Burnout is rough, and it feels like 2020 is going down in some serious flames. If you weren’t feeling burnout already, it’s likely you are now. If you are in a high-stress or helping profession, burnout just comes with the territory and can affect the way you perform at work. But we get mixed messages about how to deal with it and often mishandle it or just suppress it altogether.
The first step is to recognize the warning signs of burnout. Often people cannot tell burnout is coming on until more pronounced behavioral changes occur like irritability, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, headaches, or increased alcohol intake. However, you can start to track earlier signs. If you start to notice a small drop in productivity over a couple of days, a few days in a row of tardiness to work or a late start to zoom meetings or notice that you are starting to forget what you are doing mid-task, these are all early warning signs that you are starting towards a bigger burnout.
If you can halt the progress earlier on, we can avoid some of those later, larger problems which tend to come with bigger consequences. How do we halt early burnout? If you have receptive managers, this is always a plus; start by letting them know you may need to either rework your schedule to allow for a longer lunch break or start later to get a bit more sleep to recharge or need assistance with smaller tasks.
If it is absolutely the type of work you must do yourself, it may be something that you either need to A) power through and finish so you can have a day off at the end of the week or B) take a day off so you can focus better once you’ve recharged. That sounds counterintuitive if you feel like you already have more work than you can handle, but if your mind or body has already given you signs it is shutting itself down, not taking a break at some point soon means you are bound to crash and burn.
What if you are already in full burnout mode? If you are already snapping at coworkers, showing up an hour late, working through lunch, staying on your work computer until 8 pm, and pulling your hair out, drinking whiskey in the backyard in tears? That is a harder nut to crack, but not uncrackable.
First, you really need to evaluate how you got there. Boundary setting has got to be something you consider from here on out in any job and from now on if you choose to stay in this one. The first person you must set boundaries with is yourself. You have to show up on time, you have to eat lunch and recharge, you have to take on projects you have the energy for and be honest when you are completely overwhelmed. This will be difficult but will be the only way to dig yourself out of the hole.
Now, beyond what you do with your coworkers, it’s also important what you do with yourself and your loved ones. Sure, whiskey tastes great, but endorphins last longer. You have to make time to exercise and get your heart rate up 3-5 times per week. COVID-19 has seriously decreased the amount of exercise people have been doing, which has increased the amount of anxiety mental health professionals have seen immensely. Make it a point to do 30-45 minutes of cardio at least 3 times per week, no matter what.
Limit the booze, especially on a stressful workday. Drinking during stress reinforces alcohol as a coping mechanism and creates a habit of dependence on alcohol versus other healthier coping mechanisms when you are feeling overwhelmed. Choose hot tea, fizzy water, or one of the new sober-curious elixirs like Kin, or Ritual as a substitute while you journal, color, or do a puzzle with the family to take your mind off of the workday.
Actually eat meals and do not do it while you are working or multitasking. Eat breakfast at your table sitting down before you open your computer. Try not to do your work in the same place that you eat. Designate a different area of your house for work if you can. If you go into an office now that the quarantine rules are relaxed never eat at your desk. Even if you feel pressure to do so from your coworkers or boss. Even a 15-minute break away from the desk will do wonders.
For that matter, leave your phone at your desk during that time as well, just sit and eat, outside in the sun if you can. Think about the breeze on your face, the taste, and texture of your food, the smell of the food or the fresh air, the time it took to cook, or the crispness of the veggies in the salad. Turn it into a mindfulness exercise, going through each of the five senses until your break is over. Expanding each flavor into a meditation will create space in your day you never knew you had and will make lunch so much better than shoving your UberEats in your face while you mindlessly send another email back to accounting.
When you head back to work try to stay as focused as possible on only work, but if you find yourself with your mind wandering, don’t scroll through your phone every five minutes then back to your computer alternating for hours and barely do a thing, leaving work left over for tomorrow, that will only stress you out more. Use a timer app to help you stay on task and use the grayscale setting on your phone to make it less distracting, then when you’ve spent 50 full minutes of productivity give yourself a 10-minute stretch, meditation, or bathroom break to recharge. Then look back at how much work you achieved and take stock.
Congratulating yourself helps reinforce good habits and keeps you on track. It also keeps positive energy going counteracting feelings of overwhelming. A small piece of chocolate, a shot of Cafecito, or a quick gif to a friend about what a badass you are before you do your next 50-minute stretch can be a good productivity reward.
When you go home for the day, or when you have finished working for the day, put all of your work paraphernalia out of sight. Mentally close the book on the workday and prep yourself for personal time. Remind yourself that you will have plenty of work time during the next shift to get any other work items done and that you are capable and competent.
Make sure you plan pleasurable activities for yourself throughout your workweek solely for enjoyment. Not because you should study more or be a better person or because mom thinks you should learn a new language or whatever, but because you genuinely enjoy it. Life is meant to be enjoyed.
Beat the burnout and come back better.