By Alex Davis
This is the second post in a two-part series on burnout. Please note that the authors of these posts are not mental health professionals. They are writing from personal experience, and their stories do not substitute the advice of a licensed mental health professional. If you think you are exhibiting symptoms of burnout and/or are concerned about your mental health, please consider seeking treatment.
The first time I experienced burnout, I had no idea what was happening to me. It was unbelievable how overwhelmed, uninspired, and utterly exhausted I felt. I described it to a friend once as feeling pummeled, like someone had beaten the tar out of me but then propped me up and commanded me to perform, to tackle all my daily tasks as though nothing had happened. It was terrible.
I used to think burnout was a fiction. In my overachiever’s heart, I thought “burnout” was just a euphemism used by lazy people who wanted society to sanction their deliberate underperformance. But after following some research on burnout, I learned that this was far from the truth. Burnout is a real malady that affects real people.
According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, concrete data on rates of burnout is “elusive” because it is “not yet a clinical term separate from stress.” While some studies record that as few as seven percent of professionals are affected by burnout, others document rates up to fifty percent among medical residents and eighty-five percent among professionals working in finance. This is scary, because the research has linked burnout to physical and mental health disorders like coronary artery disease, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and increased drug and alcohol dependency. The article goes on to note that “burnout has been shown to produce feelings of futility and alienation, undermine the quality of relationships, and diminish long-term career prospects.”
Further, a recent New York Times article cites a 2016 General Social Survey conducted nationwide, which tracked the attitudes and behaviors of Americans over time. According to the NYT, the study found that “50 percent of respondents are consistently exhausted because of work, compared with 18 percent two decades ago.” The author posits, depressingly, that “[b]eing tired, ambivalent, stressed, cynical, and overextended has become a normal part of a working professional life.”
Recognizing that burnout was a real condition with serious consequences was the critical first step in my healing process. Unfortunately, there is no quick way to recover from burnout, and some mental health professionals suggest that it will not simply go away – it has to be addressed head-on.
If you find yourself burned out, don’t worry – but please recognize that this is a unique time and you should adjust your day-to-day accordingly. If you had the flu, you would not continue to push through your workweek and pretend you were fine. Why should your mental health be any different? While burnout does not automatically entitle us to stay in bed, drink tea, and skip work, it does necessitate doing what we need in order to bounce back. Here are a few things that worked for me as I navigated a challenging season of burnout.
1. Take a social media hiatus. Little can be more damaging to a burned out soul than the added pressures of projected, curated social media images. When feeling stressed, exhausted, or emotional, looking at Instagram photos of your friends hanging out on exotic beaches or baking cookies with their adorable children isn’t going to help. Similarly, exposing yourself to negative news reports or recklessly shared political opinions will likely increase your anxiety. While you cannot insulate yourself from the world, you can, and should, shield yourself from targeted content that adds little value to your life.
2. Put your five senses to work. When we spend our days hunched over laptops, jabbing at our constantly pinging devices, and holed up in windowless conference rooms, we can find ourselves starving for sunshine, blue sky, and, consequently, real life. Try to disconnect for at least twenty minutes every day. This may involve walking laps around your office building or drinking your morning coffee on your porch while enjoying the sunrise – smartphone out of sight. It is incredible how simply re-engaging with the earth can heal a burned out soul.
3. Consider what sparks joy in your life. When I felt burned out, one thing that helped was thinking about what made me happy. I was really pleased to see how simple my answers were. You might be the same way. Maybe it’s cooking dinner for a group of friends, sitting outside and reading, or tackling a creative project. If you need help coming up with something, try asking close friends or family members for some suggestions. They may reminisce with you about activities you used to do together and this could inspire you to reincorporate some of those outlets into your life. Sometimes, interrupting the routine that is making you feel trapped and burned out will make you feel much better.
4. Exercise. Trust me when I say this is the last thing you will feel like doing. You will find 127 reasons to avoid it, but I promise it is the most important thing you can do. It doesn’t matter if you are training for a triathlon or walking for 20 minutes during your lunch break. Studies show again and again that exercise is a powerful antidote to every form of stress and anxiety, and can even reverse the negative effects of burnout. Try doing it in the morning, while you still have control over your time and before the demands of daily life begin to steal your attention. As I once read, if it is important, it has to be done first.
5. Give yourself permission to do a “good old solid average job.” I recently attended a presentation given by an experienced psychiatrist. He spoke extensively on the dangers of burnout for high-achieving professionals and the sundry of terrifying negative consequences of leaving burnout unaddressed. On one of his Powerpoint slides, he had printed in large letters this phrase: Give yourself permission to do a good old solid average job. Every person in the room probably shuddered to hear this. Average job? It seemed almost offensive. But the speaker went on to explain that simply getting the job done, rather than fretting about doing it perfectly, is a critical way to remain effective in the workplace despite feeling burned out. In fact, he explained that an inordinate focus on perfection can often lead to a paralysis: burned out professionals who are accustomed to performing at a very high level may feel the job is not worth doing at all if it cannot be done to perfection. This is obviously problematic. Not to mention, every highly successful person I’ve ever known has had one thing in common: they recognize that they cannot do everything extremely well. They pick and choose what they do extremely well, and as to everything else, they do a good old solid average job. Cutting the grass. Keeping the house clean. Even at work, if you find yourself facing perfection paralysis, giving yourself permission to just complete a task will get you very far. Just finish something, and you will feel much better. I’ve found that sitting around feeling paralyzed by a combination of exhaustion and perfection-obsession makes me feel even more stressed and burned out. But getting the job done? Well, that is a move that builds positive momentum and begets good results.
My greatest takeaway from my season of burnout was learning to say no before I even took on commitments that I knew would stress me out. This not only showed me the wonderful freedom of not being completely and totally overcommitted, but was also a valuable exercise in teaching me what really matters to me. Now, I am recovering from my tendency to say an unfettered yes to every possible opportunity. I am learning to create space in my life, and to be comfortable with that. And I am learning to walk in the freedom that stems from focusing my energy on what truly matters, on what I love, instead of jamming my days full of excess.
If you are in a season of burnout, stay encouraged. It won’t last forever. Use it as an opportunity to reevaluate what truly matters to you. And know that above all, you are not alone.
Featured Image by Ivorymix.