Even the best jobs can lead to burnout. The harder you work and the more motivated you are to succeed, the easier it is to get in over your head. The prevalence of burnout is increasing as technology further blurs the line between work and home, and the condition can get the better of you, even when you have a great passion for your work.
Before you can treat and even prevent burnout, you need to know the warning signs so you can take action. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Health problems. Burnout has a massive negative impact on your physical and mental health. Whether you’re experiencing back pain, depression, heart disease, obesity, or just getting sick a lot, you need to consider the role your work is playing in this. You’ll know when burnout is affecting your health, and you’ll have to decide whether your approach to work is worth the consequences.
2. Cognitive difficulties. Research shows that stress hammers the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive function. Executive function impacts your memory, decision-making abilities, emotional control, and focus. When you notice that you’re making silly mistakes, forgetting important things, having outbursts of emotion, or making poor decisions, you’re likely burning out.
3. Difficulty with work and personal relationships. Stress bleeds over into everything you do, particularly how you interact with people. Even when you feel that you’re keeping your stress under control at work, it can rear its ugly head at home. Often it’s your relationships that suffer. Stress makes many people more likely to snap at others, lose their cool, and get involved in silly, unnecessary conflicts. Others are more inclined to withdraw and avoid people they care about.
4. Negativity. Burnout can turn you very negative, even when you’re usually a positive person. If you find yourself focusing on the downside of situations, judging others, and feeling cynical, it’s clear that negativity has taken hold and it’s time for you to do something about it.
5. Losing your motivation. We begin jobs in a honeymoon phase, seeing everything through rose-tinted glasses. When you’re in this phase, motivation comes naturally. In a burnout state, you struggle to find the motivation to get the job done. You may complete tasks, and even complete them well, but the motivation that used to drive you is gone. Instead of doing work for the sake of the work itself, your motivation stems from fear – of missing deadlines, letting people down, or getting fired.
6. Poor self-care. Life is a constant struggle against the things that feel good momentarily but aren’t good for you. When you experience burnout, your self-control wanes and you find yourself succumbing to temptations more easily. This is largely due to the way that stress compromises your decision-making and self-control and also partially due to lower levels of confidence and motivation.
If you recognize many of these symptoms in yourself, don’t worry. Fighting burnout is a simple matter of self-care. You need good ways to separate yourself from your work so you can recharge and find balance. The following will help you accomplish this.
1. Disconnect. Disconnecting is the most important burnout strategy on this list, because if you can’t find time to remove yourself electronically from your work, then you’ve never really left work. Making yourself available to your work 24/7 exposes you to a constant barrage of stressors that prevent you from refocusing and recharging. If taking the entire evening or weekend off from handling work e-mails and calls isn’t realistic, try designating specific times to check in on emails and respond to voicemails. For example, on weekday evenings, you may check emails after dinner, and on the weekend you may check your messages on Saturday afternoon while your kids are playing sports. Scheduling such short blocks of time alleviates stress without sacrificing your availability.
2. Pay attention to your body signals. It’s easy to think that a headache is the result of dehydration, that a stomachache is the result of something you ate, and that an aching neck is from sleeping on it wrong, but that’s not always the case. Oftentimes, aches and pains are an accumulation of stress and anxiety. Burnout manifests in your body, so learn to pay attention to your body’s signals so you can nip burnout in the bud. Your body is always talking, but you have to listen.
3. Schedule relaxation. It’s just as important to plan out your relaxation time as it is to plan out when you work. Even scheduling something as simple as “read for 30 minutes” benefits you greatly. Scheduling relaxing activities makes certain they happen as well as gives you something to look forward to.
4. Get organized. Much of the stress we experience on a daily basis doesn’t stem from having too much work; it stems from being too disorganized to handle the work effectively. When you take the time to get organized, the load feels much more manageable.
5. Take regular breaks during the workday. Physiologically, we work best in spurts of an hour to an hour and a half, followed by 15-minute breaks. If you wait until you feel tired to take a break, it’s too late – you’ve already missed the window of peak productivity and fatigued yourself unnecessarily in the process. Keeping to a schedule ensures that you work when you’re the most productive and that you rest during times that would otherwise be unproductive.
6. Lean on your support system. It’s tempting to withdraw from other people when you’re feeling stressed, but they can be powerful allies in the war against burnout. Sympathetic family and friends are capable of helping you. Spending time with people who care about you helps you remove yourself from the stresses of work and reminds you to live a little and have fun.
Bringing It All Together
If these strategies don’t work for you, then the problem might be your job. The wrong job can cause burnout in and of itself. In that case, you’ll have to decide what’s more important: your work or your health.