Strategies for Preventing and Recovering from Burnout
Monday’s are the worst, right? Except when every workday is the worst. When the very thought of work causes a physiological response, (your body tightens, your breath shortens, your mind checks out) you’re likely experiencing burnout. And you’re not alone.
Forty-four percent of full-time employees in the United States have reported experiencing burnout at work. It’s become so prevalent that the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated it as an “occupational phenomenon.”
The WHO defines burnout as a disorder resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” For anyone who has experienced burnout, this is a little too simplistic. It’s not just about being stressed out.
I’ve experienced symptoms at several different jobs, but I don’t think I ever endured the full weight of burnout until a few years ago.
I felt possessed. I lashed out at coworkers even when I didn’t want to and I knew they didn’t deserve it. My eyes rolled at the slightest hint of optimism displayed from team members. I found myself devoting too much energy to tasks that didn’t matter or agreeing with decisions I knew were poor simply because I didn’t see the point in arguing over them. It was easier to just agree and move on. I didn’t recognize myself. I had lost control.
Without even knowing what burnout was, I was experiencing the three main, telltale symptoms:
1. Exhaustion, fatigue or feeling as if you must always be “on”
Answering emails at 5 a.m.? Yes. Lying awake at night thinking about a report? Yup. Unable to enjoy a night out because I just knew my boss was going to text me the moment I let my guard down? Oh yeah. I was always on the job.
2. Cynicism, negativity or depersonalization from work
I mentioned the permanent eye-roll, right? If there was an opportunity to complain, I took it. I relished it. It was my favorite pastime.
3. Inefficacy or feelings of inadequacy
Oddly, despite my constant criticisms and round-the-clock work ethic, I was terrified of being fired. Every time my boss scheduled a one-on-one meeting, I was convinced it was my last day. I no longer felt confident in my role.
It’s probably easy to imagine that I was always this way. I’m sure new hires who didn’t know me pre-burnout just assumed I was – well, a jerk. But the person they met was miles away from the person I was when I started. When I began my career, I had graduated at the top of my class and was eager to prove myself. I was over the moon with my first “real” job. It checked all my boxes: a local company that let me be creative and work with non-profits. I thought I had truly made it.
So how did I go from being an overachiever and one of my company’s biggest brand champions to “clocking in and checking out”?
The New York Times identifies 6 contributors to burnout. If your needs aren’t being met, or at least in balance in these six areas, burnout is likely right around the corner:
- Workload – How much are you taking on and in what type of time frame? Is the work challenging enough to keep you interested?
- Control – Do you have the ability to choose the types of accounts you’re prospecting? Are you able to set your own schedule?
- Reward – Does your compensation feel equal to the amount of effort and work you put in? Are there benefits to your job that help you feel valued?
- Fairness – Can you expect to be treated the same as someone else in your position?
- Community – Are there people you can talk to at work? Do you have a support network in the office?
- Values – Do your clients represent your values? Does your agency contribute to charities that support causes important to you?
Essentially, burnout is linked to how much personal agency a worker feels they have within their role and whether or not they feel valued for their work. At the time, none of my needs were being met or in balance within these areas except, maybe community.
While external factors can drive the majority of your burnout, there are things that can be done to prevent fanning the flames.
1. Set Boundaries
If you’re like me, this might be the most difficult piece of advice to take. It means learning to say, “no.” It’s a necessary skill to keep your workload and stress levels manageable.
There’s nothing wrong with saying “yes” at work. It’s a great way to get ahead, but it’s important to take a moment before committing to extra work. First, you need to know your own limits. Do you have the bandwidth to take on more responsibilities? Will your other clients suffer if you take on a new one? Do you have the skills, time and information you need to be successful?
Ask yourself why you want to say “yes”? Is this a great opportunity for you? Are you looking for a new challenge? Or is it because you’re a people-pleaser? Or, as Thrive Global asks, “does it come down to a need to control, and not trusting your colleagues to do a good job if you let them take the lead?” Understanding the reasons behind your desire to say “yes” will help determine if “yes” is really the right answer for you.
In addition to setting boundaries with your workload, it’s important to set boundaries with your time. Yes, being an agent means you have to pull hours outside the usual 8-5, but you still need to set limits and schedule downtime. As one worker who recently experienced burnout told the Harvard Business Review, “Being a good service professional doesn’t mean you have to be a servant. You shouldn’t be e-mailing at 11 at night on a regular basis.”
2. Lean on Your Team
You know the old adage, “There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team’.” Yet, many of us still think being a great team player means shouldering most of the burden ourselves.
Part of knowing your own limits is knowing how to ask for help before you reach your breaking point. Look for opportunities to delegate tasks to others within your agency. If there isn’t anyone you feel comfortable handing clients or tasks off to completely, look for someone who you can mentor or train to do so in the future.
There will be times when you may be tempted to get as many clients as possible to go keep growing your book, but if your plate is already full, look for ways you can “be a team player and contribute value without doing it all”. This can help add balance to your workload and reduce stress while still showing your team that you’re willing to pitch in.
3. Recharge with Self-care
I’ve touched on this a bit above, but it’s worth mentioning again. Downtime is crucial for preventing burnout.
Remember that one of the primary symptoms of burnout is exhaustion. Addressing your body’s basic needs can help you manage stressful situations better. Sleep, diet and exercise all contribute to your energy levels, so it’s worth taking the time to find the right balance of each for your body.
Making time for yourself also gives you the opportunity to find alternate ways of fulfilling the six needs related to burnout. If watercooler chat isn’t cutting it for your community needs, schedule some time with friends. If your company’s values aren’t aligned with yours, look for volunteer opportunities that speak to you and fill that void.
How I Recovered from My Burnout
At my former company, we had “Lunch and Learns” where one person (usually me) would attempt to teach the rest of the team what they do and why it’s important to the company overall. I tried to make these painless for my coworkers by adding as many doodles, analogies and jokes as possible. (But, looking back honestly, it was probably filled with as much sarcasm, anger and frustration as a Lewis Black set.)
My boss, who was usually too busy to attend these lunches, happened to be at one where I made the “joke” that I could use an intern. To my surprise, a month later I was overseeing an intern, Sam.
Sam was shy, but I could tell she was eager to learn. She wasn’t bubbly, but she was hopeful. Maybe it was because she looked up to me as a teacher, but I couldn’t just roll my eyes at her optimism. I couldn’t just dismiss her.
Instead of complaining to Sam, I forced myself to change my perspective. Teaching Sam made me slow down and focus on the basics – the work itself. I showed Sam how to do things the right way, and why it was important not to cut corners. In doing so, I remembered why I enjoyed the work in the first place. As Sam learned, she was able to take on more responsibility, reducing my workload and finally letting me breathe.
At the same time, managing Sam allowed me to feel as if I had agency in my work life. I might not have had control over my own workload, but I had control over hers. I couldn’t control how clients spoke to me, but I could control how I spoke to Sam. My overall work conditions didn’t change, but I managed to find fulfillment through unexpected means, and you can too.
In my case, becoming a mentor helped me win the battle against burnout, but it might take a different approach for you. What’s important is to find what works best for you and most fulfills your needs.
Have you experienced burnout? What strategies have you used to recover?
The temptation to lounge around and work with your laptop can be enticing, but you might want to ditch the comfy furniture for a desk and chair.
Work/life balance has toppled for many. Living in this new reality only makes taking time off even more crucial to maintaining your well-being.