hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and substance abuse. Moreover, it can ruin relationships and jeopardize career prospects.
Resolving burnout often requires changes at the job, team, or organizational level. But you can also take steps toward recovery and prevention on your own: Prioritize your health, shift your perspective to determine which aspects of your situation are fixed and which can be changed, reduce exposure to the most stressful activities and relationships, and seek out helpful interpersonal connections.
It’s important to ward off burnout on your team as well: Insist on time for rest and renewal, set realistic work limits, boost your team’s sense of control, provide meaningful recognition, and ask people what help or training they need to succeed.
Heavy workloads and deadline pressures are a fact of managerial life. Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed or stretched thin sometimes? But when relentless work stress pushes you into the debilitating state we call burnout, it is a serious problem, affecting not just your own performance and well-being, both on the job and off, but also that of your team and your organization.
Hard data on the prevalence of burnout is elusive since it’s not yet a clinical term separate from stress. Some researchers say that as few as 7% of professionals have been seriously impacted by burnout. But others have documented rates as high as 50% among medical residents and 85% among financial professionals. A 2013 ComPsych survey of more than 5,100 North American workers found that 62% felt high levels of stress, loss of control, and extreme fatigue. Research has also linked burnout to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety, as well as to increased alcohol and drug use. Moreover, burnout has been shown to produce feelings of futility and alienation, undermine the quality of relationships, and diminish long-term career prospects.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
Most of us have days when we feel helpless, overloaded, or unappreciated—when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may be burned out.
Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first, but become worse as time goes on. Think of the early symptoms as red flags that something is wrong that needs to be addressed. If you pay attention and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent a major breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out.
Physical signs and symptoms of burnout
Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout
Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout
By now you may have a serious illness (heart disease, an autoimmune disorder) or have been in a car accident. To stay marginally functional, you depend on drugs you obtain either from a shrink who innocently believes you’re just depressed or from a man you know only as “Viper.” Nobody likes you. The silver lining? As Hanley writes, “If you do not die during this stage, there is no place to go but up.”
Research burnout on the internet, and you’ll find a trove of helpful hints like “Learn to manage stress!” and “Live life in balance!” This is like hearing a financial manager tell you, “Have several million dollars!”
In contrast, authors like Hanley offer wonderfully detailed instructions. Of course, when you’re burned out it’s hard to read a shampoo bottle, let alone a book. The following abridged advice may help cool the burn.
Ways to help recover from burnout
Ignoring your burnout can affect your career, alienate coworkers and friends, and even lead to mental health issues. You may want to try one or more of the following ways to prevent or address your job burnout so that you can enhance your overall happiness and well-being.
1. Figure out what’s most important to you
Whether you’re reexamining your career goals, your relationships, or any other aspects of your lifestyle, be sure to reflect on what’s important to you. Rethinking and resetting priorities can result in immeasurable life improvements.
2. Seek support
Burnout can be a catalyst for positive change and growth. Seeking the professional help of a licensed mental health counselor can be life-changing. Not only is this an opportunity to break through your burnout, but you can also address the root causes of your discontent and learn better coping skills. Therapy is an excellent way to learn how to deal with stress.
3. Start saying “no”
Arguably the most powerful word in the English language is “no.” Many of us are natural-born people-pleasers who may struggle with setting boundaries, especially when we think we might be disappointing our bosses and peers. The next time you’re asked to take on extra work, empower yourself to say no. That two-letter word is one of the most useful antidotes to burnout.
4. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries is a form of self-care. When you take on work, don’t be afraid to set reasonable boundaries related to time and resources. Ask for help—including extensions of time—when you need it.
5. Practice mindfulness
Learning to practice meditation and mindfulness can help quiet your brain and lull your anxiety. While achieving this state takes some practice, most people find that creating a peaceful space for relaxation and reflection can help with the stresses of daily life, including job burnout.
How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want To
Do something interesting
Instead of concentrating on limiting or avoiding work in your off-hours, Friedman recommends scheduling “restorative experiences that you look forward to.” Making plans to play tennis with a friend or cook a meal with your spouse compels you to “focus on an approach goal — doing something pleasurable — instead of an avoidance goal — not checking email,” he says. “Research shows that approach goals are easier and more enjoyable to achieve.” Studies also indicate that doing an activity you find interesting — even if that activity is taxing — is better for you than simply relaxing. “What you do with your downtime matters,” says Halvorson. Sure, it’s appealing to laze on your couch with a tub of popcorn and a Netflix, but she recommends engaging in something more challenging — like a crossword or game of chess. “Even though it’s difficult, it will give you more energy.”
Take long weekends
Feeling mentally and physically exhausted may also be a sign that “you need to take some time off,” says Halvorson. The break need not be a two-week vacation; rather, she says, when it comes to stress-reduction, “you get a much greater benefit from regularly taking three- and four-day weekends.” While you’re away, though, don’t call the office or check your email. “You need to let go,” she says. “Each of us is a little less vital than we’d like to believe.”
Focus on meaning
If your job responsibilities preclude immediate time off, Halvorson suggests “focusing on why the work matters to you.” Connecting your current assignment to a larger personal goal — completing this project will help you score that next promotion, for instance — will “help you fight the temptation to slack off” and will provide a “jolt of energy that will give you what you need to barrel through that day or the next couple of days,” she says. Be aware, however, that this may provide only temporary relief. “If you’re burnt out from working too hard, you need to stop and take a real break.”