A few weeks ago, I noticed that I was feeling completely burned out. I don’t often talk about my struggles or feelings of anxiety and depression. In my role as a coach, I try to maintain an upbeat attitude to help my clients feel positive and energized to conquer their personal challenges.
But I’m going to open up and be more vulnerable here than I normally feel comfortable doing. I’m lowering the walls and admitting that the burnout has been hitting me pretty hard.
I'm sharing this because I think many of you might be feeling this way too. I want to help.
The symptoms started adding up, and I couldn’t ignore them any longer. I was feeling down for days on end, sometimes for over a week. I’d briefly have a good afternoon but crash again for several more days.
My energy levels dropped, and I felt exhausted all the time. That isn’t normal for me. I was still forcing myself to exercise, which helped a little. But, it didn’t lift my mood like it usually did.
I didn’t feel motivated to work the long hours that I normally do. I wasn’t feeling hopeful, and I struggled to be creative. I just stopped caring about the future.
I finally had to admit that what I was experiencing was burnout. Some of it was related to work stress, but much of it is connected to how long we’ve lived under these insane pandemic conditions for over a year now.
If the pandemic has left you feeling burned out, too, you are not alone. 62% of people surveyed in the fall of 2020 who were struggling to manage workloads said they had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months. 85% said their well-being had declined.
The World Health Organization has gone so far as to include burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. Here is how they define it:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
reduced professional efficacy.”
People who are willing to talk about how they’ve been feeling are saying things like:
I’m facing more mental health challenges than usual.
I haven’t been able to keep up my physical fitness.
I’m so lonely and I never see my friends anymore.
I feel like this past year has set my career back.
I’m in financial trouble now and worried about making ends meet.
There is so much uncertainty that it makes me feel constantly anxious.
I’m worried about my future.
There are many symptoms of burnout, and you can attribute some of them to other problems. For example, feeling frustrated and irritable could be related to burnout, or maybe you just work with a bunch of jerks.
However, here is where I think the differences lie and when it gets so concerning that you have to do something about it:
The feelings of apathy and hopelessness persist for weeks or even months.
Your career is at risk due to your lack of motivation, inability to focus and perform, lingering exhaustion, and cynicism about the future.
You stop taking care of yourself.
We often talk about burnout as being something you personally feel and, therefore, must personally address (e.g., take a vacation, do more yoga). However, according to research, burnout has six main causes, and they don’t point to it being a personal problem that you can completely fix on your own:
Perceived lack of control
Insufficient rewards for effort
Lack of a supportive community
Lack of fairness
Mismatched values and skills
It’s not entirely fair to point at employers as the sole cause of the problem, though. The global pandemic certainly contributed to a large amount of our stress and anxiety starting in early 2020. But, how employers managed the crisis did play a role in making things better or worse.
I wish that all employers would proactively take steps to recognize burnout and reduce the conditions contributing to it. But, unfortunately, we know that won’t happen.
So, what can you do? How can you take care of yourself to prevent or recover from burnout if your employer won’t take action to help?
There are some steps you can take, which I share below. A few are under your control and will personally help you. Others may require a discussion with your boss. Some may require a change of environment.
I know the last suggestion sounds drastic, but your health and well-being are important. I’m familiar with making drastic changes in my life in response to burnout.
I went through burnout about five years ago when my startup failed. Our quality of life had already been declining in the Bay Area, and I couldn’t face going back into a corporate tech job and the long commutes again. So, we sold our home, moved away for a fresh start, and I started a new business that broke free from my past. In some ways, I felt like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Recognize the warning signs
We all experience some of the symptoms associated with burnout from time to time. They include fatigue, forgetfulness, depression, detachment, irritability, and apathy.
However, there’s a difference between a bad day or week and having several bad weeks or months. If you are experiencing many of these symptoms for a prolonged period of time and you feel like you’re shutting down, you’re on the path to burning out.
Take action sooner rather than later. It’s easier to avoid total burnout than to recover from it later.
Recharge and recover
If you’re in the early phases of what could turn into burnout, taking a break can help. A weekend getaway or a short vacation may be just what you need to recharge your batteries.
It doesn’t solve the root problems that caused you to feel this way. But, it could help you recover enough to go back and dive into addressing them so that you don’t feel like you’re burning out again later.
Find the necessary support
If you’re already experiencing serious burnout and need help, here are a few online therapy resources:
However, sometimes all you need is to know that you’re not alone. It helps to commiserate with peers who may be experiencing stress, anxiety, and the early signs of burnout too. Talking with others can help you work through your feelings and discuss potential solutions to some of the problems you’re facing.
For example, the members of my career accelerator community have said that our weekly meetings are a lifeline. We support each other, provide advice and feedback, and help each other laugh even when it’s been a bad week.
Create a sense of purpose
Having a sense of purpose can definitely make your work feel more meaningful. There will always be times that work is stressful, and you will feel overloaded. But, you can often get through it when you know that what you are working on matters.
I’ve certainly experienced this during my career. There were times that I felt like what I was doing was pointless (and that later proved to be true 😒). So, when I was working long hours and dealing with lots of stress, it only felt worse.
There were also times that I knew my work mattered and I was excited about what we were launching. The hours were crazy, and the workload was heavy, but in the end, I was proud of what we created. That sense of purpose carried me through so that I may have been tired, but I wasn’t burned out.
If your job never gives you a sense of purpose, that’s concerning. Finding a role where you feel like your work matters is a good investment of your time and energy.
Control your workload
As I mentioned above, one of the main causes of burnout is an unsustainable workload. If this is happening to you, you need to address it soon.
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t in full control of our workload. So, that means that you need to have a conversation with your manager.
Communicate with your manager
I hope you’re one of the lucky few people who have an amazing manager. If so, don’t be shy about scheduling a meeting with your manager to discuss how you are feeling. A good manager will want to help you avoid burnout.
Share how you feel and what you think contributes to the causes (e.g., workload, stress, missing support, lack of control). Be prepared with some ideas for how to address the issues and fix the problems.
Even if you don’t have a great manager, you still need to have this conversation. If you don’t and the situation continues to be unacceptable, you will burn out. It’s not an easy or fun conversation, but you need to set some boundaries for your own good.
Set limits and boundaries
Like any machine, you will break down if you are always being pushed past your limits. Working too many hours, dealing with too much stress, and living with too much anxiety isn’t sustainable.
Identify your limits and know when you need time to take care of yourself and recover every single day. I have learned that I need personal rituals and habits to stay healthy and sane (e.g., coffee breaks, journaling, time for exercise, dinner with my family every night).
Once you know what you want your boundaries to be, it’s time to have a conversation with your manager. Get the support you need to be healthy. If they can’t provide you with that support, it might be time to look for a better company culture and a better boss.
Connect with friends and family
Your friends and family provide a different type of comfort and support beyond what a community or therapist might provide. The conversations, laughter, and fun give you a welcome break from the stress of work.
While it may be difficult, it helps to set a time in the evenings when you put away your laptop, ignore work messages, and spend time with your friends and/or loved ones. This comes back to setting boundaries.
I had to start this practice around 13 years ago. Otherwise, work would consume all of my waking hours and ruin my weekends when I was supposed to be spending time with my family.
Own your future
Taking control of your future is empowering. Planning your career puts you in the driver’s seat instead of feeling like a victim trapped in a cycle of burnout when your job is the problem.
For example, one of my clients was experiencing some serious burnout in their current job. We tried to improve the situation for several months, but it didn’t work. So, we decided that it was time to plan a new future and find a better job.
In the past month of interviewing and receiving offers, they have experienced a massively positive turnaround in their sense of empowerment and control of their future. Seeing how valued they are and how well they will be treated elsewhere has sparked new hope.
They no longer feel like they are waiting for something to happen to them. They are making things happen for them.
Recommit to hope
It’s not easy to escape the feeling that things will never get better. I’ve been there. It can seem so dark and hopeless.
However, when you do get help, make plans, and take action, things will get better. It won’t happen overnight, but you will see steady progress, and you know that your burnout won’t last forever.
Believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Know that it is possible to find a better environment where your well-being is important, and your needs are respected. Having hope helps you hang in there until your efforts pay off and you start feeling good again.
Avoiding future burnout
When you get better at recognizing the early signs of burnout, you’ll be able to catch the situation early and take action to avoid letting it happen. If you take control of your current work experience and take ownership of your future career path, you’ll also be able to keep things from getting out of control again.
Now, I know that sounds easier said than done, especially if you don’t work in a great company culture or have a supportive manager. But, then you have a tough decision to make.
Do you let the problems persist and risk your health and happiness, or do you make a big change and move on to a healthier environment?
I had to make the second choice. It wasn’t easy, and it came with its own stress and risks, of course.
I now make a fraction of the income than I did before when I was neck-deep in the stressful corporate world as an executive. I gave up a lot of money to essentially buy back my freedom to live life on my own terms and run my own business. To make it work, I had to aggressively lower my living expenses, sell my home, and move to a new environment with a more reasonable cost of living.
My health and well-being are worth it. The most recent burnout that I experienced wasn’t due to my working conditions. The source of my problems was the pandemic, the political climate in the U.S., and the stress it has placed on my children.
That’s why I’m feeling better now. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel with the global rollout of the vaccines. I am already making new plans for my business this year and considering international travel again. I have a renewed sense of purpose and hope, and that makes all the difference.
I want you to feel that sense of control, purpose, meaning, and hope too! Let me know how I can help.
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who runs a professional online community. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.