Burnout: Foe or Friend?

It was 5:30 in the morning and I was awake already. My night was not sleepless or full of nightmares. This was just my routine, waking up early to think about work. I had a lot of trust in the organization I worked for and didn’t want to fail my supervisor, but I was working late nights and weekends. I struggled to keep up with the busy work environment and more responsibility than I can handle. I was rapidly burning out.

Workplace burnout is more than mere tiredness, and it goes beyond the ordinary stress of everyday work. Burnout is characterized by chronic exhaustion and strong feelings of frustration and powerlessness. Those suffering from burnout tend to withdraw emotionally from their work, lose motivation, and become less productive. Studies also link burnout to numerous emotional and physical health problems.

What causes burnout? Work overload is often a factor. Pressing deadlines and low staff capacity may compel some supervisors to demand that employees work longer hours and do tasks beyond their job descriptions.

Technology keeps some employees in constant contact with their job, blurring the lines between work and private life. For some, job insecurity, lack of control over their work, or feelings of being treated unfairly contribute to burnout. So does dealing with unclear priorities or conflicts with coworkers.

Burnout can also be self-inflicted. In the pursuit of career goals and promotion to higher positions, some try to fit ever more work into their life. Such employees may become over-committed and quickly find themselves on the road to burnout.

If you are experiencing workplace burnout like I once did, how can you recover? Change may seem impossible if you feel trapped in circumstances beyond your control. Nevertheless, the following three secret ingredients are critical for dealing with burnout. You may have more options than you realize.

1. SET YOUR PRIORITIES

What is most important to you? Many people would likely put family relationships and good health near the top of their list. These are things that are likely to suffer if you are burned out.

By clarifying your priorities, you prepare yourself to make difficult decisions and accept trade-offs. For example, you may see that your work is leading to burnout. Yet you may reason, “I cannot change jobs or work less; I need the income!” True, everyone needs income, but how much and at what cost to the things you value most?

Beware of pressure to adopt the priorities of others around you as your own. Your supervisor’s priorities and yours are likely different. Others may choose to put work first in their life, but this does not mean that you must do the same. Your life is the most precious thing you ever owned, so think twice before you engage yourself in a disproportional trade-off.

2. LEARN WHEN TO AND HOW TO SAY NO TO WORK

If you face an unrealistic workload or some other persistent problem in your workplace, discuss your situation with your supervisor. Whenever possible, offer solutions that meet both your needs and those of your supervisor as well as those of your organization. Reassure your supervisor of your commitment to your work, and explain what you are willing to do, but be clear and firm about what you are not able to do. Everyone has limits — we are humans after all.

Use foresight and be realistic. Work to build trust, and then start an open conversation. The threat of job loss and negative feedback are not pleasant, but if they come your way be prepared to respond in a way that doesn’t jeopardize your career.

Even when you have reached a mutually agreeable work arrangement with your supervisor, you can expect to be pressured again to take on more work. What can help you to remain firm? Keep to the commitments that you have made. Doing so might give you leverage to ask your supervisor to do the same in return, thus keeping your workload within the agreed limits.

3. RELAX YOUR BODY & MIND

Even when your work is free of major problems, you may still have your share of stresses, difficult people, and unpleasant situations. So make time for sufficient rest and balanced recreation. Remember that recreation does not have to be expensive to be refreshing to you. Physical exercise is beneficial to your health.

You may also consider cultivating interests and friendships apart from your work. Avoid defining yourself by the type and amount of work that you do. If your identity and self-worth come primarily from your work, then you will find it difficult to minimize the role that work plays in your life and find it hard to easily interact with others.

Do some research for what can really be beneficial to your life as well as on how you can keep yourself growing in a busy working environment. And remember that you can only work when you have a healthy life, so take time to do what it takes to keep it healthy.

In my current job, I’ve used these tips to effectively handle the pressure and avoid burnout. Can you really make the changes needed to prevent burnout? Or if you are already riding on this road, can you take control and turn the situation around? Yes, you can! And remember: the only bad failure is to fail to act when you really have to! Taking action and making a chance can bring joy and contentment, so I urge you to get started today!


Emmanuel Twagirayezu is a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow at CARE International Rwanda.

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