Burnout is a real problem and one that, since being declared an “occupational phenomenon” in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) last year, clearly isn’t going away.
O.C. Tanner’s 2020 Global Culture Report consulted over 20,000 employees and leaders in 15 countries and found that 40 percent of employees experience moderate-to-severe burnout. Though the report found that certain types of people are more burned out than others (women are especially at risk), as are some professions (customer service is the most burned out department), the findings also indicate that burnout is felt fairly evenly across generations; essentially, everyone with a demanding job (and/or life) is at risk.
Burnout can often manifest in physiological ways, causing fatigue, insomnia, sadness and irritability; it can also play a role in serious conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Might there be a weekly and/or daily routine we can implement to prevent burnout? Experts say there is; here’s what they recommend:
Feeling anxious on Sunday? Take 15 minutes to plan like crazy
“Building a weekly routine to prevent burnout starts at the beginning of the work week,” says Carrie Bulger, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University. “Planning ahead for the week not only gives you an opportunity to see what’s coming, it also allows you to build in time to relax and do fun things.”
The point here, Bulger emphasizes is to lean in to the “Sunday scaries,” aka, the anxious energy you might have at the brink of a busy work week.
“Many of us already get a little anxious when the work week is about to start, why not corral the ‘scaries’ and make use of them?” Bulger reasons. “Sometime at the beginning of your work week, set aside no more than 15 minutes to take a look at the week ahead. Sync your calendars, if you don’t already do that, so you know what meetings you have, what projects are due, and whether there are unusual events happening in the coming week. Include the non-work activities in your planning, too, so you’re not caught remembering at the last second that soccer practice was moving to a different field or different time on Tuesday. I’ve actually started to print out a paper copy of the weekly family schedule, even though it’s often the same week-to-week. My kids love it because they can look on Sunday to see whether they have anything unusual going on, or if there’s a night that mom will be out, and they can remind themselves when they have stuff going on after school.”
Bulger recommends scheduling no more than 15 minutes to do your planning, and also to not check email lest “the anxiety creep back in.”
Work in 30 minute workouts
Alas, burning calories can also help prevent burnout.
“Exercise is a great stress reducer, social opportunity and mindfulness practice,” says Azizi Marshall, therapist and CEO of Artful Wellness, who champions 30 minutes of working out in the morning. “Whether you prefer high intensity movements such as plyometrics or HIIT, or more fluid movements such as yoga and walking, choose an activity that feels good to you.”
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Lift yourself out of negative thinking — and write it out
Another mindfulness trick that comes in handy is to check in with your thoughts and see if you’re heading down a negative spiral. Cliche as it sounds, Amy Quarton, associate instructor for the online organizational leadership program at Maryville University, says that steering your thoughts toward the positive things in your life can be helpful.
“Pessimistic thinking can become a bad habit and contribute to job burnout,” Quarton says. “Some people use meditation and yoga to help calm the mind.”
If you’re feeling like it’s all getting to be a bit too much, take a moment to get the chatter out of your head and onto paper, or even into your phone.
“Write in a journal or make voice recordings on a smart device,” says Quarton. “You don’t have to keep your entries; the goal is to express your thoughts and feelings in a safe environment instead of dwelling on them.”
Build in micro-moments of peace and rejuvenation
“Try micro-meditation or micro-napping after an energy depleting task or meeting,” says Sara Whitman, Chief People Officer at Hot Paper Lantern. “As little as two minutes where I close my eyes and focus on my breathing can give me a boost and make me feel refreshed. Even better is a brisk walk outside with a coworker. Consider these moments of rejuvenation part of your job. They will help you stay connected and energized to tackle your work and be your best.”
Engage in active recovery when you get home
“If you do strength training, you don’t work the same muscle groups on multiple days because you have to give your body time to recover from the effort of working out,” says Bulger. “Recovery from work is exactly the same: you need to give your mind and your body time to bounce back from the stress you experienced during the day.”
Bulger clarifies that recovery, in this sense, is an active process that can be done in two ways.
“One recovery tactic involves what researchers call psychological detachment,” she says. “This means removing yourself from work both physically and cognitively. Going home at the end of the day is a great way to start, but detachment is also cognitive. Ruminating about work or rehashing the day doesn’t do anyone any good. Get work out of your head — distract yourself with activities or use the meditation technique of acknowledging a work thought when it creeps in and then think of something else. Turn off your email and text notifications for at least some of the outside work time so that you don’t get jolted back into thinking about work.”
It might seem odd to think of relaxation as a technique, but Bulger insists this is a bona fide recovery tactic — if you do it right.
“Relaxation can be taking a low intensity walk, enjoying a conversation with friends or family, or reading a magazine or book,” Bulger says. “What about binge-watching a favorite show? It’s on the list, too, but most research shows it shouldn’t be the only recovery activity you do. One reason is that recovery experiences should also, at least sometimes, involve engaging your brain. We call these ‘mastery experiences’ and they include things that give you an opportunity to challenge yourself or to learn something. Mastery experiences often involve activities we might consider hobbies, but they don’t necessarily need to be that. Perhaps you might set aside a night to learn to make a new dish for dinner or bake something you’ve never made before. Or instead of a leisurely walk, go for a more strenuous hike.”
Create a ‘boundary ritual’ between work life and home life
Once you’re home (or done with work for the day), Dr. John La Puma, MD, FACP, founder of Chef Clinic, recommends creating “a boundary ritual” between work and home.
“Change your clothes, switch out your contacts, feed the dog,” he says. “[Do] something tactile and not digital that tells your body that you can release the stress of the day, and enjoy whatever's next.”
Ah, you know we live in a burnout-afflicted society when we have to schedule time for sleep. But really, this step can’t be overstated.
“Eight or more hours of uninterrupted, high-quality sleep, is the gold standard in preventing burnout,” says Marshall. “If you're coming into work exhausted, then you need to make sleep a scheduled priority in order to take better care of yourself. Make sure to spend at least 10 minutes of quiet time in a dimly lit room to better allow your body to prepare itself for sleep.”
On the weekend (or whatever your off days are) do zero work — none
All of these steps are helpful in keeping burnout at bay, but perhaps most crucial is to engage in deep recovery on weekends, and do absolutely no work — none — on your sacred off days.
“Tempted to use the weekend to catch up on work? Believe me, I get it,” Bulger says. “As a college professor, there’s always something I could work on during the weekend, but doing that not just takes away from recovery, it obliterates any chance to engage in [it]. That means I start the work week tired, maybe cranky — and definitely not feeling great about the job. People who recover on the weekends start work refreshed and feeling pretty happy about their work.”
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