All of us have felt mentally or emotionally depleted from overworking ourselves at one point or another. But burnout isn’t just a term that has become a part of our daily vocabulary; it’s also a legitimate medical diagnosis according to the International Classification of Diseases (or ICD-11), a diagnostic tool by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The diagnosis, which is limited to work environments, comes with the following symptoms:
Energy depletion or exhaustion
Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism
Reduced professional efficacy
According to the WHO, these symptoms result from “chronic workplace stress that has not been sufficiently managed.”
As a therapist, I not only hear about work-related burnout from people quite frequently, but my profession is also associated with high rates of burnout itself. But regardless of your profession, it’s important to respond to feeling of burnout accordingly and create a plan to ensure that we can prevent it from happening again in the future.
1. Identify your top sources of burn-out.
From my experience, here are some of the top contributors to workplace burn out:
Scheduling/time issues: this involves feeling like your very schedule is setting you up for exhaustion. Perhaps your meetings are back to back, you aren’t taking enough breaks, or you are working into the wee hours of the night on a regular basis.
People: this relates to feeling like you simply do not enjoy the people with whom you work to the point where your mental health is deteriorating. While it’s unreasonable to expect to like every single person in the office, burnout that stems from people can involve working with people who put you down regularly, make you feel incompetent, continually fail to take any of your needs into consideration, make you feel unsafe, or generally just do not respect you.
Commute: if you are constantly driving in rush-hour traffic and spending two hours a day in your car, this can contribute to feelings of exhaustion.
Isolation/lack of support: this might correlate with people-related contributors to burnout, but perhaps you feel as though you are lacking work-related support or feel as though you do not have the appropriate outlets to alleviate stress.
Perhaps everything on this list is affecting you at the moment. If that is the case, I’d invite you to rank them from most to least stressful.
2. Figure out what you can and cannot control and focus your energy accordingly.
You need to figure out where you have some wiggle room. What can you influence even in the smallest way? Perhaps you can talk to your boss about starting earlier in the day so you can avoid rush hour traffic. Or you can ask to work from home one day a week. Maybe you can speak to someone in HR about that coworker who is constantly disrespecting you so that some sort of change can be made or even speak to them directly if you feel like they’ll be responsive. Start wearing headphones at work, take breaks more frequently, leave the office for lunch, or ask to eat during a meeting rather than letting yourself go hungry. There are always ways that we can exert some control, we just need to figure out what that looks like.
3. Alter your expectations.
I’ve noticed that work-related burnout seems to be highly associated with people who are perfectionistic go-getters who are used to holding very high standards for themselves (and sometimes others).
A therapist friend of mine—who gave me permission to mention them in this post—once interned at an organization that he very much disliked. This is someone who describes themselves as being highly competitive and perfectionistic, causing them to give 100% of themselves to every project in which they partake. Through this internship, however, he realized that he simply couldn’t bring his usual mentality to this workplace as it was too demoralizing to put so much effort into a space that didn’t care to meet his commitment or even validate his efforts. In simplest terms, he had to care less—not about his patients, but about everything else.
If you’re a hardworking individual, it can be a tough pill to swallow when you realize that you actually need to do less, care less, feel less, etc. If it's any comfort, know that perfectionists who “do less” are usually still doing a very good job; it's actually more of a practice of distancing themselves emotionally from certain people and menial tasks.
4. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Hardworking, “can do” employees also typically possess a people-pleasing quality: they want to make sure everyone is okay, they don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, and they want to be a good team player.
If there’s one thing you take from this post, it’s this: something’s gotta give. If you are someone who is trying to give your all in every aspect of your life, there will be a consequence eventually. Perhaps your mental or physical health will deteriorate. Maybe your relationships will start to suffer. You may become entirely unproductive at work despite your best efforts. But something. Will. Give. I say this not to be harsh but because people share this with me on the regular and I don’t want it to happen to you.
Setting boundaries comes in many forms. It might mean not checking your work emails when you’re home. It might look like taking an actual lunch break rather than just not eating altogether for ten hours solid. It could also mean setting boundaries around your schedule when possible, such as giving yourself 30 minutes between meetings to recuperate. It could look like saying NO to different projects that your boss wants to add to your plate that is already very full.
A note here: once you set a boundary, stick to it. Don’t let guilt come in and tell you you shouldn’t. Repeatedly honour it.
5. Give yourself some damn down time.
I see a common pattern where people will overwork themselves during the week, only to have 239523058230958325 social engagements on weekends. I think we humans have emotional gas tanks that need to be regularly replenished, just as we’d fill a tank of gas.
Boundaries come in for social engagements, too. I’d invite you to schedule at least one weekend per month were you do not commit to any social engagements whatsoever, no questions asked. If you have a partner, you can put this in your shared calendar so that they can see that you are 100% unavailable. This isn’t about being selfish, this is about taking care of yourself so that you can go to the other commitments you have that month and be fully present and engaged.
Which brings me to my next point…
6. Realize that you aren’t doing anyone any favours.
If you’re someone who’s always running on empty—either at work, outside of work, or both—it isn’t doing anyone any good. On the contrary, it’s likely that you are being less productive at work due to feeling so exhausted. You probably aren’t as much fun at social gatherings because you’re counting down the minutes until you can just go home and crawl into bed.
There’s a level of martyrdom I often see with people who are approaching burn out, as if they want people to know how depleted they are. Reality check: this is not something to be admired. This is a sign that you need to take a closer look at what’s going on so that you can make some changes accordingly—for your sake and everyone else’s.
7. Find some support outside of work, but keep the venting to a minimum.
If you’re in a job that’s isolating by its very nature, it’s important to find some sort of support group to make you feel understood, heard, and validated. For me as a therapist, this means attending group supervision, wherein a group of therapists will talk about difficult cases or how they’re being personally affected by the work. I’ve noticed it makes a huge difference to talk to a group of people who just get it. Find your tribe.
A note here: studies show that workplace venting actually doesn’t make you feel better. Now, if there’s a problem that’s happening repeatedly, it’s important to speak up to catalyze change. But if you’re engaging in negative verbal diarrhea, it’s only going to make matters worse. Instead, try writing in a journal, focusing on the good things that have happened at work, or releasing your frustration in a physical way like kickboxing or hot yoga.
8. Take a leave of absence… or consider leaving your job altogether.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a leave of absence from work due to burnout. In fact, the WHO included this definition in the ICD-11 precisely so that this is easier and more acceptable to do. This doesn’t make you weak, it doesn’t make you lazy, it makes you a very self-aware, smart, proactive individual, which is something I’d like to wholeheartedly celebrate and commend you for.
My only suggestion here is that you use a leave of absence intentionally. This shouldn’t be used as a time to just sleep all day every day; it should be used as a time to reconnect with your values and goals, take care of yourself, and recharge before your return.
And finally, if you feel as though there is no wiggle room in any of those factors that contribute to burnout—scheduling, people, commuting, or loneliness—then it might be time to update ye ol’ resume and find a new place to share your skills and talents.
9. Engage in self-care activities.
Self-care is always important, but here are the most helpful activities to combat burnout from my own personal experience:
Find a passion project. It might seem paradoxical to add more to your plate, but things that we enjoy energize us rather than make us feel tired, so this might be just the thing you need to put some pep in your step. This might involve volunteering with an organization or starting your own YouTube channel about something you love.
Get offline. I think it’s so important to have genuine quiet time when we are overwhelmed. This means no phones, no Netflix, no music, no nothing.
Release physical tension. This can come in many forms. For some, it involves getting a massage or getting an acupuncture treatment. For others, it involves attending a kickboxing class. Other options involve sitting in a steam room or sauna, having a hot bath, having sex, or doing a relaxing yoga class. A lot of tension is stored in our bodies so it’s important that we find a way to release it.
Get in touch with nature. Go for a walk or bike ride, walk on the grass in bare feet, or sit by a lake or pond in silence. Even if you are doing work on a balcony somewhere, it can make it all the more enjoyable.
Have a stay-cation. Be completely inaccessible for a weekend. Watch your favourite movies, paint your nails, colour, knit, do whatever you want, whenever you want in the comfort of your own home.
Go on an actual vacation. This doesn't have to mean going to a tropical island for a week; it could mean going somewhere nearby that you enjoy like Niagara-on-the-Lake or Collingwood. Maybe it means just renting a hotel room somewhere nearby where you can escape for a bit.
Eat clean. A lot of us turn to comfort foods when we’re going through a rough time, which just makes us feel more lethargic. Cook yourself some clean, home-cooked meals that nourish your body from the inside out.
The Bottom Line
Burnout is oh so real and can feel like it’s insurmountable in the moment. Once you identify where the biggest sources of burnout are coming from, you can act accordingly by setting boundaries, changing the things you do have some control over, adjusting your expectations, and taking care of yourself outside of work.
Also, this blogging platform has finally brought back the feature that allows people to comment on posts, so please comment below with how YOU cope with burnout or what advice you have for my blog’s readers. We can all learn so much from each other!