Light Your Fire

Feeling burned out? Here’s why, along with seven tips to get your spark back.

Ignition of a match, with smoke on dark background

By Tanisha A. Sykes
Everything at work is clicking on all cylinders, and you’re saying yes! to new projects and leading teams. All the while you’re feeling like a rock star, with the coveted corner office in your sights.

Then it hits you—the stress of running hard to hit those goals leads to physical and mental duress, perhaps headaches, gastrointestinal issues, a drained feeling, or exhaustion. You feel emotionally burned out. Sound familiar?

No wonder, given that a third of Americans work 45 hours or more each week, and about 10 million clock 60 hours or more, according to The Nation. The average European works 7 percent to 19 percent less than Americans, according to research published by the Institute for the Study of Labor. Americans are overworked, and burnout is the result.
“Our bodies are brilliant and can sustain us through a lot, but it is important not to consistently maintain your body in an overworked state,” says psychiatrist Courtney Howard. “The body wants to remain at a certain equilibrium. Thus, it is our responsibility to maintain a healthy balance.”

In trying to make your way to the top of the corporate ladder, it can be difficult for you to achieve that necessary mind-soothing balance. Burnout occurs when you experience a constant state of duress, and no matter what you do or how hard you work, you never feel better.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not successfully been managed.” A recent study conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, in collaboration with the Faas Foundation, shows that one in five engaged workers are at risk for burnout. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are seven ways that can help you avoid getting burned out at work.

If you’re feeling the slightest twinge of burnout, take time to identify the root cause. Perhaps you are unclear about the boss’s expectations, unchallenged by the work, or yearning to work with a new team. These situations can quickly lead to feelings of isolation and sadness, as well as vulnerability to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. Discuss your concerns with your manager to devise a mutually beneficial solution. Talk also to your support team, and ask HR for a professional referral.

Prioritize Yourself
Women spend much of their time at work putting out fires and handling other people’s emergencies. Men likely do this too, but according to State of the Workplace Part 1: Gender, from Hive, a project management platform, women are assigned 55 percent of the work in an office and do 10 percent more work than men. “We’ve trained others to believe that we’re always available,” says Heather Hubbard, a former attorney turned personal and professional development coach, based in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition, women assume that doing more will lead to a promotion, but this is not the case if the work is not valued. Identify three “personal and professional priorities each day and make those tasks nonnegotiable,” suggests Hubbard. This will allow you to stay focused on yourself and train others to find support elsewhere.

It’s widely known that working out can improve mental health by lessening anxiety and boosting self-esteem and cognitive function. “Even if it means walking a minimum of 30 minutes a day, get moving,” says Lindsay Mayer, a project management officer in Paris. Another way to get moving? Use strength training to start increasing lean muscle mass while burning fat. At night, Mayer advises, “leave the screens—phone, laptop, iPad—out of your bedroom, and read,” which is more enticing than mindless scrolling.

Take a Break

Rachael O’Meara, author of Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break, refers to a “pause” as “any intentional shift in behavior or mind-set.” She mentions research that shows we need to naturally build in multiple 5- to 15-minute breaks every 90 minutes. “This helps our brains get out of task mode and into a nourishing, creative, and visionary space,” she says. “We cannot access both at the same time physiologically. Thus, take short breaks!”

One important pause is during lunch. “People think working through lunch makes them look busy or important, but it increases your chances of burnout,” says Colleen DelVecchio, a women’s leadership expert and StrengthsFinder coach in Northampton, Massachusetts. Take a five-minute trip around your office building, get a mani-pedi, or meet up with some friends.

Sometimes a longer break—personal days, a vacation, or even a sabbatical—is in order. “If you’ve gone long enough where you aren’t able to balance out the task mode and the creative space,” says O’Meara, take time off. More than half of all Americans don’t take all their paid vacation days, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Travel Association. “Taking a pause is the perfect excuse to step away from your everyday life and not focus on what is ruling your thoughts,” she says.

“Travel is wellness, and studies say that even planning for a trip can boost happiness hormones,” says Sahara Rose De Vore, a travel and business coach in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Going on vacation, volunteering abroad, or even taking a business trip can help refresh the mind, body, and soul.”

As you work your way up the ladder, you want to be seen as fully committed, but that does not equate to being on call 24/7 to answer every email or Slack. “At the senior level, it’s not always possible to avoid work over the weekend, but let colleagues know that you won’t be available during a particular time, like Sunday afternoons,” says Sue Andrews, an HR and business consultant in the United Kingdom. “This will allow you to fully switch off without feeling the pressure to respond, while encouraging others to do the same.”

It’s far more important to take short, unplugged breaks than extended ones where you’re still checking in and available. Hubbard says she “worked an entire decade without taking a single unplugged vacation, which led to a breaking point.” In the end, she learned that unplugging was necessary because, as she puts it, “it helped me gain energy that can’t be achieved in any other way.”

Practice Self-Care

To avoid burnout, engage in self-care both in and out of the office. “Instead of going home after work, take yourself to dinner,” says Robyn Flint, an expert in clinical mental health counseling in Virginia. The goal is to release tension. Once you return home, curl up with a good book, draw a lavender-infused bath, or focus on finding your center. Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation offers beginners a 28-day program that results in peace, clarity, and balance. DW

Tanisha A. Sykes is a career, small-business, and personal finance writer and editor in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @tanishastips.

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