How to avoid work burnout & reclaim your sense of calm.

Overwork burning you to a crisp? In this post, we’ll outline eight ways to deal with work burnout.

Introduction

It’s 7:00am on a Monday morning and your alarm clock is blaring. You open your bloodshot eyes and a shiver of dread runs down your spine when you remember your to-do list for the day. As you force yourself to get out of bed, your body feels heavy, your mind feels foggy, and nothing repulses you more than the thought of opening your laptop.

If you’ve ever felt like this, chances are you were experiencing burnout. It’s an extremely unpleasant emotional state that 77% of professionals say they’ve experienced. Burnout is officially defined as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.”

Common physical symptoms include exhaustion, headaches, muscle pain, and frequent bouts of illness. Emotionally, you may experience strong feelings of self-doubt, low motivation, and decreased satisfaction from things that used to bring you joy. It’s common to procrastinate or withdraw from responsibilities as a means of coping, although unfortunately, these behaviors often compound the negative effects.

If you’re wondering how to deal with work burnout, the good news is it’s very treatable. In fact, there are many practices you can start today to regain your sense of calm, motivation, and enjoyment.

Here are 8 tips you can implement as soon as you notice the symptoms of overwork creep in.

1. Create set work hours

Experts recommend designating official work hours, and sticking to them. That means no responding to emails in between scrolling Instagram in the evening, and no more telling yourself “Oh I’ll just quickly do this little thing” on a Sunday afternoon. Outside of work hours, turn off your email and Slack notifications, and resist the urge to check when you’re bored.

When your work stresses bleed into your home life, it can feel impossible to rest enough to meet the demands of your workload. Ideally, your home should be your sanctuary, where you rest, play, and recharge.

If you’re a manager, modeling these boundaries yourself can send an impactful message to your team. Try to avoid sending them emails during evenings and weekends. And if you must work on a Saturday night, use an app like Boomerang or Mixmax to schedule the email so it doesn’t send until Monday morning.

2. Designate a specific workspace

Along with temporal boundaries around your workday, spatial boundaries can also work wonders for avoiding burnout. Whether it’s your kitchen table or your living room couch, if you always work in the same place, your brain will begin to associate it with getting work done.

This will make it easier to slip into a deep work state more easily when you’re there. And once you leave that space, your brain will register the shift as permission to relax into your evening or weekend, making it easier to power down and resist the urge to overwork.

3. Take little breaks throughout the day

It may seem counterintuitive, but studies show that spending less time on your work can actually help you get more done. According to the Harvard Business Review, by taking frequent breaks, you’re actually helping your brain function optimally. If you thrive on strict structure, you can use the Pomodoro Technique, which consists of working for a set amount of time—often 25 minutes—followed by a timed break—often 5 minutes long.

What should you do with your break? Anything that isn’t staring at your screen will give you a cognitive and emotional boost, but here are some ideas if you want to make the most of it:

  • Do a guided meditation—proven to make you more creative after only 10 minutes.
  • Get some quick exercise in, like Yoga with Adriene, or The New York Times’ 6-minute workout.
  • Eat a brain-boosting snack—ideally something protein-filled.
  • Cuddle your pet or give a hug to your partner.

4. Create a “shut-down ritual” you complete at the end of the day

To keep your reserve of emotional wellbeing full, create a ritual for yourself to signal the transition at the end of the workday. After the shut-down, tell yourself that work is officially done and you can’t check email or do any small tasks.

There are tons of ways you can create this ritual for yourself, and which one you pick isn’t as important as your consistency. Our brains are wired to thrive with routine, so sticking to your chosen routine is the most nourishing part of the practice.

Some ideas for powering down at the end of the day:

  • Leave the house immediately and go for a walk.
  • Lie down in savasana for 2 mins.
  • Shut your work laptop and put it away out of sight.
  • Go to a different room or space in your home other than your designated workspace.
  • Change from “work clothes” to “home clothes.” (Even if it’s just from one pair of sweatpants to another—we’re not judging.)

5. Take your vacation days

One of the most obvious (but overlooked) methods of dealing with burnout is to take your allotted vacation days. While it may seem like a no-brainer, 92% of Americans either canceled, postponed, or didn’t book a vacation in 2020. Even pre-pandemic, workers only took about half of their allotted vacation time. And of those who did go on holiday, more than two-thirds of them admitted to sneaking in some work.

But unplugging is a crucial part of staying emotionally healthy and keeping your mental acuity sharp. Nielsen research demonstrates that “employees who take time off are happier with their jobs, more engaged, and less likely to quit—or have a heart attack—than their non-­vacationing peers. Those who skip vacations are also likelier to be depressed, and to dent office morale.”

If you’re a manager, make sure to remind your direct reports to take their unused vacation days. Sometimes a bit of encouragement from an authority figure can help employees feel like they’re allowed to take a break. In addition to supporting your employees’ wellbeing, you’re also making it more likely that you’ll retain them on your team and have them positively contribute to team morale.

6. Use your company benefits

Would you take a full paycheck and throw it in the garbage just because you “don’t have time to spend it”? Of course not. Yet so many employees forgo their benefits for just that reason. Many employee benefit plans offer a wide range of resources that can help guard against a dreaded case of burnout.

If your plan covers therapy, it can be an excellent resource for talking through life’s stresses and gaining important insights. What’s more, your therapist can help you identify the patterns of thinking and behavior that have led you to feel burnt out. This can be invaluable for curbing overwork habits and proactively avoiding burnout in the future.

Since burnout can also have profound physical effects on the body, using benefits like massage, physiotherapy, a chiropractor, and/or acupuncture can help you feel calm and at ease.

7. Get enough sleep

“Sleeping less than six hours each night is one of the best predictors of on-the-job burnout,” according to The National Sleep Foundation. Sleep is one of the body’s most powerful natural recovery mechanisms, and if you’re getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours per night then you may see a host of mental and physical repercussions. Lack of sleep can worsen your memory, make you more emotionally reactive, contribute to weight gain, and cause a variety of diseases.

To avoid burnout, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and also high-quality sleep. To get the best night’s rest, aim to have your bedroom slightly on the cooler side, as dark as possible, and turn off all electronics a couple of hours before bedtime so the blue light doesn’t keep you up. Try to avoid caffeine after 2pm—it’ll stay in your bloodstream for up to eight hours, and try to keep alcohol to a minimum—even if you feel like you sleep better after a nightcap, it will degrade the quality of your sleep.

8. Use a time tracking tool

As much as “hustle culture” wants to convince us that we can work 18-hour days, even the most dedicated employees have a finite amount of energy. Research shows that working more than 50 hours per week gives diminishing returns. Instead of buying into the myth that overwork is the way to get more done, applying time management strategies helps you squeeze the most juice of your work hours. It’s about working smarter, not harder.

Time tracking tools like Harvest give you insight into how you’re spending your time, allowing you to make the most of your limited hours. Implementing a time tracking system may help you realize that one demanding client is draining nearly half of your time—then you know a talk about boundaries is the way to protect your time. Or perhaps you’ll identify a kink in internal processes that helps you work more efficiently. Instead of putting more energy into charging ahead inefficiently, you’ll be able to exert your energy more effectively. (Check out this guide for more ideas on how to use time tracking software to avoid burnout.)

Keep your passion burning bright

As much as experiencing burnout can make you feel like a failure, the truth is that burnout often comes from caring too much. While bringing enthusiasm to your job is a wonderful thing, sometimes this passion contains the seeds of burnout if you don’t carefully balance exertion with rest. Just like you need to inhale before you can exhale, you need to take in nourishment to output good work. With the above tips, you can proactively avoid burnout.

While work has the potential to be a never-ending hellscape of chaos, it also has the potential to add joy, meaning, and collaboration. The difference? It largely depends on you taking control to orchestrate the right balance of work and rest. And remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can regularly fan the flames of your energy, your passion will keep burning bright.

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