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Burnout in the workplace isn’t uncommon, and it’s not pleasant, either. Data from the American Institute of Stress suggests that 80 percent of U.S. workers feel stressed out about their jobs, with 40 percent in roles that are “very” or “extremely” stressful.
People in high-intensity jobs, like those in the medical profession or law enforcement, are particularly prone to burnout, but they’re by no means the only ones who suffer from it. Across the professional spectrum, burnout can be caused by any number of factors: Long hours, conflicts with management, and overall job frustration are just some of the things that can leave any worker feeling like they’re on the brink of mental, emotional, or physical collapse.
“If you’re noticing, ‘I’m working hard and really long hours but accomplishing a lot less than I used to,’ that’s a red flag.”
The easiest cure is also the most obvious: Take some time off. Going on a trip or setting aside a few days at home to refresh can temporarily reset your stress clock. But not everyone has the vacation days or financial means to make an escape, so you may need an alternative way to fight off the job scaries. Here are some ways to get yourself back on track when you can’t get away.
Recognize the Signs
The first step toward treating burnout is recognizing it for what it is. “There are three big signs of burnout,” says psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. The first, emotional exhaustion, “is exactly what it sounds like: a sense of being drained and unmotivated and tired, both physically and psychologically. It gives you the sense of moving through mud.”
Another symptom is something called depersonalization, or “a substitution of characteristics for an actual person,” Hendriksen says — for example, “nurses might start to refer to a patient as ‘the heart attack in Room Eight,’ or a psychologist might refer to a client as ‘that OCD guy.’” You stop seeing the people you work with as people and instead start to see them as burdens, which builds up a mounting sense of resentment.
The last big sign of burnout, Hendriksen says, is losing the ability to focus. “[It’s] basically taking more time and energy to accomplish less,” she says. “If you’re noticing, ‘I’m working hard and really long hours but accomplishing a lot less than I used to,’ that’s a red flag.”
Burnout, in many ways, feels similar to depression. But while the two share many traits, burnout tends to be more situational than depression’s all-encompassing state of gray. “If people feel like an anvil has landed on them at work but perk up at their soccer league or cooking class, then it is likely not depression,” Hendriksen says. “Depression colors every area of life, but burnout can be more job-specific. It bleeds over, but there is some contrast.”
Start With the Physical
It sounds like an old cliché, but sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition can do wonders for your mood and stress levels.
Unfortunately, burnout can cause you to swap out good habits for bad ones, which creates a vicious cycle. “Take an inventory of how much you might be drinking, or how much sleep you’re getting, or how much screen time you’re consuming, to try to make over any bad habits that have crept in because you’re feeling sluggish or unmotivated,” Hendriksen says. “It’s really easy to let job burnout and resentment turn into a ‘what the hell’ attitude when it comes to our personal habits.” It can be tempting to mitigate unhappiness at work with lots of boozy happy hours and midday candy breaks, but the physical benefits of eating and sleeping well outweigh the temporary burst you’ll get from short-term fixes.
You should also try to cut down on screen time once you clock out, especially if you have a job that already requires a lot of screen time. The blue light emanating from your phone and computer can mess with your circadian rhythms, making it harder for you to fall asleep and leaving you feeling slightly jet-lagged. Screens can also cause eye strain, leading to headaches and increased feelings of fatigue. Consider swapping out your Netflix binges for time with friends, long walks, or other activities that keep you away from electronics for at least a few hours.
Restructure Your Work Habits
Robert Taibbi, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of several books on mental health, says it’s important to suss out how your specific workplace habits might be affecting your happiness. “It’s about looking at your personality,” Taibbi says. “What does your job require? How much into control are you? Do you have a hard time delegating and getting help on things? Do you get obsessed because you tend to be perfectionistic?” If you tend to procrastinate, for instance, endlessly battling last-minute deadlines might be the root of your burnout. If you feel like you’ve taken on too much but don’t want to assign tasks to others, maybe that’s what’s causing your issues.
Alter these habits accordingly, either on your own or with the help of a manager. For instance, at a former blogging job, I started to have trouble finishing posts before the end of the day. Though I was super productive in the morning, I’d lose focus after lunch and struggle to make up for lost time through the afternoon. My boss and I restructured my schedule so I’d log on from home a little earlier in the morning, file a couple posts, and then come in. That schedule allowed me to take advantage of my most productive hours and also broke up my day, so that by the time I came into the office, I wasn’t restless from feeling like I’d been sitting at my desk for too long.
“It’s about looking at your personality. How much into control are you? Do you have a hard time delegating and getting help on things?”
Hendriksen says it’s helpful to envision your perfect work environment, then take small, realistic steps to bring your reality closer to what you’re picturing. “People can fundamentally love their job and know they’re in the right field, but they might be overworked,” she says. “Perhaps you can try to justify an assistant. If you’re dealing with a long commute, perhaps you can work from home a few days a week. Work strategically to align your ideal workplace environment and duties with the actual one.”
Diversify Your Life Outside the Office
If work has started to drain your energy, Hendriksen says it’s important to identify activities that replenish it and focus on those activities in your off-hours. Socializing with friends is generally considered a good antidote to the drudgery of a working day, but if that doesn’t lift you up, perhaps you’d prefer to spend your off-hours reading a good book, or cooking, or taking a Spanish class.
Just make sure it’s something you want to do and not something you think you should do. “It’s important to make sure it’s something you honestly, really believe would be fun,” Hendriksen says. “We so often do things that are good for us, but then it becomes another chore, even if ostensibly it would be fun.”
And remember to separate you from your work life. Taibbi says people who suffer from burnout tend to tie their identities more strongly to their jobs. “Ideally, you want to be diversified. You want to have multiple baskets to pull from,” Taibbi says. “If all your self-esteem and identity go into one job, your risk of burnout goes up, because you’re anxious the basket is going to get turned over.”
Know When You Really Need to Get Away
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to make the best of job burnout, you really just need time off.
“If you’re at the point where you are sacrificing your health for work, that is a sign. That never gets better on its own,” Hendriksen says. “That’s your body telling you that this is not a good match.” If you can’t get out of bed, for instance, or your blood pressure is spiking, or you’re suffering from regular stress headaches or not eating, it’s important to step away. Talk to your supervisor about going on leave or borrowing vacation days from next year, or promise to make up the time you’ll be out. Just make it clear how much you need this break, and then do what you can to get it.
Taibbi suggests that even taking one day off might help get you back on track. “That’s when people say, ‘I’m going to take a mental health day,’” he said. “It’s when [your] productivity starts to fall apart because you just showed up at work and can’t plow through it.” You and your employer will both be better off if you can get back the energy you need to actually do your job.