The Slow burn to Burnout and What You Can Do About It
Do you ever feel so stressed that something you once loved and were passionate about now feels like a heavy burden? Maybe you are even questioning your chosen career or academic path because it’s not what you expected and you find yourself dreading the work. Perhaps things have gotten so bad that you are feeling constantly behind, and worry that no matter how hard you try, you can never be sufficiently productive or catch up. If you resonate with these statements, there is a good chance you may be experiencing burnout.
Not surprisingly, burnout is one of the most common concerns I hear about from my clients who are graduate students and early career professionals. Burnout often affects high achievers and highly competent individuals because they believe they can or should be able to “do it all”. More is often asked of high achievers because of their past competency or the confidence that others have in their abilities. If you are good at what you do, chances are others will give you more responsibility, and you may feel they expect you to be good at everything.
Burnout isn’t something that happens suddenly. It has a tendency to gradually sneak up on people after prolonged or chronic stress. Our bodies can only sustain high levels of stress for a limited amount of time before we are significantly impacted. Our internal resources, such as the ability to focus, sustain attention, and emotionally regulate ourselves during stressful situations are limited resources that are easily drained when stress consumes us. In fact, stress tends to occur when the demands that are placed on us exceed our resources to manage those demands. Thus, we have two options for responding to burnout, we can either decrease the demands that are being placed on us or increase our coping resources for managing the stress of those demands. Often, both responses are needed to effectively reduce burnout and reclaim a sense of balance and enjoyment in the workplace. Below are some practical strategies to help you manage feelings of burnout:
7 ways to cope with burnout:
- Embrace reasonable expectations for yourself and let go of perfectionism.
- Learn to say no and set boundaries– For many hardworking and high achieving individuals, saying no can be difficult. There are often fears of disappointing others or being perceived negatively as a result of saying no, which hinder a person’s ability to set appropriate limits when feeling overwhelmed. This inability to say no and set healthy boundaries frequently perpetuates the cycle of burnout.
- Prioritize self-care – Your needs and your health matter! Many students and professionals will work long hours, skip meals and breaks, get insufficient sleep, and withdraw from physical and social activities in order to be more productive. However, productivity, work quality, and creativity all suffer when we do not take the time to rest and take care of our physical and emotional needs.
- Ask for and accept help – We all need help sometimes. Learning to utilize your resources (e.g. tutors/mentors, therapists, supervisors, coworkers, peers, department of human resources) and embracing your limits can often free up emotional and intellectual resources, allowing you to feel less stressed and less isolated.
- Cut out unnecessary tasks/roles – if you feel you are doing too much, clarify what is actually necessary and a priority for you, then find ways to delegate or withdraw from obligations that are not truly necessary or consistent with your priorities.
- Learn to accept and embrace failure – Failure is a common and even necessary part of the human experience and plays an important role in the creative process. However, embracing our limits and not letting a fear of failure control us, can be very difficult and often requires looking at the fear associated with the failure and exploring the perceived consequences to a person’s image, career, or relationships if they were to fail. Therapy can be helpful in both understanding these fears and overcoming them.
- Use your support resources – friends, family, religious groups, etc. Our tendency is to withdraw from those who care about us when we feel overwhelmed, when in fact, those relationships are central to managing life’s difficulties.