Heavy workloads and deadline pressures are a fact of managerial life. Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed or stretched thin sometimes? But when relentless work stress pushes you into the debilitating state we call burnout, it is a serious problem, affecting not just your own performance and well-being, both on the job and off, but also that of your team and your organization.
A vacation will not prevent—or cure—burnout. Many people believe taking time off will help them quickly bounce back from impending, brewing, or full-on burnout. But a few days off isn’t enough to keep the tide from coming in or to turn it back around.
That’s because burnout isn’t only about the hours you’re putting in. It’s also a function of the stories you tell yourself and how you approach what you do—at work and at home.
At its core, burnout is a symptom of capitalism. We imagine we’d feel much less overwhelmed if our health insurance, retirement plans, and ability to pay for our rent, mortgage, and any future children’s education didn’t rely solely on our ability to work as many hours as we possibly can for the highest hourly wage because these are our income-generating years (deep breath!).
1. Recognize the early warning signs.
One of the most dangerous aspects of burnout is that it impacts self-awareness. When you’re in it, you’re running on adrenaline, and the momentum feels so exhilarating that you end up adding more and more to your plate. But once burnout hits, it can take months to overcome. So what early signs should you look out for? Here are some of the subtle cues that you might need to reassess how much you’re taking on:
Basic activities like going to the grocery store feel overstimulating.
You feel so overwhelmed you’ve started to cut activities you know are good for you (e.g., exercise or alone time).
You’re saying “yes” even though you’re already at capacity.
You find everyone and everything irritating.
Getting sick and being forced to shut down for a bit sounds kind of nice.
You’re all too familiar with “revenge bedtime procrastination,” when you stubbornly stay up late because you didn’t get any time to yourself during the day.
2. Understand what type of burnout you’re headed toward.
The word “burnout” has become an umbrella term. It’s useful to understand exactly what you’re feeling so you can get the specific support that will be most helpful. If you feel fried because you’re pulling long hours, that has different implications than if you work from 9 to 5 but are depressed because you find your role meaningless.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the first clinically based measure of burnout created by psychologist Christina Maslach, looks at three dimensions of burnout:
Exhaustion: You feel constantly depleted.
Cynicism: You feel detached from your job and the people around you.
Ineffectiveness: You feel that you’re never able to do a good enough job.
The MBI is often misinterpreted (and we understand why—it’s complicated!). People tend to focus solely on the exhaustion dimension. To help you better understand what you’re feeling, you can take our burnout profile assessment, which is a modified version of the MBI. The assessment will share suggestions for you based on your profile.
3. Take time to break the stress cycle.
In the modern world, we operate on surge capacity all the time because we never complete the stress cycle. If you’re stuck in traffic for hours, you won’t immediately feel better as you walk through your front door. Your body will still be in the middle of a stress response. And if you haven’t made it a habit to wind down, you’ll continue to produce the stress hormone cortisol for the rest of the evening. Eventually, all that accumulated stress will catch up to you and you’ll crash. Here are the seven ways to complete the stress cycle:
Take slow, deep breaths
Do a physical activity
Hang out with friends
Do something creative, like writing or drawing
Engage in physical affection, like asking for a hug