Burnout is rampant. Americans, especially, are working more hours than ever and sleeping less than ever before. Sadly, the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee workers paid vacation. Burnout seems inevitable. Indeed, it is a worldwide issue. However, burnout is NOT a foregone conclusion and you CAN proactively buffer yourself from it.
Burnout Sneaks Up On Us
I was working with a hand-picked group of colleagues on a new training product for leaders. We were in Georgia for a week to beta test and evaluate this new program. The months and weeks leading up to this had been a whirlwind of coordination, refining, and debate, on top of my normal responsibilities. As you’ve likely guessed by now, I was feeling pretty burned out.
By Wednesday of beta-week, I realized I needed to intervene or my performance would suffer more than it might have already.
You may have found yourself in similar situations. We get over scheduled or redirected, and other things take precedent to our sanity, health, and well-being. These are the times when burnout sneaks up on us.
What is Burnout?
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term burnout in 1974 referring to the “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Based on the work hours many people log today, it may be surprising that we aren’t all burned out.
Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of chronic stress and frustration that leads to:
- physical and emotional exhaustion;
- feelings of cynicism and detachment; and
- a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
Common signs of burnout are:
- Chronic fatigue
- Poor focus and concentration
- Sleep disturbance
- Physical discomfort
- Feelings of anxiety and depression
- Loss of enjoyment
- Uncharacteristic pessimism
- Increased frustration and irritability
- Decline in productivity and performance
These qualities converge to sabotage your personal and professional lives.
How to Prevent Burnout
As a go getter, the best way to deal with burnout is to buffer yourself from becoming burned out to begin with. I have found 4 buffers that work for me.
During the beta week of leader training I mentioned above, exercise saved my bacon. That Wednesday, a colleague (who was also suffering) and I made time to run in the evening. While it took extra energy, exercise has a mysterious way of refueling the tank.
Since then, I have become much more conscientious about getting regular exercise. Every time I start to feel the initial symptoms of burnout, I also see how I’ve let my exercise slip.
Turns out research confirms the buffering effects of exercise. A 2013 study of insurance and bank workers found that a twelve week exercise program reduced individual and work-related burnout. Another study focused on job burnout and depression found that those employees who engaged in physical activity demonstrated significantly less burnout and depression (Toker et al., 2012).
2. Eat Well
What we consume (food and beverages) is the fuel our bodies use to propel us through the day. Just like our vehicles don’t run well when filled with mediocre gasoline, our bodies don’t run well on a subpar diet.
How do we expect our bodies to keep up the pace, face obstacles, and be resilient if we are fueling it with fatty carbs, sugar and caffeine? I’m not much of a baker, but that sounds like a recipe for burnout to me.
Over the last few years, I’ve become more aware of how my body responds to what I put in it. When my body is fed with real food (think natural, from the earth food with recognizable ingredients), it simply runs better.
A 2012 study investigating the connection between sleep and burnout found that getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night is “the main risk factor” for burnout. The researchers identified the connection between reduced sleep and burnout as one of “causation.”
Our minds and bodies need sleep. As we sleep, our brains are resetting chemicals in our minds and bodies that affect our abilities to cope with stress, physically and mentally.
My fitness watch tracks my sleep for me. When I review my most frustrating weeks, or when I’ve felt more chaotic and overwhelmed at work, it was when I was getting less than optimal sleep.
Work, work, work all day long. That is surely a path to burnout. Our minds and bodies need time to recover and rejuvenate. We need rest.
When I’ve been at the grindstone too long, I begin to crave relief, release, and rest. I don’t mean five minutes surfing social media. Taking a breather and a mental break is good, but it isn’t enough.
I’m talking about setting aside time to disengage from work, outside of work. As a Christ follower, I honor the sabbath, a day each week to rest and reflect on what has been accomplished. But, there are lots of ways to rest:
- Get outside (my favorite)
- Read a novel
- Go for a walk
- Take a nap
- Putter in your garden
- Connect with family and friends
- Do something creative
- Play with your children
- Explore somewhere new
- Take a vacation
Notice rest doesn’t mean doing nothing. It also doesn’t mean escaping your present circumstances. Rest is peaceful, enjoyable, relaxing, and fun.
To help you beware of the signs of burnout and be proactive in preventing burnout, I’ve created this printable infographic.
Buffer Yourself From Burnout
We are all at risk for burnout. Some of us push ourselves hard to achieve, others of us get stuck in a cycle of monotony. Either way, we must all keep an eye out for the early signs telling us we’re on the course to burnout. More importantly, make these 4 buffers non-negotiable in your week-to-week life. Avoiding burnout is a key aspect of continuing to cultivate excellence.
Question: What helps you avoid burnout? Share your own insights in the comments section.