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How to Banish Burnout and Finally Find Some Work-Life Balance

With push notifications dinging and to-dos ever present, burnout seems as common as smartphones. We take a look at what you can do to cool off that burn.
by Jennifer Duffy | Jul 19 2019

Does it feel like everyone around you is operating with their batteries in the red? Maybe you’ve noticed it in yourself. The moment you sit down on the bus after work you find yourself drifting off. Maybe you start reading, only to drop your book after half a page. At night, you fall asleep before your head touches the pillow, then you wake up the next morning without a sense of rest. As you go through your day trying to keep up with everything in life, it feels like you’re clawing your way over a few miles just to gain a couple inches of ground.

In most cases, this points to an increasingly modern issue: Burnout.

Burnout has become an epidemic in the modern workplace. A 2018 survey revealed that one out of five US employees were feeling burned out, and in the United Kingdom, 595,000 people suffered from workplace stress. Emily and Amelia Nagoski note that ‘some 20 to 30 percent of teachers admit to [burnout], and for the medical profession, it’s upward of 52 percent.’ More and more jobs are requiring longer hours and ever increasing workloads, and employees are feeling the burn.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined burnout as a syndrome ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ WHO states three components of burnout – unrelenting exhaustion, a sense of mental detachment, and poorer performance in work. This can affect other areas of your life too – making socializing more difficult, hobbies less appealing, and relationships strained as you are emotionally exhausted.

How is burnout caused?

The modern workplace emphasizes presenteeism, with employees working an increasing number of hours in an always-on work culture. This has led to the rise of burnout, with employees experiencing emotional exhaustion and disengagement in greater and greater numbers. With pressurized deadlines and heavy workloads, this trend is understandable. However, burnout can be prevented with lifestyle changes in and out of the office.

How can we beat burnout?

The key to beating burnout is to work smart, rather than working hard. The modern workplace prioritizes working longer and longer hours, pushing yourself to meet tight deadlines and spending so much time at your desk that it seems like home. But this doesn’t mean that we are any more productive.

The book It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson proves that avoiding conditions that lead to burnout is not only better for your health, but also for your productivity. Having a good work-life balance will not only improve your quality of life, it will also improve the quality of your work. Longer working weeks do not mean more work getting done. We all know the feeling of sitting at your desk overwhelmed with your workload and distractions, too anxious to make any progress. As the authors note, ‘in today’s world, an individual’s attention is perhaps the scarcest commodity of all.’

The authors advise a company-wide change, with employers leading in terms of creating a better work-life balance. Those higher up in the company can model a better approach to the working week, and advocate to eliminate the culture of presenteeism in the company. However, regardless of your role you can make changes to your own work-life balance and within your sphere of influence.

Does burnout impact women differently?

In their book Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski focus specifically on how burnout affects women, through both scientific research and personal insight. They discuss how many women are experiencing emotional exhaustion as a result of demands placed upon them by family, friends, relationships, work – and themselves. Emily and Amelia Nagoski take a practical approach to avoiding burnout.

There are extra societal expectations for women within our patriarchal culture, with pressures on how we should look and behave, and the idealization of ‘having it all’. The authors speak of the Bikini Industrial Complex (BIC), the multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that pressures women to conform to a specific and unattainable bodily ideal. They also note that women have to undertake more emotional labor; ‘Human Giver Syndrome is a powerful enemy deeply rooted in female consciousness.’ With caring roles traditionally being considered feminine ones, there is often added expectation upon women to be responsible for others’ welfare and happiness, as well as their own. While WHO states that burnout is specifically a work-related syndrome, these extra pressures do lead to the exhaustion that can cause burnout.

What to do if you’re spotting burnout signs

Burnout signs include:

  • Unrelenting exhaustion
  • Overwhelm with your workload
  • Reduced performance at work
  • Lack of enthusiasm
  • Mental detachment

Ways to deal with this include getting support from your workplace – check whether deadlines can be changed or some of your workload prioritized over the rest. These adjustments will increase your job satisfaction, and improve productivity. Journaling can help to process your thoughts on the work and on your frustrations. The most important thing is slowing down, and re-evaluating your work-life balance. Burnout is best tackled through lifestyle changes.

Take care of yourself

Emily and Amelia Nagoski debunk the idea that working harder is better, ‘science tells us that what really makes us stronger is rest and sleep.’ This means switching off when you leave the workplace, and being present in your personal life. Practice self-compassion, and allow yourself some down time. Taking care of yourself is essential to achieving a successful work-life balance. Remember the importance of finding a schedule that fits with your life – allowing you to socialize, relax and enjoy your hobbies.

Let go of perfectionism

Psychologist Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit explores how in the Western world, our self-esteem and sense of self-worth are tied deeply to our success in the world of work and having a notable career. But we must remember that failure is a big part of learning. There will inevitably be ups and downs in everyone’s career, and we must keep the struggles and frustrations in proportion. Being realistic in your expectations will help keep up your morale at work.

See the bigger picture

In The Long View author Brian Fetherstonhaugh compares careers to running marathons – you meet tight deadlines. You need to be preparing yourself for a longer race, rather than sprinting to meet tight deadlines. This is a much healthier way of looking at work, rather than the language of warfare, which has become commonplace when discussing work.

With the average American worker spending upwards of 100,000 hours at work, maintaining a long-term perspective on your career is crucial. Having goals will make your work more focused and rewarding. SMART goals are a way of improving your job satisfaction. The Long View also includes useful practical advice for planning out your career, including remembering the importance of transferable skills. Having these long-term goals can help make your work more meaningful.

Change the way you work

In I Know How She Does It, author Laura Vanderkam recommends that you start off the day with your most difficult task. A Johnson & Johnson study proves that energy levels peak at 8:00am. By tackling your most difficult jobs then, you have the best chance of success. Procrastination will also be reduced, meaning you will get more work done.

Small changes can be beneficial in improving your work day. For a more fulfilling experience, work to find your purpose – this will improve your job satisfaction and help restore meaning and significance to your work.

Separate work and life

Emily and Amelia Nagoski advise taking note of your stressors, and working out which can be eliminated or decreased. They also emphasize the importance of closing the stress cycle – with exercise, creative expression or quality time and positive social interactions. These actions can help change your frame of mind and enable you to ‘switch off’ after work. This can improve your work-life balance by helping you eliminate the stress of the workplace, and help you avoid taking it back to your home life.

Making the above changes will help with this also – by making your working hours more manageable, and your deadlines realistic, you will be able to leave your work in the office, and spend your time at home enjoying hobbies and socializing.

Burnout is preventable, with a shift in the way you work. For more from any of the books mentioned above, check out Blinkist.

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