Mental Health Awareness Week occurs every October, but it’s important to take care of your mind each day of the year! Something that poses a threat to mental health is burnout: a condition provoking anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, depression, and more.
This isn’t just a problem for American workers, who tend to work more than those in other countries. In fact, the New York Times reported that India, China, the Netherlands, and other growing economies are dealing with employee burnout, too.
But what exactly is burnout? You may not have stopped to think about the ways it could affect your work life and home life, and vague tips like “do something that sparks joy” probably leave you wanting practical methods. In this post, we’ve broken down what burnout in the workplace looks like—and how you can avoid it.
American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger initially penned the term “mental burnout” in the 1970s to describe the effects he noticed in “severely stressed” doctors and nurses. These health professionals would eventually become exhausted, lethargic, and unable to cope with stress—all signs Freudenberger pointed to as “burnout.”
The Mayo Clinic states that burnout is mental, physical, or even emotional fatigue that stems from work-related stress. While Freudenberger exclusively studied health professionals, this exhaustion can affect anyone: from entrepreneurs to celebrities to homemakers to elite athletes. Whether you try too hard to be everything for everyone, or you tend to overbook your calendar with work and personal engagements, you may be at risk for burnout.
What makes this condition so dangerous is that it can easily carry over from the workplace to your personal life. For example, if you have to work long hours, you may not be able to spend as much time with your family or friends—causing your non-work relationships to suffer. If your stress reaches the point of burnout, some other consequences you may face are:
If you’re feeling like you’re on the edge of burning out, it’s likely your coworkers, family members, and others who care about you have noticed, too. A few telltale signs your stress level is about to boil over include:
If you’ve been struggling with work-related stress for a while, there are a few practical ways to avoid burning out altogether:
Kate McCready of Medium defines balance as “a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.” We often picture balancing acts as two components with equal weight on opposite sides of a scale. With “work-life balance,” the elements we’re dealing with are your workplace interactions, productivity, performance, personal relationships, friendships, housework—so much more than just two factors.
The problem with the term “work-life balance” is work and home are so interconnected, we can’t separate them onto two sides of a scale. For example, our job brings in money for food and a home for ourselves and our loved ones. On the other hand, having an argument with your spouse or child before you head into work can negatively affect your productivity on the job.
Instead of trying to balance every aspect of your life—which can lead you to burnout—strive for harmony. McCready defines harmony as “the quality of forming a pleasing or consistent whole.” Your way of managing work and home dynamics will look different from your coworker’s and best friend’s, and that’s okay.
Try making a list of your everyday activities: work, household chores, time with family and friends, and so on. Next, review your list and make a note of any unnecessary thing that overwhelms you. For example, one of those friendships might be toxic, or maybe your 12-hours workdays are imposing on family time. You may not be able to quit your job, but perhaps you can cut back on your hours. Or, maybe you can spend less time with your not-so-great friend and focus your efforts on people who build you up. The ultimate goal is to take stock of what matters most to you and what stressors you can eliminate.
After a tough few weeks at the office, you might think venting about it will help you feel better, right? You may want to think again. Airing out your frustrations won’t do anything to resolve the problem. In fact, dwelling on what’s stressing you out will actually make you feel worse.
An Iowa State University study separated angered participants into three groups: those who thought about the person who had angered them, those who were distracted by something else, and a control group. Subjects who fixated on the issue were even angrier after the experiment, while the distracted and control participants felt less angry. You can apply the same concept to work-related stress: the more you focus on the problems overwhelming you, the more overwhelmed you’re going to feel.
Rather than fixating on the stress-inducing problem, try focusing on possible solutions. Mark Patterson of Quill.com writes, “Venting is firmly rooted in the past…[turn] your mind toward the future.” By brainstorming ideas to address the pre-burnout issue you’re having—a heavy workload, poor communication from your team, or unclear job expectations—you can shift your perspective and even stumble upon a viable solution you hadn’t thought of before.
While venting and gossiping too much isn’t healthy, we understand the need to get certain situations off your chest. After all, trying to deal with work-related stress on your own may lead you to feel isolated, exhausted, and even cynical. Fortunately, there are ways you can constructively talk or write about your workplace stress without bringing yourself or others down.
If you’ve had a frustrating experience at work, and you can’t help but vent a little, you can share about it in a professional manner on a business forum. These online groups—often on Facebook or other social platforms—exist to bring folks from the same field together to discuss industry changes or ask questions. Discussing your work-related problem means you’re not keeping the issue to yourself. Instead, you’ll be sharing about an experience that others in your industry may relate to, and they might even be able to offer some advice for coping with the situation.
You can also write things down if you’d rather not share your work frustrations with others. Forbes’ Chris Myers uses this outlet to organize his thoughts on paper; you might also try drafting a pros and cons list to analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly of your situation to see if the “pros” outweigh the “cons” after all.
Working from the same place with the same view every day can push you into a mental rut, forcing you to exert constant energy just to stay focused. This may pave the way to job fatigue and eventual burnout, but breaking out of a dull routine might be easier than you think. Sometimes, just relocating to a different place in the office is enough to help you mentally hit “refresh.”
Additionally, one of the great things about modern technology is the ability to connect with coworkers and clients even when you’re away from the office. Skype, Dropbox, and Google Drive are just a few helpful tools that have allowed companies to become more flexible with remote work arrangements. If you’re able to work outside of the office, ask your boss about completing the day’s tasks from home, an outdoor café, or a vacation spot. The new scenery will “spark your creativity and allow you to bring new energy into your work,” Leah Neaderthal writes for the Muse.
While finding a hobby might seem completely unrelated to your job, having a creative or charitable outlet outside of work might be just what you need to recharge. It’s easy to let our careers define us, especially when we don’t think we have time for a passion project or fun activity. But adopting a hobby you love can help you (and others) see beyond your job title and recognize that your life consists of so much more than work.
Hobbies are a great way to not only unwind from our jobs but also to keep our minds fresh. Whether you decide to attend a yoga class, pick up painting, or volunteer at an animal shelter, doing something you enjoy off the clock will give you something to look forward to every week. And sparking that creativity outside of work can even empower you to brainstorm better ideas on the job. If you need help choosing a hobby, Thrive Global has a great list of ideas!
Work-related stress will come your way now and then, but you can take steps to protect your mental health and avoid burnout. And if you feel overwhelmed and exhausted even after trying these five tips, you still have options. A wellness coach can work with you to help you identify your triggers, make time for loved ones (and yourself), and cope with stress in a positive way.