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Dealing With Professional Burnout

By Julian Mercer

Most of our work lives revolve around cycles of rising and falling job and personal satisfaction. You may experience various ups and downs on a daily, weekly or even longer basis. When you hit bottom in a short-term cycle, typically you can bounce right back with a good night’s rest, a day off or vacation, or just by clearing the air with your boss or co-workers. Sometimes getting a difficult project off your desk is all you need to feel better about things.

Over time, however, those negative feelings can accumulate as a long-term trend that is difficult to reverse, especially if the incoming negatives consistently outweigh the positives. High stress, overwork, lack of work-life balance, changes in your personal life, hostile work environments and other causes can take a heavy toll that affects your enthusiasm for work and even your outlook on life. What we’re talking about here is professional burnout. You know it is becoming a problem when you start to dread getting up in the morning.

Professional burnout is a growing concern in today’s fast-paced and highly competitive work environment. Life during the pandemic has greatly acerbated its prevalence. It is a big part of what’s fueling “quiet quitting” and all the other workforce ills that management likes to complain about.

Professional burnout can have serious consequences on your health, job performance, and overall wellbeing. When you’re burned out, you don’t eat well, you don’t exercise enough, you stop doing the things that stimulate your interest, and you start to avoid the social engagements and activities that you used to eagerly anticipate. The burnout builds on itself as you cycle downward to a persistent negative state. Depression is a natural consequence, and at some point, all you want to do is sleep (or eat).

So how do you avoid professional burnout? The first and most important step is self-awareness. Assess your current situation. Are you happy? Feeling good about work? Are things headed in the right direction? If not, why not? In the workplace, the most typical causes are:

  • Skills-Requirements Mismatch: Being asked to do something you haven’t been trained to do or lack the specialized knowledge or tools for.
  • Prolonged Stress: A demanding work schedule, tight deadlines and excessive workload can lead to high levels of stress and eventually burnout.
  • Lack of Control: A lack of control over work tasks and decisions can lead to feelings of helplessness and frustration, which can contribute to burnout.
  • Unclear Expectations: Unclear expectations and unclear roles and responsibilities can lead to confusion and added stress, ultimately leading to burnout.
  • Poor Work-Life Balance: Long hours, a lack of flexible work arrangements, and a heavy workload can lead to a poor work-life balance, which can contribute to burnout.
  • Inadequate Support: A lack of support from supervisors, coworkers or a lack of resources can contribute to burnout. You may have to deal with supervisors who are also dealing with burnout and lack the ability to help. Or in the worst case, you may be dealing with a hostile work environment.

If you have a handle on what the problem is, then you can start to think about possible solutions. If you need to make a change, you should develop a plan and work to put it into action.

There are also things you can do to improve your resilience to burnout.

  • Prioritize Self-Care: Make time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as exercise, meditation and hobbies.
  • Set Boundaries: Set limits on the amount of time and energy you spend on work tasks and stick to them. Setting these limits will help you eliminate unnecessary work and make you feel more productive.
  • Practice Mindfulness: Engage in meditation and deep breathing to help manage stress and maintain a clear mind. These are things you can do in a few minutes at work when you feel the stress rising. It’s also about settling your mind when you have the opportunity at home, by doing something mind-engaging like reading a book, working a puzzle, painting, or engaging in a craft or hobby.
  • Seek Support: Reach out to friends, family or a mental health professional for support when needed. They may be able to help you see the problem in a new light or suggest possible solutions. Sometimes a sounding board, an extra set of hands, or some positive encouragements are all you need.
  • Communicate with your employer: Let your employer know about your state of burnout, and discuss ways to reduce stress and improve work-life balance. Give them a chance to help you be happier and more productive in the workplace. If you’ve been a productive and valued employee, the good ones will do everything they can to get you back to that state.

People experiencing burnout are typically reluctant to share their situation with their employers. They fear disclosure will result in a poor performance evaluation or diminished job security. They often don’t realize, however, that their productivity has already been affected by their burnout, and their attitude at work and relations with co-workers have most likely been noticed. Management should be receptive to employee feedback on problems and needs that affect performance; if they’re not, then the management culture may be a major contributor to burnout and you should consider a change of work environments.

The biggest challenge for people already in a state of professional burnout is knowing how to recover. Quite frankly, sometimes it may not be possible to redress the causes of burnout in your current situation and the best solution may be to find a new situation. Consider the battery that no longer holds its charge, sometimes the only solution is to buy a new battery. However, a simple change of situation will not solve the problem if you haven’t recovered from the debilitating effects of burnout, they will just migrate with you into the new situation.

To recharge and recover from professional burnout, there are a number of things I can suggest from personal experience:

  • Taking Time Off: Taking a break from work, even for a short period, can help recharge your batteries and reduce stress. In my high-stress positions, I was routinely burning 10-20 days of use-or-lose vacation every year in order to keep up with the pace of the work. I got so frazzled that even my superiors started suggesting I take time off. What I’ve learned is that a well-placed personal day or a couple of weeks totally disconnected from work can make a big difference.
  • Exploring a Change in Your Work Schedule: If your work situation permits, consider a change of schedule to give yourself more recovery time. A four-day work week, or an alternating Friday off may give you the recharge time you need. If the commute is what’s bringing you down, what can you do to shorten it? Would you consider moving closer or adjusting your work hours to avoid rush hour traffic?
  • Adopting a Healthier Lifestyle: Focus on eating well, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep to help reduce stress and improve overall health. If you’re stressed, there is a tendency to over caffeinate to give yourself the energy needed to keep up with workflow. But when the adrenaline and caffeine run out, you crash and burn. When you’re burned out, you eat unhealthy food because it’s convenient or gives comfort, and you tend to avoid physical activity. So if you’re feeling down, be more mindful of what you eat. Exercising first thing in the morning will energize you for the day. For me, healthier lifestyle meant intermittent fasting and exercise to lose weight, along with changes in my diet to get my blood sugar under control. It took six months, but once I got there, my mental clarity, physical well-being and overall outlook were greatly improved.
  • Re-evaluating Your Personal and Professional Priorities: Take a step back and re-evaluate your goals and priorities to ensure that you are working towards what is truly important to you. If not, then it’s time for a change.
  • Finding Meaning in Your Work: Try to find purpose and meaning in your work to help avoid feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Whatever it is that about your work that fueled your passion, get back to it. Is it the organization’s mission or business purpose? Is it mentoring young professionals? Is it getting out from behind a desk to get your hands dirty?
  • Seek Professional Help: A mental health professional can help you develop coping strategies and provide support in your recovery from burnout. Many employers provide counseling services as an employee benefit for this purpose.

In conclusion, professional burnout is a growing concern in today’s work environment. To avoid burnout, it’s important to prioritize self-care, set boundaries, communicate with your employer, seek support, and practice mindfulness. If you are experiencing burnout, taking time off, changing up your routine, adopting a healthier lifestyle, re-evaluating your priorities, finding meaning in your work, and seeking professional help can help with recovery.

Having experienced professional burnout myself, I would caution that it takes time to recover, which is why you want to be mindful and take action to avoid letting yourself get too far down that path. But it’s never too late to recover if you are patient and persistent. If you commit yourself to take action and stick with it, you will see slow and steady improvement. There is nothing better than getting back to a point where you wake up each morning excited about the day. For those of you experiencing professional burnout, I wish you the best on your personal journey of recovery.

Julian Mercer

Julian Mercer is a semi-retired executive in the technology sector, with more than 30 years’ experience as a leader, manager, consultant, and teacher.

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