Burnout, part 1: Beating the Beast Before It Comes
If you know me at all you won’t be surprised that I chose burnout as my first topic to tackle on our shiny new blog. Last year, around this time, I was wrapping up my first semester of grad school for my Master of Social Work; I’d chosen a one-year accelerated program and was ready to be done before I even started.
At the time, I was working a high-stress, low-wage job where I had few benefits, little support from upper management, and was constantly being drawn into the politics of the field. That alone was pulling me toward burnout, when I had the genius idea to enroll in grad school, take 15 hours of classes and throw in a 20 hour per week unpaid internship, just for a little excitement. By May, I’d finished classes, found a wonderful professional oasis through my internship, but had reached the point of complete and utter burnout. I hated everyone and everything, and it was not a good look. I was tired, uncaring, and began loosely pushing ethical boundaries that I normally would have never even approached. My work was suffering, and while my clients may not have recognized it, my coworkers did. I was more critical, less optimistic, and I wasn’t afraid to air my grievances with whoever was in earshot.
My personal story of getting through burnout is a very privileged one, and I can’t go any further without acknowledging that. I am immeasurably lucky to have had the chance to go to college in the first place, much less go for round two and be able to continue my full-time job throughout that process. I was able to treat my burnout and come back to the real me in basically the best-case scenario—I quit my job, took a month off, and then began a new position in an entirely different area of social work. Hear me say this before we go any further: This may not be your reality, and that is okay. You can still take care of yourself and heal from or prevent burnout without taking such drastic measures. In this post and the next, I’m going to talk about burnout, what it is and what it looks like, and how you can both prevent it and bounce back from it.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is that scary figure looming in the darkness behind every motivated, driven, successful person today. It’s the career bogeyman who’s waiting in the wings for you to get exhausted, frustrated, and bored with your job. It can happen to anyone in any career field, and it can feel like it’s sucking your whole soul out of your body, one piece at a time. If you’ve never felt burnout or even small whispers of it before, count yourself lucky. When it hits, you feel exhausted all the time, no matter how much sleep you get. It feels like all the joy and color has just drained from you and the rest of the world, particularly at work. Burnout will have you looking for any excuse to bail or reason to drop all your responsibilities. If your ears are burning and you feel like I’m describing your life, see if some of these other signs describe you:
You’re getting touchy and more irritable at work or when anyone brings up work around you.
You dread going back to work the moment you leave and can’t stop thinking about it when you’re not there.
You find yourself talking bad about coworkers more often and getting more easily irritated by them than you had before.
You find yourself becoming less effective, less ethical, or just caring less about how well your work is done.
When the weekend hits, you go HARD, whatever that is for you. Maybe it’s going out drinking every night, or maybe it’s isolating yourself and watching Netflix until 3 am. Whatever activity you pick, it’s all to squeeze in just a hint of joy into your life before work comes back around Monday morning.
If you’re getting irked because I’m basically just painting your portrait, you might be burned out. Welcome to the club. Don’t worry, it doesn’t carry a death sentence. You can make it through this.
Burnout doesn’t happen to everyone, but just like heart disease, some people may be more prone to it because of their genetics, some may be at risk because of their lifestyle, and some people are just lucky and have both but still end up in the clear. In the same way, there are some things in life that may make someone more susceptible to burnout than others. For example, an ER nurse is much more likely to feel burnout than someone who is a professional puppy snuggler (if you are reading this and are a professional puppy snuggler, please email me—I have questions. Among those questions: “Are you hiring?”). There’s a big difference in stress and pressure levels to those two jobs, and they take a very different toll on people. Here are a few different things that might make some people more susceptible to burnout than others:
Working in high-stress or high-pressure jobs
Working with other people (retail, service industry, social workers, nurses, doctors, etc)
Pre-existing emotional or mental health issues such as depression or anxiety
Major life events like marriage/divorce, loss of a family member, etc
Lack of support from management and coworkers at work
Instability within the workplace (lots of turnover, change in management, constant change in policies, etc)
So, let’s talk about some prevention. Prevention really is the best way to deal with burnout—after all, vaccinating for the flu is the best way to deal with the flu, so let’s apply that logic here. Preventing burnout is not a passive activity. It takes work, planning, and organizing, as well as some emotional labor. But this work sets you up with a strong foundation that can support you when things get tough and you don’t have as much energy to draw from. Also, if you feel like you’re already burnt to a crisp, you can still start doing these things to help feel a little joy in life again.
Start setting boundaries like, last week. Boundaries at work, boundaries at home, boundaries at school, wherever you go: boundaries. These boundaries are going to be what gives you the space in your life to ensure you are cared for as well as everything and everyone else in your life. Some boundaries may be work-related like, “I will not respond to emails or answer phone calls outside of my office hours,” or “I would love to help you out on that project, but I just don’t have time right now—here’s some resources I know of that may help point you in the right direction!” Notice these boundaries aren’t rude or harsh, they are just realistic and firm.
You are allowed to say no, to draw some space in your life, and decide who and what gets your time and energy. If you tend towards people-pleasing, being a workaholic, or are in some high-pressure career fields, these boundaries may be more difficult to set for you. Start small and test out how it feels to set boundaries you haven’t before, then feel how good it is to have some room just to breathe for a moment. If you don’t know how to set boundaries or even what boundaries to set, this page has some great reading and worksheets on the topic that can help you work through that!
Get organized. This sounds out of place, but finding and maintaining a strong organizational system for all areas of your life can help you keep a handle on those areas with much less work than it takes when everything is just jumbled together. Try out different ways of organizing and planning and see what works for you. Maybe you’re someone who needs to write out their day in a paper planner, or maybe Google calendar is good enough for you. Try making your own organizational tools to fit your needs! There’s plenty of free templates out there that you can borrow pieces from.
Organization and planning help you save energy for high-stress times by making it easier to get things done. Instead of spending energy running from one thing to the next, always running behind, and not having the things you need, you can be ready for every moment and have enough time and energy to deal with crises as they come up. I’m personally a big fan of block scheduling, which gives me structure and freedom so I can have flexibility to choose my specific task while still knowing I’m working on my intended goal. This site has a great explanation of block scheduling with a free template if you’d like to try that!
Make time for yourself. This is the cardinal rule of preventing (and dealing with) burnout. If you are not taking care of yourself, you will not be able to sustain yourself while caring for everyone and everything else. Maybe it’s your lunch hour, or one evening a week that you give to yourself to not do or think about work or anyone else. Find what recharges you and make time for it. Maybe it’s just alone time, or maybe it’s an activity, but find that thing (actually…find a few things so you have backup plans) and then do the thing.
It’s very simple, but our culture tells us to keep going and pushing and working all the time. Our relationships begin to feel like jobs and our jobs feel like jobs and home feels like a job and we’re told that being productive all the time is a good thing. But that is not sustainable. We need rest and we need to feed our spirits in order to be able to continue our work, relationships, and home. Here are some tried and true things to do if you need help coming up with ideas to make time for yourself:
Find a hobby! Hobbies keep our brains active and give us new outlets for creativity. If you need some ideas or are looking for a place to connect, check out our page about Memphis Area Maker Spaces, which has a list of a variety of places you can go learn new skills and make new connections!
Take care of your body. Exercise, even if it’s just walking around your office for a few minutes between tasks or during your lunch break.
Practice mindfulness (concentration). Get your brain in the zone and give it time to process. There are loads of resources online for people wanting to try mindfulness practice. Pick one that interests you and give it a try. Mindful.org has a great explanation of mindfulness and plenty of resources for anyone interested in trying it out.
Even if you feel like you’re already in the throes of burnout, it’s not too late to start making changes that will impact you and those around you for the better. You can be happier where you are, and you can come back from burnout. Next week I’m going to get into the meat of what to do when you’re in the depths, because there’s so little out there about what to do when you’re already burned out. Until then, reach out to us if you’re interested in learning how You Can Sit With Us can help you reclaim your joy and passion for your work and get through that joy-killing burnout.