This is Part 3 in a three-part series on stress in the workplace. Check out Part 1 and Part 2! Stress can make you feel like you’re drowning — in responsibilities, in deadlines, in unrealistic expectations — all without enough time to swim to the surface.
There are ways to prevent stress at work and also manage it when the tides do come in. But burnout is different. Burnout is when you’re past the state of struggling to keep up. You’ve given up. Caused by a prolonged state of stress, burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion.
Rather than looking for a solution, experiencing burnout means you’ve lost hope and begin to detach, at work and at home, with seriously negative consequences to your job, your relationships, and your health. Before it all starts unraveling, take these four steps and recover from your work burnout — then plunge back into the waters of your job. Or, maybe, something different.
1. Recognize your state
It can be difficult to diagnose, but burnout has three main symptoms: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced performance. Emotional exhaustion means you are at the point of no longer caring: you feel helpless, trapped and defeated. A sense of failure. Depersonalization leaves you with a sense of watching everything happen, including yourself, from a distance without any control over the situation.
Reduced performance looks like a disengagement from your once over-engaged, stressed-out state at work. There are times when all of us feel one or more of these. Burnout means this is your reality every day. Nothing changes and it seems pointless to try. But the first real step is recognizing your symptoms and their causes. It’s often the hardest part.
2. Take some time
Before you can hope to recover, you need a time of rest. Remove all commitments that aren’t 100% necessary. Consider asking for a few days off at work. Burnout often leads to getting sick, so an employer would be smart to let you have this time voluntarily — otherwise, if things continue, they might be forced to give you more than what you’re requesting anyway, because you physically won’t be able to get out of bed. Sleep. Read. Exercise. Socialize in ways that aren’t stressful to you. The point here is to get back to a neutral place, which will allow you to rest and reflect, before focusing on healing.
3. Ask for help
The natural tendency during burnout is to retreat on your own, isolating yourself from others. This is a self-protection mechanism enacted to preserve whatever little energy you have left. Although the initial connection is difficult and perhaps counter-intuitive, reaching out to friends and family during this time is crucial. Sharing your thoughts and feelings, even without feedback from them, will greatly reduce the pressure.
It can even make you physically feel lighter. Ask the person you’re speaking with to just listen and not try to fix anything. Remember: for those who really care about you, this will not be a burden; they will be happy and honoured to be your confidante.
4. Re-evaluate your career
Experiencing burnout is a clear indication something in your life is not working. All the rest and recovery in the world will not solve the problem if you’re heading right back into what caused it in the first place. At this point, you need to think big picture: What are your goals for your career? Is your current job driving you toward those goals? Is there a different way? What is ultimately going to make you happy?
If it’s a job shift that’s needed, be brave enough to recognize that. If it’s just altering the one you have now, look for concrete steps to make real changes to your everyday. Ask your boss for a sit-down to go over your job description. What do you feel is expected of you that isn’t on any official list? This could be the perfect opportunity to identify what particular aspects get you feeling out of control, and how both you and your boss can prevent it.
Senior Coordinator of Program Development by day, freelance writer/editor/researcher by night, Dana Marie Krook is a firm believer in “having it all” — which, of course, means chasing your dreams, your bucket list, and your cupcake craving as far as necessary. She loves word games, yoga, running, and superhero movies, but would trade it all for the chance to see her first YA novel on the shelves of a bookstore.