How to Avoid the Burnout You Might Be Heading for
Burnout is serious—here's how to prevent it with some self-care.
It seems like one of the new buzzwords du jour is "burnout"... and for good reason.
"Burnout is a huge issue for many people—especially for young women," says Navya Mysore, M.D., a physician at One Medical in New York. "There's a lot of pressure put on us by society—and ourselves—to meet certain goals and expectations. It can really take a toll on you and can lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression."
Take note, though: Burnout isn't the same as being super stressed. Whereas stress often makes you feel like your emotions are in overdrive, burnout does the opposite and actually makes you feel "empty" or "beyond caring," as we reported in "Why Burnout Should Be Taken Seriously".
So, everyone's stressed, some people are legitimately burnt out, and our entire generation has been b*tchslapped with unreasonable cultural and societal expectations. But what can we actually do about it? Prevention, actually, is the best way to deal with burnout.
Ahead, eight tips from experts that could help you get back on course before letting the burnout vibes consume you.
1. Do a hard reset.
Sometimes you just need to do a factory reset. "I recommend taking a step back," says Dr. Mysore. "Even if it's as simple as taking a weekend to shut down and reboot; catching up on sleep or doing something you enjoy, taking time for yourself is a vital part of staying healthy. Write it down in your calendar and stick to it."
Many women make excuses for not putting themselves first, but remind yourself how important it is to avoid burnout—the ramifications are serious! (Here's how to make time for self-care even when you have none.)
Don't wait for something catastrophic to happen—give yourself permission to take a break now. "Don't wait for things to be feeling off, or you're already pumping cortisol," says life coach Mandy Morris, creator of Authentic Living. If you wait until you're feeling overwhelmed, "you'll likely already be paralyzed in this state [of stress], or unable to see what you really need to step out of that feeling as quickly as possible," she says.
"Try taking a vacation or a no-technology week," says Morris. "Whatever gives you that sense of calm, clarity, and empowerment—do it, and do it often."
2. Prioritize sleep.
"Monitor your sleep; this is one of the most common things I see start to slip with the people I see that have worn themselves too thin," says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D. and executive director of Innovation360, a group of outpatient counselors and therapists in Dallas. "Regardless of what you think, dozens of research articles still say that adults need at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night," he says. "You can steal time to work for a few nights—but it will catch up with you." (Related: Here's How Bad It Really Is to Skimp on Sleep)
Give this a try: "Think about your body as you think about your phone," he says. "Most of us would never think about not plugging the phone in at night so we have a full charge." You wouldn't expect your phone to work for a week without a charge, so why are you depriving yourself of sleep?
3. Check in with your eating habits.
Keep an eye on your diet, too. "When we get stressed, we tend to ask food to keep us up," says Gilliland. "We increase our caffeine and sugar intake, chasing bad energy. Keep tabs on your typical routine: what you eat and when you eat. If that's slipping, check and see if you are running too hard for too long."
The inverse can also be true. While stress eating is very real and very vicious for some of us, many women also lose their appetites from stress and tend to under-eat, thus losing unhealthy amounts of weight.
"I see many women skipping meals," says Dr. Mysore. "They don't necessarily mean to—they're just in one meeting after another after another, and meals fall off the priority list." Sound familiar? We thought so. "This can impact your body and mood more than one might expect. At a certain point, your body literally goes into 'starvation mode,' which can dramatically impact your stress levels, even if you're not feeling incredibly hungry yet," she says. Fun times.
Her fix? Meal prep. "Many people see meal prep as elaborate, but it doesn't have to be! It can be as simple as chopping carrots for a healthy snack or roasting vegetables like broccoli or brussels sprouts on a baking sheet to add to meals throughout the week." Just remember to identify any diet changes that could be red flags, so you can fix your situation before things escalate.
4. Exercise regularly
"In order to avoid build-ups of stress hormones like cortisol, exercising regularly is key—especially for people with desk jobs," says Dr. Mysore. "Exercise can help you control stress and anxiety and manage feelings of burnout." (Just make sure it's a healthy level of exercise; overexertion can exacerbate anxiety.)
A recent report about corporate wellness programs from ClassPass highlights the role that fitness can play in avoiding burnout. The company surveyed 1,000 professionals, and 78 percent said they'd experienced burnout at some point. Of the subjects who had previously participated in a corporate wellness program, one in three reported lowered stress and improved morale.
To help move that cortisol out and keep your body healthy and balanced, try some low-impact exercises like yoga, Pilates, and barre, and make sure you add in plenty of long walks. (Related: Here's What a Perfectly Balanced Week of Workouts Looks Like) While (like each of the tips on this list) exercise isn't a cure-all for burnout, it will help you feel more balanced by managing daily stress on a daily basis.
You've heard this again and again, but it works. Physicians, psychologists, and life coaches alike recommend meditation for physical and mental health. "Meditation and practicing mindfulness can also be important for avoiding burnout," says Dr. Mysore.
"Ideally, this should happen daily. It can be tough to keep up with, but if you start with one day a week at first and gradually increase from there it can feel a lot more manageable." Again, this is a great tool to help manage stress, but it's not a burnout cure. Think of it as part of the formula.
6. Listen to your body.
Feeling run down? Bloated all the time? Acidic stomach? Hair falling out and nails breaking? Same, girl. We can't emphasize this enough: Listen to your body!
"We get aches, pains, and the common cold when you run yourself out of gas," says Gilliland. "The research is pretty consistent: Your immune system is not a never-ending supply of protection from illness. You can and do wear it out when you do too much."
"Rest is just as important as exercise, so give yourself a break," says motivational speaker and author Monica Berg, chief communications officer of The Kabbalah Centre and author of Fear is Not an Option. Giving yourself a pause from activities, exercises, and phone time can be necessary salvation.
"Self-care cannot be overstated," says Berg. "Not long ago I got the flu, and I rarely get sick, but when I do, it's severe. I missed my workout four days in a row, which is unheard of in my life. What I realized was that some weeks I feel better not working out every day. Listen to your body."
7. Figure out why you're allowing stress to mount.
While certain stressors may seem out of your control, others you may allow into your life because they're reinforced by the people around you, culture, or other psychological rewards.
"Burnout occurs from a lack of awareness, care, or disregard for what is happening in the self," says Morris. "There are many reasons you might allow burnout to occur, so get clear on why you allow it."
Some examples? Pressure from your boss or coworkers to be seen as a 'winner', family expectations, or a sense of internal pressure of being not good enough. Any of these can fuel you to continually push past your limits when it comes to not just work, but relationships, family, caregiving, exercise, and beyond.
"Get to the root of why you allow the burnout to occur, and then use the tools of self-love, development, understanding of yourself to combat those patterns you've unconsciously created for yourself," says Morris. "Once those perceived rewards are removed, you can choose to come at situations in a new and lighter way that is actually in alignment with you."
This awareness is crucial. "Awareness is limited by insight," says Gilliland. "If you don't know yourself (insight), then it's going to be pretty difficult to be aware of things not going well."
Let's go back to the phone-charging analogy: "Imagine not having a battery indicator on your phone—when it dies, you're probably going to be surprised and wonder what happened," he says. "There are better ways to go through life."
8. Learn to say "no"—even at work.
Setting boundaries and being able to say 'no' when you have an already-full schedule is crucial, says Gilliland. So is being able to "let some good things go, and focus on great things," he says. "There is a difference between the two, and you need to be able to determine that."
"It will feel wrong, and you may question whether you made the right decision, but sometimes when you do the right thing, it may still feel wrong." (Start here: How to Say No More Often)
While it may be easier said than done to create boundaries when it comes to work—especially for millennials (due to systemic, cultural, and conditioning factors)—it's key to preventing burnout. "Setting boundaries between your work and personal life is a must," says Berg. "Long hours mean one of two things: You have too much to do or you're wasting time at work." If it's the former, it's your responsibility to let your boss know if you have too much work, she says.
If you get anxiety just thinking about that, remember: This is for your health. And there's a way to go about it professionally. "You can discuss moving timelines, bringing on a team member to share the load, or shifting projects to someone else," says Berg. "During this conversation, share how much you enjoy your work and how grateful you are for the position." (Related: Why You Really Need to Stop Answering Emails In the Middle of the Night)
Set a physical boundary with work, too: Don't bring it to the bedroom. "I can't recommend this enough: don't take your phone to bed with you," says Dr. Mysore. "Leave it to charge on the kitchen counter and buy a cheap alarm clock to wake you up instead. Your work email should not be the last thing you see at night nor the first thing you see in the morning."