Feeling burned out at work is both frustrating and exhausting. Even if you enjoy some parts of your job, the continual stress can be overwhelming. If you feel overworked and under-appreciated, it’s easy to feel angry and resentful toward your team members or your boss.
Occupational burnout is characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, frustration, and cynicism, and results in reduced efficacy (the ability to produce your desired results) within the workplace (Wikipedia).
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. workers feel the same way, though this shouldn’t be too surprising. At its core, occupational burnout is caused by excessive and prolonged stress. And these days, the workplace is more stressful than ever.
Take Amazon, for example. As reported in the New York Times a couple of years ago, new employees are told to “forget the ‘poor habits’ they learned at previous jobs… When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall…’”
It’s no wonder that nearly half of HR leaders attribute up to 50 percent of their employee turnover to employee burnout.
So, what can you do about it? How can you avoid burnout at work and start feeling excited about your job again?
5 Proven Ways to Bounce Back From Burnout
1. Think Positive
It might feel good the first time you confide in a co-worker about your frustration at work. But, over time, constant negativity may only make things worse.
Having a friend at work to confide in makes a difference, but, there is a limit. Your coworkers might be trying to make the best of things, and your venting wears down even the best of friends.
Even if you find people who are equally as frustrated, it may only reinforce your negativity and unhappiness. In his book, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It, Kamal Ravikant explains that “we, as human beings, think that we’re thinking. Not true. Most of the time, we’re remembering. We’re re-living memories. We’re running familiar patterns and loops in our heads. For happiness, for procrastination, for sadness… we have loops for everything.
“Imagine a thought loop as this: a pathway laid down by constant use,” he continues. “Like a groove in rock created by water. Enough time, enough intensity, and you’ve got a river.”
You must disrupt your patterns. Stop bringing other people down by complaining, own up to your behavior, and start taking real steps toward making your situation better.
2. Reframe Who You Think You Work For
“One of the facts of modern life is that a relatively small class of people works very long hours and earns good money for its efforts,” writes Ryan Avent in The Economist. “Nearly a third of college-educated American men, for example, work more than 50 hours a week. Some professionals do twice that amount, and elite lawyers can easily work 70 hours a week almost every week of the year.”
With work taking up so much of our daily lives, we must be thoughtful about making it worth our while. Early on in your career, you probably want to make a good impression for your boss, so you push your boundaries to do exceptional work for the company and accept every additional request that comes through your inbox.
Over time, however, these requests become bothersome as you settle into the flow of your work. These seeds of resentment will only grow to anger, cynicism, and more stress if left unchecked.
Here’s the secret: You’re not working for your boss. Or the company. Sure, you rely on them for a paycheck, but at the end of the day, you are working for yourself and your career. And once you let go of feeling like you’re under your boss’s thumb, you can begin to uncover the parts of your work that you actually enjoy.
“The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend,” writes Avent. “Top professionals are the master craftsmen of the age, shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end. We design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day, we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did…”
Take a look at your job as it is now and remember why you’re there. Even if it’s a stepping stone to something else, use your current environment and resources to your advantage. Make it less about your boss or the bureaucracy, and more about pushing yourself toward your professional goals. Use your job to build your resume—a portfolio of exceptional work—and pursue your personal and professional development goals while you’re at it. Your employer will still benefit, by getting the best you.
3. Value Your Downtime
These days, everyone is talking about finding their passion in their work, or finding work that matches their passion. We’re continually told to work harder—to hustle—for what we want out of our careers and life, and many people even take on additional side projects, working more to try and achieve it.
Yet, research has proven that taking downtime has significant benefits. According to HBR, “drawing brighter lines between work and time off—family, friends, outside activities, and old-fashioned daydreaming—has clear benefits for productivity, creativity, and wellness.”
Start by scheduling time off for yourself, and stick to it like you would any other important meeting. If you’re going to stop working at 5 pm, for example, you should shut down your computer at 5 pm sharp.
It may sound silly, but downtime might feel uncomfortable at first. If not trained, your old patterns will try and pull you back, telling you to finish that one last task before shutting down for the day. Unfortunately, that one last task can easily snowball and turn into a few more hours.
One way to disrupt your patterns is to replace them with new ones. Rediscover your hobbies, carve out some time to enjoy them again, and be strict with yourself. If you want to take an hour for yourself to enjoy your coffee and read first thing in the morning, don’t let yourself pick up your phone and start checking email or Facebook.
When establishing these new routines, it also helps to reduce as much friction as possible. If your coffee and book routine is important to you, invest in an automatic coffee maker so it’s ready to go when you wake up. If you want to start running in the morning, lay out all your running gear the night before so you don’t allow yourself time in the morning to talk yourself out of it.
Your hobbies don’t have to be your passion. The point is to start doing things that you personally enjoy again, and rediscover the joys of life outside of work.
4. Set Your Boundaries
We often don’t realize how much occupational burnout affects our lives outside of the office. Work becomes another distraction vying for our attention, constantly pinging us with new email or Slack notifications during off hours, and—believe me—whether you’re trying to manage kids and dinner, or steal a few quiet moments to unwind, the added stress is the last thing you need. Allowing these micro-interruptions in your life wears you out for when it’s time to be creative and work.
Boundaries play a huge role in ensuring you keep work in the context of your professional goals, but they are absolutely necessary if you hope to value your downtime. Establishing new boundaries is difficult, mainly because you have to retrain yourself, your family, your coworkers, and your boss to work within them.
That might mean something as simple as closing down your email while you’re actively working on a project, and not responding to messages outside of scheduled time blocks. It might mean you have a frank conversation with your manager and explain that you’re going to be offline and unavailable on nights and weekends but will give your work full attention within business hours.
Even if your workplace only operates within office hours, there are other distractions to consider. If you have a bad habit of checking social media in your downtime, for example, you might try shutting off notifications on your devices completely during certain hours with scheduled ‘do not disturb’ settings. You can also explore more advanced time-management tools to help set boundaries in other areas.
Or, if you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through work email on your commute or at lunch, feed yourself some other content that you personally enjoy instead, like a good fiction book or a personal development podcast. By the time you get back to work, you’ll feel more creative and recharged.
At home, you might set boundaries around your personal time or time with your family. Talk to your partner and establish boundaries around the time you need for hobbies. Let your friends know you’re not going to answer their texts after 8 pm. Boundaries like these are critical to set expectations for both yourself and those around you as you dig yourself out of burnout.
5. End Your Day on a High Note
One way to trick your brain into starting refreshed and motivated each day lies in how you finish the day before. Instead of pushing through to finish a project entirely, stop your work at a point you look forward returning to.
For example, if you’ve set the boundary to stop work at 5 pm, take a moment at 4:30 to jot down on a Post-It what to do next for 1 to 3 projects and stick it right on your monitor. By using a Post-it, you accomplish two things: First, you know exactly where to pick up the next morning (hopefully an exciting place) without having to reacquaint yourself with the task at hand. Second, you avoid starting your day in the technology trap of email and other distractions, so you can get right to work on the very next item on your to-do list.
This won’t always work if deadlines are looming but it’s an effective strategy for ongoing projects to keep you motivated and focused.
Know When Enough is Enough
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for you to stay in your job if it’s making you absolutely miserable. The last thing you should do is simply settle into cynicism at your monotonous job for the next 10 years.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts to make the best of it and re-engage with your work, your job simply isn’t right for you. Maybe you’ve been working at the same company for several years without any professional development or promotion opportunities. Perhaps year after year, you see co-workers walk out the door and advance their careers while you stay put without any growth opportunity.
Worse yet, serious health issues can accompany severe occupational burnout. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that burnout is clinically similar to depression. One study involving 5,575 schoolteachers found that 90% of the teachers identified as burned out met diagnostic criteria for depression.
When things get so bad you don’t feel like you have any other options, it’s important to keep your emotions in check and continue to do your job to the best of your ability until you’re ready to make a move. Take some time to plan ahead, and don’t be surprised when people act differently toward you when you finally decide to leave.
At the end of the day, you should enjoy your work, even if you don’t always enjoy your job. If you’re miserable in your job today, take stock of what the underlying causes might be. Remember: It’s ultimately the organization’s responsibility to build a culture that values its people. And if there are things within that environment that you can change to make your work life better, these 5 strategies will help you re-engage.
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Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever changing business landscape.