What Is Burnout? How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed at Work
The intensity of today’s work culture can feel crushing—which is why it’s essential to protect your mental health. Here, the reasons we all feel so overwhelmed, plus what you can do to find more calm.
When Helena Plater-Zyberk, 43, of Berkeley, California, was hired as CEO of a health-care startup in 2014, she was thrilled. “It was my dream job,” she says. “Even though the hours were brutal—I worked until 1 or 2 a.m. every weekday and had regular meetings at 10 p.m.—the crazy workload made me feel invigorated and important.” For a time.
About two years into the job, she developed chronic insomnia. Then came the pounding headaches. Eventually, the excitement she’d felt about going to work was replaced with dread. She implored her employers to let her hire more people, but they refused. “One morning in the spring of 2017, I woke up so exhausted I couldn’t drag myself to the office, and I did something totally out of character. I got on a plane to Cabo and zoned out on the beach for four days,” she says. “I realized I was unhealthy, uninspired, and dangerously drained, and I felt like my work ethic was being exploited.” A few months later she resigned. “It was such a relief,” she says. “The decision to leave made me feel more empowered than I had in a long time.”
Exhausted, disenchanted, irritable—raise your hand if that sounds familiar. Those are the symptoms of burnout, a workplace affliction that’s so rampant it has both employers and doctors concerned. In a 2018 Gallup poll of nearly 7,500 full-time employees, 23 percent said they felt burned out at work very often or always, while another 44 percent felt that way sometimes. Even the World Health Organization has acknowledged the issue, calling it a global “occupational phenomenon” in its latest International Classification of Diseases. And women report higher levels of burnout than men, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and University of Toronto. In their study, published last year, they found that women “felt greater work-family conflict.”
“Burnout cuts across socioeconomic status and career types, and the cost is dire,” says Parneet Pal, chief science officer of Wisdom Labs, a consulting firm focused on mental, emotional, and social well-being in the workplace. “It not only undermines your sense of efficacy and engagement at work but it also damages your health.” A 2017 review by Brazilian researchers found that burnout is a significant predictor for heart disease, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory problems, as well as mortality in those younger than 45.
Worrisome? Totally. The good news is that there are things you can do (short of quitting your job) that can help you feel happier at work.
If you're always on call...
As technology blurs the lines between work and home life, many of us are reachable around the clock—and that insidious job creep is draining. Virginia Tech researchers recently found that just feeling like your boss expects you to be available after-hours via email or Slack causes emotional strain.
“Nonstop connectedness means you never get to fully relax,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. “Device-free downtime, where you’re isolated from the demands of your job, is essential for maintaining focus, energy, and engagement at work."
If the thought of shutting down your phone makes you panicky, we get it. So take baby steps. Make a rule (either privately or explicitly with your colleagues, clients, and boss) that you don’t return emails between certain hours—8 p.m. to 8 a.m., for instance. Leave your device in the trunk when you’re driving. Designate phone-free zones in your house (like the kitchen and the bedroom), and switch to airplane mode while you’re having dinner with your family, or binge-watching your favorite show. “If you feel the urge to check your texts or email during off-hours, wait 60 seconds, take three deep breaths to trigger the calming branch of your nervous system,” says Dodgen-Magee, “then remind yourself that gaining the upper hand with technology will help you cope with the challenges of work and enjoy your time at home.”
If you're dealing with uncertainty…
Mergers. Acquisitions. Corporate downsizing. Oh my. It’s natural to worry if you’ll have a job next month. And even if your job is secure, you may not be clear on what’s expected of you at work. According to Gallup, 40 percent of employees are in that boat; others feel they have been unfairly treated and don’t receive enough support from their managers.
Lack of control, in any form, can set you up for burnout. So what can you do? Aside from chatting with your boss to clarify as much as you can, make an effort to strengthen your ability to cope with uncertainty. One strategy: Take the time to notice and bask in—positive moments, suggests Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist and author of Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness. “Even in challenging circumstances, good things happen to us every day,” says Hanson. “You have a nice interaction with a barista, or the sky is beautiful, or your dog is excited to see you. Just noticing those moments pulls your attention away from the sense of helplessness and shows you that, while you may not be in charge of what’s going on around you, you are in charge of what happens in your own mind.”
Our brains tend to focus on the negative, so be on the lookout for the positive. Then help those moments sink in by staying with the happy feeling for at least three full breaths. “Positive emotions grow resilience,” says Hanson. “If you routinely take the time to feel the sensation of joy or satisfaction in your body, you can strengthen the pathways for resilience in your brain.”
If you're at the mercy of deadlines…
In today’s pressure-cooker work culture, many of us are racing from one target to another. “It’s exhausting to be perpetually under the gun,” explains Pal, “and it can make you feel like you’re chronically falling behind.” Indeed, employees who say they often or always have enough time to do their work are 70 percent less likely to experience high burnout, according to the Gallup study. You may or may not be able to control your deadlines (if you have a boss who is open to feedback, it makes sense to broach the subject), but most of us can optimize our schedules so we use our energy—and, as a result, our time—more wisely, says Pal.
Your ability to pay attention wanes over the course of the day, so schedule your most demanding or creative work in the morning and less challenging tasks, like emails and meetings, in the afternoon. Also, take breaks. Research shows that a short break every hour can boost performance. “Go for a walk, listen to music, or call a loved one,” says Pal. Or just find a place to sit and space out.
That’s essentially what Plater-Zyberk did when she fled to a beach in Cabo. In that downtime, she dreamed of having a career focused on mental health. Within months of leaving her job, she cofounded Supportiv, an anonymous online support network, where you can talk to peers who are going through similar struggles, be it depression, anxiety, or relationship problems. “Work stress and burnout are two of our most popular topics,” she says. “After what I went through, I’m not surprised.”
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