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Burnout: What is it and how do we fight it?

Burnout is increasingly becoming a popular buzzword regarding work and school. What is the psychological definition, though? Burnout is primarily a drawn-out response to chronic stress we experience at our jobs (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). There are quite a few symptoms that being to appear when someone is experiencing burnout than can be filtered into three categories: overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism/detachment from the job, and a feeling of inadequacy and a lack of accomplishment (Maslach & Leiter, 2016). Burnout does not present as simple tiredness, but rather that deep exhaustion that an extra hour or two of sleep on the weekends doesn’t fix. You may begin to care less about the work that you are doing or the projects you are assigned. You may then feel as though you are not doing as good of a job as you were before, or that your skills are atrophying. This can in turn have a deep effect on our mental health by leading to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, burnout is not something that can be fixed by taking a long weekend or taking a week off. Speaking from experience, these are great ways to temporarily reduce feelings of burnout, but, in the long run, it doesn’t cure it. I had to take an entire year away from school in order to feel some relief from the burnout that was a result of having been in school since I was five years old. It doesn’t go away overnight. It takes time.

Now, I know not everyone has the privilege of being able to take a year off from whatever stressor is the root cause of their burnout, especially if it’s work. So how do we treat, cope, and reduce our feelings of burnout when we can’t walk away? Let’s split up the coping skills into different tiers: Big Steps and Little Steps. Big Steps are going to be things we can do that take a significant amount of time and effort, but they will have longer lasting effects. Little Steps are things we can do that take only a little time and effort and may reduce feelings of burnout in the moment but will not have too long of a lasting effect. Always remember that different things work for different people; some of these steps may not be plausible for some, while others may be the step in the right direction.

Big Steps

  1. Shift Your Perspective (Valcour, 2016) – If you are feeling overwhelmed at work, it may be time to sit down and dig into what specifically is leading to your feelings of burnout. Are there specific tasks that may need to be delegated to others? Is there a way where you can reframe how you look at your job to prioritize more fulfilling tasks? Maybe you are taking on too much and need to start saying “no” to certain tasks that others would be able to do. This can take a lot of inner work and it will take some time to break the thought cycle you have been in, but it can result in a fresher perspective towards the work you do and reduce the feelings of cynicism that come with burnout.

  2. Take (significant) Time Away – This is not an easy thing to do, and it is certainly not plausible for many. However, taking an extended break from work can allow you to focus on yourself and how you would want to spend your time. Even two weeks away from a job can have you coming back feeling like you’re ready to get back to work. You are essentially forcing a disruption to the routine that is causing you stress. You’re giving your body and your mind time to reset. Read those books that have been sitting untouched in your bookshelf for the past year; go get a coffee from the coffeeshop down the street and sit in the shop and enjoy every sip you take. Allow yourself to rest, relax, and reset.

  3. Go to Therapy, talk about it! – This is obviously a plug for what we do, but therapy is a fantastic way of digging into what is really causing your burnout. Now, this does take time out of your day and it does take effort on your part, but the work done in the therapeutic space can be incredibly beneficial. You can work on developing coping skills for when you are feeling burnout a little more than usual, and you can determine ways to reduce burnout in the long run.

Little Steps

  1. Self-Care – It can be difficult to put energy into something as simple as a small self-care task when you are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from work. It feels like there’s no time and it feels like you simply just don’t have the energy to do it. However, reintroducing your self-care habits is a great way to fight feelings of burnout temporarily. For me, washing my face at the end of a long day makes me feel 1,000x better. It takes about five minutes for me to do my skin care routine and I come out the other side feeling refreshed. While it doesn’t get rid of my burnout, it allows me to take my focus away from how my day was and shift it to myself.

  2. Ask for Help (Lawler, 2023) – This is hard. I’ll be completely up front about it, I have always struggled in asking for help. This, however, goes hand in hand with Big Step #1. If you feel like your boss is giving you too many tasks to handle, let them know. No one in your life can read your mind, so if they do not hear you ask for help, they will think you have everything under control (even if you don’t). However, when you do ask for help, be specific. Let them know specifically which task you need help on, how you need their help, and if you feel like sharing, why you need their help.

  3. Maintain Your Social Life (Lawler, 2023) – You can use social time for really anything you would like. You can talk about the stressors that are causing your burnout, or simply use it to take a step away from work and distract yourself. Humans need interactions with other humans that we care about. It is important to allow yourself the time to talk to others outside of the stressor.

This is not an exhaustive list of steps we can take to reduce feelings of burnout. There are so many more suggestions from different websites. If you feel like none of these may work for you, there is bound to be a suggestion out there that will feel just right. All in all, if you are feeling symptoms of burnout, just know that you are not alone! There are many of us in the fight right now, and it’s important to take these steps to stave off burnout.

Written by,

Annika Bushman, Intern



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