Learning how to manage burnout and stress to create a well-balanced life is critical for your mental health. Mental health problems often result from stress. Burnout may occur as you endure chronic or prolonged stress, unrealistic expectations, and exceed your own limits. Being overworked, overwhelmed, and overloaded can damage your health, home life, and happiness. This lesson will help keep stress from breaking you, identify the signs and symptoms of burnout, and give you some strategies on how to manage burnout, reduce stress, and give you a more balanced life.
A simple definition of burnout is “doing too much, with too little, for too long.” Burnout oftentimes results in physical illness, anxiety, worry, depression, frustration, and irritability, among other mental health problems. If you are overloaded with difficult situations, recent crises, and significant time pressures, you may be headed toward burnout. Burnout may occur as you endure chronic or prolonged stress, unrealistic expectations, and exceed your own limits. Being overworked, overwhelmed, and overloaded can damage your health, home life, and happiness.
To not exceed your limits, some self-exploration and knowledge of yourself is necessary. Don’t compare yourself to others. Know your own vulnerabilities and limitations, and work within your own confines, and this will lead you to have a balanced life.
Stress is the biological, emotional, behavioral, and social response to a real or imagined event. When anxiety and stress are low, motivation and performance levels remain low as well. As stress and anxiety go up, performance levels also rise, but only to a certain point. Increased stress eventually causes a tipping point, and more anxiety beyond that point actually decreases performance levels. In fact, under high levels of stress, performance plummets and may cause someone to feel paralyzed and burned out.
Signs of Burnout
Everyone responds differently to stress. Some people shut down, while others respond by going full-speed ahead. Regardless of how you deal with it, the consequences of stress affect every area of your life, mind, body, heart, thoughts, and behavior. Some people become constantly worried about work. Others engage in instant indulgences for comfort such as eating more or making poor food choices or drinking more alcohol. As burnout gains momentum, you may find yourself not enjoying work or your life in general. You may become more cynical, rude, and isolated. You may find yourself withdrawing from activities and social connections you previously enjoyed. Over time, chronic stress and burnout can create serious health problems like gastrointestinal difficulties, heart disease, depression, and obesity.
How to Manage Burnout and Find Balance
There are several practical tips for achieving balance. Balance often begins with being intentional about how we are spending our time. It is important to set aside haphazard living, and instead be deliberate, planned, and purposeful. To be intentional is to meaningfully focus on key areas of life; your actions are purposeful and not random or chaotic. Here are some strategies to manage burnout and keep focused on the goals you are trying to achieve:
- Keep love and work balanced. This is made easier if you work for those you love and love your work.
- Set priorities and goals. Do the important, difficult, and necessary things first rather than indulging in the quick, easy, fun, and entertaining distractions of life.
- Directly and assertively limit your duties. Recovering from chronic stress and burnout requires removing or reducing some of the demands you are under. Saying no may be difficult, yet it is necessary to know how much work, stress, and responsibility you can handle. Don’t wait for others to quit asking, rather you must set boundaries, ask for what you need, and assertively stick to your limitations. You are not responsible to deliver everything others may want from you.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep is a primary cause of burnout. It can greatly reduce your job performance and productivity, and damage your health. Less than 6 or 7 hours of sleep each night can cause daytime sleepiness, fatigue, low energy, low motivation, increased depression, and lowered frustration tolerance. Getting the sleep you need can quickly replenish your energy and brighten your mood.
- Try something new. Stay inspired, energized, and creative by learning and expanding your life. Resist the ruts in the road. To stay energized, make strong efforts to fight against complacency.
- Intentionally relax. Plan activities that are soothing and restful, such as reading a book, listening to music, visiting with others, paging through a magazine, or playing a game. Set aside designated time for recreation and relaxation.
- Turn it off. Retrain yourself not to hear and respond to every ding or buzz on your phone or computer. Turn it off if you must. It is interesting how we can become slaves to our own tools of service. People may expect you to be constantly available. To stay in balance, it is wise to run your own schedule, rather than submit to theirs.
- Laugh at yourself. A client once said: “If you learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll have a lifetime of good material.” All too often we are too serious, too critical, and too frustrated with ourselves over the trivialities of everyday life. Actor and director, Clint Eastwood offers this advice, “Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.” Laughing at ourselves can reduce the pressure we are under, like letting some air out of an overinflated tire.
- Know yourself. Get to know your own vulnerabilities and limitations. Perhaps you want approval from others and too quickly say yes to tasks you need to refuse. Are you tempted to sacrifice yourself to care for others? Are you vulnerable to guilt or the badgering of family and friends? Look for physical signs of tension and stress such as headaches, sleep problems, and muscle tension in your neck and back. Watch for increasing symptoms of worry, anxiety, and depression. Knowing yourself can keep you from exceeding your own limits and compromising your own boundaries.
- Not only does regular exercise promote good health and high self-esteem, it also helps battle anxiety and depression. Exercise eases tension and releases positive hormones. Activities that draw you outside and into nature are also soothing and helpful. Consider working out at least three times per week, for a minimum of 30 minutes each time.
- Focus on the positive. It is so easy to concentrate on what is wrong at work, the frustrations of projects, and the faults of other people. Focusing on the negative aspects of life increases bitterness. Bitterness and resentment are monumental factors in producing burnout. Instead, focus on what is going right, the favorable qualities of your loved ones, and the joyful moments that come your way.
- Cultivate a rich, non-work life. Find something outside of work that challenges and engages your attention and focus. Whether it is a hobby, volunteer opportunity, sport, or fitness activity, find something you are passionate about; this will serve as a distraction and boost your self-esteem.
- Get organized. Getting organized keeps you focused on priorities, reduces worry, and strategically applies your limited energy to the tasks at hand. Use lists or your electronics to hold necessary information, rather than trying to hold it all in your mind.
- Move on. There may be times where the current stress, added to your physical and emotional health, becomes overwhelming and pushes you to a breaking point. Consider getting help, leaving your current position, or taking time off to heal and get back on your feet. You may need to consider reduced hours, a position that has less demands, or a new occupation. Seek the counseling and support you need.
Work/ Life Balance
It is important to learn how to manage burnout and apply strategies to bring yourself back to a place of peace and calm before the stress of life becomes overwhelming. Then, when your stress level increases, you have the tools needed and can use them effectively. Achieving life balance is not something you find once, but something you work at your whole life. Now, when you think of the words, “work/life balance”, it seems to imply that work is on one side and life is on the other. Does that mean your work is separate from your life? I’d like to suggest that they aren’t separate and that there can be balance when they are integrated. Keeping love and work balanced is made easier if you work for those you love and love your work. Remember to focus on the positive, rest when you can, and punctuate the inevitable strains of life with love and laughter.
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Written By: Hal Baumchen, PsyD, LP, LADC