Healing From Burnout
My diary entry on January 19 reads, “Work sincerely scares me.”
I was burned out, but I didn't know it. The tell-tale signs were all there. I felt like my work life was out of control and spilling into my real life. I dreaded Mondays. My productivity plummeted.
It's likely that you've felt the same way before. Burnout is widespread, with 71% of employees in the American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-being 2021 Survey saying they feel tense or stressed during the workday. The top signs of burnout include reduced performance, alienation from work-related activities, and exhaustion. If you’re like me, maybe you chalked these up to a bad week at work. If these feelings linger for months (like mine did), it’s time to stop ignoring the obvious.
Almost 50 years after American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the word, we are still unsure how to heal and prevent burnout. In fact, it's only been a few years since the WHO even recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon.
All the articles I read online prescribed more self-care. As you can probably guess, that didn’t work very well! My experience inspired me to find a new path to healing from burnout.
What burnout feels like (a first-hand account)
One of the first articles I worked on at Float was on the topic of resource management. I had never heard of it before. But as I started to write about resources (aka people) feeling overworked and overallocated, I was like, “Oh wow, that’s me.”
At my previous job at an agency, I always had too much to do with too little time. Writing high-quality articles was difficult, and I was always behind. And just when I was close to clearing my tasks for the month, a new set of assignments would arrive in Asana. (I still feel anxious when I see any notifications from the app.😅)
At some point, I lost my ability to write. I would sit in front of my laptop, my mind blank. None of the tips in the 50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block worked. Out of desperation, I’d force myself to write something, but I was never proud of what I created. Aside from affecting my creativity, burnout also made me feel less engaged at work. I only sent and replied to messages in Slack when I had to. I didn’t speak during meetings, and I was constantly distracted. I just didn’t care anymore.
Other people I’ve spoken to have shared similar experiences and feelings about their own burnout. For Float’s Senior Content Marketer Nikoletta Bika, losing her motivation and energy was a surefire sign that she was burned out. “As time went on, I was constantly tired and felt a great deal of resentment and disappointment piling up,” she said.
Lily Ugbaja, a freelance writer (and a former colleague of mine), felt similar exhaustion. She was also constantly triggered and felt angry. “I’d wake up and feel like I had been run over by a truck.” Float’s Talent Coordinator Romina Aranzola said she felt burnout in every possible way. It even began affecting how she cared for herself. “I had a severe lack of willingness for anything related to physical movement/exercise.”
Burnout can feel mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. It’s a hard weight to carry!
Why do we burn out?
Writing this article made me curious. What is the science behind burnout? How does it change our bodies? Why does it affect how we feel and think?
For people who are burned out, there’s no end. They are on a constant high of cortisol. Unfortunately, high levels of cortisol have a negative effect on our bodies.
- Increases the activity level of the fear center in your brain
- Deteriorates electric signals in the hippocampus
- Weakens activity in the HPA axis, reducing your ability to control stress
- Causes your brain to shrink in size affecting the production of brain cells and making it harder to learn new things
A vacation won’t heal your job burnout
Self-care is often touted as the best way to heal burnout. Take walks. Do some yoga. Get a hobby. But I think it’s just one step on the long path to recovery.
In the research paper Predicting Job Burnout and Its Antecedents: Evidence from Financial Information Technology Firms, the authors point out that, “Although individual-level interventions (e.g., decreasing job stresses) can foster a person’s requisite skills and positive attitudes toward the workplace, these interventions have some limitations.”
Self-care doesn’t change the overwhelming workload or the lack of motivation we feel when our efforts don’t have equal rewards. Whenever I took time away from work, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d begin to feel worn down again.
How can we prevent burnout?
Hustle culture makes us believe it’s normal to be stressed out all the time. 40% of respondents in Asana’s Anatomy of Work Global Index feel that burnout is inevitable on the path to success.
I don't see it that way. Burnout can be avoided, but only with deliberate effort on both a personal and organizational level.
Managers and businesses play a serious role in preventing burnout. Employees need to be supported to live their best work life. But how can they unplug and recharge on the weekends when it’s back to the same old grind on Monday? Individually, preventing burnout requires us to protect our time and be mindful of our limits.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef recommends using the 3M framework if you struggle with taking breaks. He suggests taking three types of breaks with varying frequencies: daily, weekly, and monthly. In my experience, regular breaks can improve productivity and creativity. For example, I find that taking walks is a great way for me to figure out how to structure an article or write a great introduction.
Below are some tactics the rest of the Float team uses to keep burnout at bay:
- Learn to prioritize and delegate tasks
We only have 24 hours in the day (less if you enjoy getting a good night’s sleep 😴). “I've learned that I tend to take on too much work—sometimes work that isn’t even mine to do,” says Nikoletta. “So, I always try to take a step back and ask myself: ‘Do I have time to do this? Do I have time to do this now? Should I be the one to do this or delegate?’”
- Be comfortable getting things done instead of being perfect
UX Research Lead Mia Northrop isn’t afraid to set boundaries with others. She reminds herself that not all tasks have to be done perfectly and delegates when she has to. Embracing the under-promise and over-deliver approach has changed her perspective. “We are not the sum of our to-do lists. Many things are out of our control, and done is better than perfect.”
- Keep your workload realistic
Director of Marketing Siobhan Hayes sets weekly and daily goals in her calendar to prevent burnout. Not only does this help her stay on track, it also let’s her know when there’s too much on her plate for the day. “When the daily to-do list gets too long, I ask myself, ‘Is this realistic in a day?’ and I will shuffle tasks to future days if it’s not.”
- Acknowledge productivity peaks and valleys
Director of Engineering Colin Ross utilizes the ebbs and flows in his energy to his advantage. “If I'm feeling a bit lower energy, that's the time to do more mundane tasks, e.g., gathering up stats on something or categorizing things—anything that would immediately bore me if I was in a different mood,” he says. When his energy peaks, he brainstorms or digs deeper into a problem.
How to recover from burnout
After trying many self-care tips, nothing seemed to be working for me. I was tired and overwhelmed. Ultimately, I realized I needed to take back control of my time.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to do so. For me, it meant leaving my job at the agency. For someone else, it may mean saying no more often (passively and actively) or speaking to your manager about reducing your workload. When you are in control of your time, it is easier to feel the benefits of self-care.
After leaving my job, I started seeing a therapist who recommended daily journaling to help me stay in touch with how I’m feeling. The entries in my diary help me keep an eye on my pulse at work and take a step back when I need to.
Another thing I do is set boundaries that support my work-life balance. I stopped staying up late to work and started sleeping more. I’ve started being intentional about the time I take off work. I try to take at least one day off every month to spend time with people I love and do things I enjoy.
Recovering from burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It takes daily effort to get better. Keeping that in mind has made the process easier for me.
My efforts have worked mainly because my current role lets me maximize my capacity without becoming overwhelming. As a content writer at Float, I spread awareness about resource management. One of my goals is to help decision-makers manage and maximize their employee's capacity without overloading them with tasks that may ultimately lead to burnout.
With each blog post, I hope managers find new ways to support their team members to stay productive and healthy and live their best work lives!
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