What is burnout and what can I do to combat it?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged and repeated stress. Though it’s often caused by problems at work, other contributors are parenting, caretaking, or romantic relationships. If you or a loved one are feeling exhausted, sluggish, and even simple tasks feel overwhelming to complete, or you find yourself so stressed out that you’re quick to get angry or frustrated – keep reading. You might be experiencing burnout.

In addition to the mental effects, burnout can also affect your physical health. Physical signs of burnout can include fatigue, headaches, sleep changes, heartburn, and other gastrointestinal symptoms due to changes in diet, as well as increased potential for alcohol, drug, or food misuse.

Burnout is different than stress. In comparison, stress is short-lived or tied to a specific goal or event. It’s mostly likely not harmful. If the stress feels never-ending and is accompanied by feelings for emptiness, a lack of interest, or hopelessness, you may be experiencing burnout.

Burnout is also different than depression. While the symptoms can often resemble depression, clinical depression isn’t a response to a particular environment or one specific trigger. With burnout, once you detach yourself from work or have a weekend away from the kids, you have the ability to relax and enjoy your time.

What can I do about burnout?

Recognizing that you are experiencing burnout is a big first step towards finding relief. Before doing anything drastic, like quitting your job, try a few of these suggestions first. Small but smart changes might make a big difference.

1. Care for your mental health.

Seeing a therapist or licensed psychologist is a good first step in tackling burnout. Have a safe place to talk to someone that is not a family member, friend, or coworker, but someone who is impartial and trained to give you clinical feedback. Need to find a therapist or licensed psychologist in your insurance network? Use this link to log into your My eLink account and view your current provider directory.

2. Establish a daily routine and enforce boundaries.

Sticking to a daily routine as best as possible will help to maintain boundaries between your work and home life, especially when working from home. Be sure to also maintain basic health habits, like taking a lunch break, eating well at meals, and getting adequate sleep. Proper diet and sleep play a larger role than many realize on how stressed you feel.

Technology has made us accessible 24 hours a day, making our ability to disconnect from work more difficult. Communicate with your supervisor or employees to find an agreeable balance between work and the other areas of your life. Manage expectations so that you don’t become overextended. A healthy boundary is achievable. 

3. Build breaks in your schedule.

While working on that daily routine, be sure to give yourself a break when you need it. Step away from the computer or whatever your source of stress is. Give yourself a personal check-in and assess whether you need to take a five-minute walk, have a healthy snack, or listen to some music for a bit to clarify purpose and direct your efforts more effectively.

4. Exercise is important.

Activity and exercise are good for both your physical and mental health for several reasons. First, it decreases stress hormones in your body such as cortisol. It also increases endorphins – your body’s “feel good” chemicals – giving your mood a natural boost. Those same endorphins help you concentrate and sharpen your memory. (Not a bad side-effect when trying to combat stress.) Activity and exercise can also be a source of self-confidence as you challenge yourself in new ways. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will also give you more energy. Try to exercise in the morning or afternoon to help regulate your sleep patterns. 

Plus, the wonderful thing about exercise is that there are many, many ways to do it. It doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the gym. You can exercise all sorts of ways at home, such as gentle and restorative movement through yoga, core training utilizing your body weight, or walking the neighborhood. If a social element to your exercise routine is beneficial, you can join a team or league.

5. Practice mindfulness or meditation.

There is a strong and growing evidence base for simple mindfulness exercises. There are many good apps to start some exploration and journey. Try Insight Timer app, Headspace, Calm, Mindfulness coach, or Virtual Hope Box. It’s best to start with the basics to help your regulation and enjoy a simple focus, shifting from busy/worried mind states, and interrupting those times we are pushing too hard with daily demands.

6. A little “me time” is a good thing.

Self-care is an effective weapon in the fight against burnout. Though self-care or “me time” looks different for everyone, allowing yourself this time is important. For some this might be a simple activity you can do at home like a relaxing bath, some quiet meditation, or enjoying a hobby like fantasy football. For others it might be a round of golf, grabbing lunch with a friend, or getting a massage. You are not a bad spouse or parent if you need to step away and take a break. Show yourself some compassion and take a little time to unwind.

Although it may feel overwhelming right now, burnout recovery and building routines that are restorative is possible. Once you recognize your burnout symptoms, you’re better able to try making changes. This can also help you in the future, allowing you to better recognize when the boundaries are starting to blur again. Keep lines of communication open with your support systems. Also, remember to tune into your mind-body connection and keep a sense of compassion for yourself. Help is always there if you need it.