When you feel your job is sapping your energy or destroying your soul, it's a good idea to call "time out." Recognizing burnout is the first step toward making positive changes in your life.
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Here, find tips to help you know if you're experiencing this phenomenon, along with a practical week-long plan to overcome it.
What Exactly Is Burnout?
First, a definition: Burnout is work- or unemployment-related chronic stress, per the World Health Organization's (WHO) 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). While the WHO does not consider burnout to be a medical condition, there's no doubt that it can be a major risk for serious health conditions.
For instance, a September 2012 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior cites prior research involving Finnish forestry workers whose burnout predicted future hospitalization for mental and cardiovascular disorders.
The ICD-11 describes three dimensions of burnout:
- Being depleted or exhausted
- Feeling cynical or negative toward work or mentally distanced from your job
- Experiencing diminished "professional efficacy" — in other words, feeling like you're just not performing up to snuff
Even if you're generally healthy and fit, trying to make it through another day on the job, perhaps while juggling child-care responsibilities, can be overwhelming. Depending on your particular circumstances, taking an extended break from work to completely de-stress and disengage might be just what the doctor ordered.
But what if you can't just drop everything?
Our seven-day plan incorporates tips and strategies from mental health professionals who study and treat burnout. Even simple tweaks to your daily routine may be rejuvenating and, collectively, may help to build the resilience you need to overcome burnout.
Day 1: Take a Moment to Breathe
It sounds so basic, but the simple act of deep breathing can make a world of difference in one's ability to take on the day. Abdominal or belly breathing is one way to quell the body's stress response, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Take a moment to observe your breathing, suggests Eva Selhub, MD, a physician, author, speaker and founder of Resilience Experts LLC in Waltham, Massachusetts. When folks are under stress, "their breath is either shallow, or they're holding their breath," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.
To counteract that stress response, try breathing in to the count of three and breathing out to the count of six. Lengthening the exhalation tells the body's parasympathetic nervous system to shut off the stress response, Dr. Selhub explains.
Try These Breathing Exercises
Day 2: Change Your Outlook
Another workday, another fire to extinguish and you're already in a foul mood because you instinctively expect the worst. You might even be in the habit of blaming yourself when the day goes south. But rather than feel victimized, figure out what you can do about it, Dr. Selhub says.
This is known as "cognitive restructuring," a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves replacing negative and destructive thoughts with more appropriate and realistic thinking, per the American Psychological Association (APA). CBT can be useful for coping with stressful life situations, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Meditation, too, can be powerful. A February 2019 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology randomized employees to either eight weeks of daily meditation using a phone app or a control group. The meditation group reported significant improvements in wellbeing, distress, job strain and perceptions of workplace social support versus the control group. Positive effects on wellbeing and job strain were sustained two months later.
Try This Tactic to Flip Your Framework
If you find yourself looped into a negative mindset, step back and take stock of the situation, Dr. Selhub suggests.
Ask yourself what’s really triggering you, and what you can do to flip the script. Can you spare 10 minutes to do guided meditation?
Day 3: Pop a Dose of Nature Therapy
A luxurious vacation may not be in the cards, but that doesn't mean there's no escape route. You can soothe your psyche with self-care activities that require little time or money. Find outlets that allow you to detach from work — anything that distracts you, gives you joy or affirms your sense of purpose.
Ask yourself: "What can I do in my environment and for myself that will bring me back into who I am?" Dr. Selhub says.
Adults who spent at least 120 minutes in nature each week, whether in a single stretch or small doses, consistently reported better health and wellbeing than those who had no such exposure, per a June 2019 study published online in Scientific Reports that involved survey data from nearly 20,000 people.
Day 4: Unwind Before Going to Bed
Sleep is when we recharge. (You charge your phone at night, don't you?) Yet some people insist they're able to fully function on three or four hours of shut-eye — and convincing them otherwise can be difficult, says Yesel Yoon, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and career coach in New York City.
Studies show that 7 to 9 hours of sleep is optimal for most adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation, while folks over 65 may require a bit less, maybe 7 to 8 hours.
If you're feeling irritable or overwhelmed, consider how much slumber you're getting. A chronic sleep deficit can affect your memory, judgment and mood, per the APA.
Get Better Shut-Eye
Day 5: Work Smarter, Not Harder
Burnout research is biased toward "fixing the person" rather than "fixing the job," writes Christina Maslach, PhD, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in the June 2017 issue of the APA's Continuing Psychology Journal. Yet preventing burnout in the first place would make more sense, she points out.
To make demands on your time more manageable, Dr. Selhub recommends that people prioritize and schedule projects and break time.
"A lot of executives I work with just need help with being more organized," Dr. Selhub says.
Consider if 'Job Crafting' Can Help
This tactic involves offloading tasks that stress you out and picking up functions that better fit your preferences and skill set, says Rajvinder Samra, PhD, chartered psychologist and lecturer in the Department of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care at the Open University in the UK.
This can be a formal arrangement with your supervisor. Or it may be an informal arrangement among co-workers.
“Maybe it’s enough that you just ask for something, like ‘Can I work with this team member? Can we spread out the task?’” Yoon says.
Day 6: Add Core Exercise to Your Routine
In animal studies, neuroscientists have mapped networks and connections linking the body and brain "in unexpected ways," notes Samra, whose research interests include occupational stress and burnout. She cited a 2016 study in PNAS involving Cebus monkeys, which suggests that activity in core muscles might affect stress-related responses in the brain.
Of course, much more research is needed to confirm any potential effects in people. "If these findings are corroborated in studies on humans, this could explain why activities that heavily use core muscles, such as yoga or Pilates, are especially stress-relieving," Samra tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Yoga, in fact, may be a great way to unwind. A March 2019 article in the Journal of Clinical Medicine summarizes findings from yoga studies involving health care workers. The authors of the review concluded that yoga was effective in reducing stress levels and burnout.
Day 7: Establish Boundaries
If you're working from home or handling additional tasks due to company downsizing, you might find the workday bleeding into your downtime or spilling into the weekend. The solution: Create and commit to hard boundaries on the hours that you are available for the task and say "no" to certain requests, Yoon says.
Incidentally, two burnout experts contacted for this article politely declined to comment, specifically citing an overloaded schedule and lack of capacity for an interview. While we missed their expert input, kudos to them for practicing what they preach!
- World Health Organization: "Burn-out an 'Occupational Phenomenon': International Classification of Diseases"
- Journal of Organizational Behavior: "Organizational Predictors and Health Consequences of Changes in Burnout: A 12-Year Cohort Study"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Six Relaxation Techniques to Reduce Stress"
- American Psychological Association: "APA Dictionary of Psychology"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy"
- Journal of Occupational Health Psychology: "Mindfulness On-the-go: Effects of a Mindfulness Meditation App on Work Stress and Well-being"
- Scientific Reports: "Spending at Least 120 Minutes a Week in Nature Is Associated with Good Health and Wellbeing"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How Much Sleep Do Adults Really Need?"
- APA: "Stress and Sleep"
- Sleep Foundation: "Sleep and You Lifestyle - Healthy Sleep and Tips"
- Continuing Psychology Journal: "Finding Solutions to the Problem of Burnout"
- PNAS: "Motor, Cognitive, and Affective Areas of the Cerebral Cortex Influence the Adrenal Medulla"
- Journal of Clinical Medicine: "The Use of Yoga to Manage Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers: A Systematic Review"