Managing Burnout: Tips for Finding Balance in a Demanding World
“I knew I had to make a change, but I didn’t know how,” she said to her counsellor, her eyes downcast. “I was at a loss. And then eventually, I was forced to resign from my position. I was heartbroken and felt like a total failure.”
Samantha had always been a hard worker. She excelled in school and graduated first in her class in college. After graduation, she landed a highly sought-after job at a top consulting firm and quickly rose. But as she took on more responsibilities, she became overwhelmed. She worked long hours and was frequently stressed. She tried to push through it, believing this was all required to succeed.
But the pressure only increased, and Samantha soon struggled to keep up. She was exhausted and burned out, and her work suffered. She made mistakes and missed deadlines, and her once-impressive reputation began to suffer.
Despite her best efforts, Samantha couldn’t get back on track. She was overwhelmed and depressed, and her personal life suffered. She began to withdraw from her friends and family, and her relationships suffered.
Samantha was eventually forced to resign from her position. She was heartbroken and felt like a total failure. It took a long time for her to rebuild.
“It took a long time for me to recover, but I eventually realized that it was okay to ask for help and set boundaries for myself,” Samantha said, a glimmer of hope returning to her eyes. “It was a tough journey, but I’m in a much better place now.”
Within the workplace and perhaps the working world, the term burnout has become a part of our everyday lexicon. To illustrate its commonplace existence, a simple search on the Internet will yield over two hundred million results and subsequent recommendations on defining and addressing the concern. Moreover, thousands, if not millions, of coaches, therapists, workplace experts, human resource professionals, and numerous other disciplines have created a niche industry in mitigating Burnout at the individual and organizational levels.
This is not without reason or merit. Burnout is not a new phenomenon, and it has been further exacerbated. At the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry was on the verge of collapse in numerous countries worldwide. What is often forgotten is the humans behind the healthcare industry, who bear the bulk of the extreme psychological and physiological burden in addressing the medical impact of the pandemic and the ripples that continue to reverberate across the globe. Unfortunately, the non-clinical workforce needed to catch up in its rapid trajectory towards Burnout, which leads us to the present moment.
What is Burnout?
Before going further, it may be helpful to define Burnout. The World Health Organization’s (2019) International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision [ICD-11] classifies Burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from the unsuccessful management of chronic workplace stress. Three dimensions characterize the syndrome, “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” (WHO, 2019). It is important to note that Burnout is not currently classified as a medical condition or mental health disorder. However, that may change in the future. In more basic terms, Burnout is the result of prolonged work-related stress that leads to emotional and physical exhaustion and detachment from work that generally includes a loss of motivation, feelings of hopelessness, failure, or lack of personal agency. Work can be occupationally related, and occupations span a spectrum of definitions, including work inside and outside the home.
Stress-related Burnout can take its toll on all areas of life and can include physical symptoms beyond exhaustion, such as gastrointestinal concerns, physical aches and pains, difficulty with sleep, chronic fatigue, and others. Most commonly known are the emotional and cognitive concerns, which can include psychological distress, having a shorter fuse (quick to anger) than usual, increased irritability, increased self-criticism, and doubts about self-worth or ability. In addition, increased risk-taking behaviour or increased “self-medication” through the use of substances or alcohol is also expected. Lastly, Burnout can show up in one’s work life through an increase in absenteeism or tardiness, disillusionment, lack of attention, making more mistakes at work than typical, poor performance, isolation from work colleagues, loss of sense of work purpose, and low satisfaction with work (CVT, 2022). Undoubtedly, these symptoms will bleed into one’s home life as well.
How to manage Burnout in the workplace?
Burnout prevention and subsequent management have shared responsibilities between workers and employers. Employers should maintain ongoing organizational practices that support workers’ psychological and physiological health. While not an exhaustive list, these should include exercises that promote and enforce reasonable working hours, establish non-negotiable rest and recovery time outside of working hours, clearly communicate expectations and ongoing training, and the enforcement of work-life boundaries. In addition, appropriate supervision and support from management, including the option for peer support group practices that encourage workplace well-being, psychological safety, diversity, equity, and inclusion, celebrations of success, among many others, are also essential (CVT, 2022).
How organizations implement these practices will vary widely depending on the work discipline and environment. However, all work environments require intentional action towards preventing and managing Burnout. The onus is not solely on the worker to perform self-care, as the environment in which one exists significantly impacts their well-being and health. Organizational practices to address Burnout often stem from a rising issue within the organization that necessitates quick action, such as employee attrition, lower productivity, an increase in injury or error, and an increase in sick time usage, among many others. Alternatively, action can result from employee advocacy, proactive management and leadership team members recognizing the benefits of a healthy workforce, or the challenge of Burnout may be on the horizon. Organizational actions towards addressing Burnout can and have been the topic of numerous texts. The discussion above should be considered some highlights to spark conversation, not a definitive guide for businesses.
How to manage Burnout for Individuals?
As mentioned earlier, the prevention and management of Burnout are a shared responsibility between the employer and the employee. While many individuals have reached the point of saturation when discussing the concept of self-care and the workplace, there are scientifically based methods to help support one’s well-being within the framework of occupational health and wellness that are readily accessible and well worth investigating. Burnout can be viewed as an imbalance between the stress resulting from a work environment and the activities, emotions, and behaviours that moderate that stress and subsequently make it manageable. Significant challenges can develop when things are out of balance for long enough.
As a metaphor for work-life balance, imagine wearing only one platform shoe for weeks on end. At first, the single shoe could be seen as a challenge requiring simple lifestyle adjustments. Still, over time, the stress on the body from the imbalance would begin to create pain, discomfort, psychological distress, and possibly even anxiety about the next time you need to get up and walk around. Taking the shoe off after weeks of regular wear will not immediately solve the physiological and psychological stress encumbered by the mind and body. Similarly, taking a few days off of work will not immediately solve the impact of prolonged workplace stress or Burnout. Prevention is always best, followed by quick action when the warning signs of Burnout pop up. Again, the environment is a critical factor in Burnout. Addressing one’s Burnout while still experiencing continual exposure to significant workplace stress will typically make it a much longer road to recovery.
How to find Work-Life Balance?
There are numerous ways to find balance in one’s life, and results will vary depending on pre-existing psychological and physiological conditions. However, a great starting place is to reflect on your practices surrounding the following areas of life, all of which have been proven to moderate stress and/or improve one’s subjective sense of well-being, which will, in turn, boost resiliency and buffer against Burnout. These include:
Compared to the general public, relatively few people are considered “short sleepers”. They can consistently function well on less than 6-10 hours of sleep. Unless you are a part of this roughly 10% of the population, quality sleep is essential for health and well-being. Develop an evening routine with action steps towards winding down. Avoid television and screens immediately before bed.
Focus on whole foods, fruit, vegetables, and plenty of water. When stressed or burned out, it is easy to veer towards high-calorie, fatty, sugary, and salty foods. However, these impede the body’s natural immune function and stress-fighting capabilities.
Physical Activity and/or Intentional Relaxation Exercises
Yoga or progressive relaxation support positive well-being, releases natural stress-fighting neurochemicals and can reduce overall stress. Taking action in this category can be as small of a start as five minutes of stretching or getting up every hour to walk around your office. But, again, small steps grow into significant results over time.
Examples include finding or redefining meaning in work or at home, spiritual communion with your higher power, meditation, or mindfulness. This topic is often missed when discussing stress and wellness, but time and time again, mindfulness, spirituality, and finding purpose. In addition, other related activities have been found to improve the sense of well-being and moderate responses to stress.
Time in Nature
Evidence supports the notion that time in nature can reduce stress and improve emotional well-being. Try going outside, listening to bird songs and wildlife, getting mild sun exposure, and breathing fresh air.
Pursuing Mental Health Support Services
Regular mental health maintenance is the key to long-term stability. Reach out and speak to someone, especially an unbiased audience like a trained therapist. Starting before or when you first notice an issue is critical. Be sure to talk to a professional before things are out of hand.
Engaging in and fostering socially supportive relationships can act as a buffer against stress and encourage more prosocial behaviour.
The balance will take time, and intentional work towards balance should start with small steps. Try to do only some things at a time. Pick one area to focus on for the next four weeks, beginning with baby steps. Recent publications evidence the benefit of micro-actions towards a goal. No time to exercise? Try parking further out from your office building, bicycling, or walking to work, to lunch, and during your rest breaks. Need more time to meditate? Take 2-5 minutes of your lunch break to close your eyes and direct your attention to your breathing. Running short on sleep? Set a reminder alarm and try to go to bed just 5 minutes earlier.
While these actions aren’t revolutionary, they are supported by scientific evidence to improve subjective well-being, reduce stress, and/or boost resiliency. The last step is to tell a friend or family member about your goal and ask them to be your accountability buddy, with regular weekly or daily check-ins.
About the Author: Dr Zachary Ginder is the founder of Pine Siskin Consulting, an occupational health and wellness consulting organization. He has a passion for helping others and considers service for the betterment of all a part of life’s purpose. Dr Ginder has a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work, emphasizing work and life issues. He resides in Southern California with his family and enjoys reading, writing, music, outdoor activities, photography, and motorcycling. In addition, he is a yogi with a lifelong sadhana within the Self Realization Fellowship/ Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, Kriya Yoga tradition.
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