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Preventing and Turning Around Burnout the SMaRT Way

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Burnout is not inevitable, and it can be conquered.

The bad news is that burnout is easy to fulfill. All you need is to be pressured at a job you hate, with not enough time or management support, a confusing role with unclear expectations, lack of any control over decisions, and unfair treatment. Pile on the everyday responsibilities of friendship, partnership, family, and self-care, and you have a formula for burnout.

The most stressful jobs in the world, year after year, are; military, police, firefighter, and airline pilot. During the pandemic, medical providers climbed higher into the top five. But you don’t have to work at one of those jobs to experience stress and burnout. 

The term “burnout” is not a medical diagnosis and may cover up or be increased by depression, poor sleep, and nutrition, underlying illness, lack of support outside the job, unresolved conflict, perfectionism, or any other break in mindfulness. You can recognize burnout by irritability and impatience, a critical attitude, lack of satisfaction, substance abuse (including food), and inability to concentrate—all of which are signs of and contributors to stress.

Preventing Burnout

An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School has found through research that empathy is a powerful tactic in preventing burnout. Empathy is shown by eye contact, mobile facial expressions, posture, affect, tone of voice, hearing the whole person (understanding the context and being nonjudgmental), and your response. 

With empathy, you turn around the sensation that coworkers or bosses are your enemy and begin to look for the win/win. When you understand the other person’s viewpoint, the other person feels supported and is also more able to support you. Note that empathy does not exclude standing up for yourself; it merely increases the chances that you will hear and be heard.

While empathy may be important in preventing burnout, the most important action you can take is a break—whether for a short walk or a day’s rest or a week’s vacation. If you are working from home, you are especially liable to burnout, as the boundaries between work and family responsibilities become blurred. Breaks give you a chance to restore your energy, your positive outlook, and your ability to self-care. 

Everyone deserves at least a day of rest. If your boss demands constant attention 24/7 or if you cannot leave work for a day,  you are courting burnout. So here’s how to ensure you get the break you need with the goal of preventing burnout:

  • Join your friends. Go to lunch, take a walk together, speak on the phone. Social connections are important in avoiding work burnout.
  • Turn off your devices. Your break isn’t a break if work can still reach you. Make a habit of no devices during meals or when meeting with family and friends.
  • Plan a vacation. Give yourself something to look forward to—then go!
  • Stay physical. Whether your choice is yoga, meditation, weight lifting, dancing, or a brisk walk, exercise is important in reducing stress and avoiding burnout.
  • Communicate. Reveal your struggle against burnout. Talk to family about sharing responsibilities more evenly, politely refuse to take on more obligations (“I can’t do that now, but maybe next week…month…year…”), and ask the help of other people in SMaRT problem-solving. If needed, talk to a professional.

Does it help to know that a recent survey of workers revealed that most spend only 2 hours and 23 minutes on productive work? The rest of the time is spent, in descending order, on checking social media and news sites, socializing with colleagues (although that is critical for team building), making and eating food, calling partners or friends, and looking for a new job. That bar is set low enough that you should have no guilt at all about taking breaks. Just make sure they are refreshing breaks that aid in preventing burnout and don’t merely increase your stress.

TIP: Taking a break also means getting a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep makes preventing burnout harder, and once started, burnout makes it harder to sleep..

Turning Around Burnout

Can you feel the tension increasing? Are you eating too much, sleeping badly, feeling weepy and alone, and want to do anything else but what you are doing—only you don’t know what? You are experiencing burnout. The following techniques:

  • Reset your boundaries. Establish a ritual when you are leaving work that reminds you that you are, in fact, leaving. During your commute, listen to your favorite music (not the news) or an audiobook. At the end of the day, turn your computer off, and straighten your desk. When you get home, change clothes. If you are working from home, you will still benefit from changing clothes, turning off electronic devices, clearing your workspace, and shutting the door to your home office. Get the work out of sight as well as mind.
  • Reset your priorities. Make sure that everything you try to fit into a day absolutely has to fit into that day; what can you delay now or forever? Maybe it’s time to call for a pizza rather than cook; maybe the garage mechanic should change your car’s oil. Turning around burnout requires that you schedule a time to care for yourself; otherwise, you will quickly become unable to care for anyone or anything else. 
  • Refuse to be interrupted. Look at emails once in the morning and once in the afternoon. While you concentrate on work, let your emails be answered automatically (“I will return your message before the end of the day”), let your phone go to voicemail, and wave off colleagues. If you routinely pick the same hour(s) to shut down, people will get used to it. At the least, refuse to engage your electronic devices at meals and after the end of the workday.
  • Take a break every 90 minutes, minimum. Sitting for longer than 90 minutes takes a toll on your body as well as your concentration. Put an exercise app on your computer and take 5 or 10 minutes to exercise—there are apps that minimize activities that could distract your co-workers. SMaRT mindfulness activities like visualization and deep breathing will help you cope.

TIP: Turning around burnout begins with taking control of the things you can control—your boundaries, priorities, and health. If your burnout slides into depression, seek professional help.

Key Takeaways

The three most essential actions you can take in preventing and turning around burnout are to take breaks, reset your boundaries and priorities, and show empathy to others so that they feel supported and can give you support.  

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