As someone who has a history of over-committing and working myself into the ground, I’m no stranger to burnout.
And while I recognised that a lifestyle that feeds chronic stress is not sustainable (and would literally have no shame pointing out similar destructive routines to my friends that ran parallel to my own situation), I always put the necessary changes I needed to make on the back burner.
Because as a freelancer and part-time worker juggling multiple jobs at once, I didn’t have time to take a step back and work out how I could better improve my work-life balance in order to curb chronic stress. In reality, I barely had time to make a healthy dinner (take-out became my best friend) or have a shower.
This is a classic case of burnout or ‘burning out’. If you’re not familiar with the term, burnout is the result of chronic, unresolved stress, which causes emotional, physical and mental exhaustion and can lead to poor performance in the workplace and a constant overwhelmed feeling as you struggle to meet demands.
It often goes unnoticed, because it’s easy to brush off or just assume it’s something only lawyers and doctors and those with clearly demanding jobs deal with, when in fact five to seven per cent of the Australian workforce is suffering from burnout and over a quarter of Australians are experiencing above-normal levels of stress and anxiety.
Despite being the most judged generation for supposedly being ‘lazy’ and ‘privileged’, millennials are actually quickly becoming the burnout generation. Why? Because we think we need to be working ALL the time. And unfortunately, thanks to technology and this systemic belief of needing to be switched on 24/7, I along with many other millennials, fell victim to burning out.
How to tell if you’re burning out
Burnout is easy to ignore and it’s even easier to believe it won’t affect you. So, here are some of the common signs that you might be on the cusp of burning out:
You’re tired all the time
There’s a difference between being tired and that relentless exhaustion that makes you feel mentally and physically incapable of performing.
If you’re feeling that fatigue that never seems to resolve itself, even with a decent night’s sleep, combined with consistent workplace stress and pressure, you might be on the path to burnout. And despite being tired all day, burnout victims often struggle with sleeping at night.
Your non-work life isn’t satisfying or is non-existent
Have you ever felt like you can’t even spend your leisure time doing the things you enjoy because you just don’t have the mental or physical energy to do so?
Well, even though it may seem smart to spend your time off doing nothing at all it can actually be harmful especially to those who are burning out.
If you don’t feel like engaging with your passions or hobbies even when you have the time outside of work, burning out might be the cause of this depletion.
You’re preoccupied with work, even outside your nine-to-five
We’re not just talking about having a rant to your besties during your Friday night catch-up or brainstorming some ideas for a meeting on a Sunday afternoon.
The danger zone is when you’re constantly mulling over work that it impacts your downtime and you feel as though you can never fully switch off or relax.
Your immune system is struggling
Always feeling fluey when you wake up? Digestive system struggling? Dealing with depression? Chronic stress might be the cause.
Over a long period of time, stress can disrupt your health in a variety of ways and your immune system is likely too weak to fight it off. Or if you’re constantly coming down with whatever new bug is going around, stress and burnout may have also weakened your immune system.
You have zero motivation
If you struggle to remember a time full of enthusiasm and passion because all you feel now is an overwhelming lack of motivation, you could be on your way to burning out. Dragging yourself out of bed every day could be the first sign (either that or you just dislike your job).
Your work performance is slipping
When you’re burning out, your work performance is certainly going to fall victim. If you’re unsure whether burnout may be on the cards for you, try comparing your work performance over the past few years and see if there’s been a decline. Just remember burnout isn’t the only reason your job performance might be suffering, so try to rule out any other causes first.
You’ve forgotten what peace of mind is
With a build-up of exhaustion, a non-existent life outside work, and an inability to switch off, you’ll likely become a stranger to relaxation.
Everyone needs time to unwind and a feeling of satisfaction with their job in order to achieve peace of mind, so if this doesn’t sound like you, burnout could be the culprit.
Just like in my case, many people ignore the signs that you’re burning out, which ultimately results in overwhelming exhaustion that can take weeks, months, even years to heal from.
Despite acting as though the burnout alarm bells weren’t blaring in my ears, I eventually caught myself from what would have been my brink. Nevertheless, I’m grateful that I caught myself on the verge especially considering the severe aftermath and recovery others have gone through post-burnout.
But in hindsight, burning out has actually (finally) helped me walk, sometimes even confidently run, the tightrope that is work-life balance.
And here’s how you can too.
What to do if you’re close to burning out
If you’re not too far gone and haven’t reached the rock bottom burnout stage, you might just be able to turn your unresolved stress around with a few simple steps. But don’t expect them to work instantly — the key to these practices is to practice them regularly.
Once you get into a good routine, these habits will just become everyday essentials and you should notice a drastic shift in your energy levels, ability to sleep, motivation and overall wellbeing.
Set realistic boundaries
Healthy boundaries are the key to success in almost everything, so setting boundaries between your work life and your leisure time is vital to stop yourself from burning out. Without boundaries, your work life can slowly creep into your personal life and sometimes without even noticing, take over your five to nine.
While we’d all love to clock off on the hour every single day, have four holidays a year, and never think about work after leaving the office, that’s just not feasible for most.
When setting your work/life boundaries you’ll need to consider the demands of your job and remember things can change each day. If you have to stay back an extra hour occasionally, don’t stress (that’s what you’re trying to avoid doing, remember!) because not everyone’s boundaries can be strictly adhered to. As long as you’re not consistently breaching them or feeling yourself slowly burning out, you’ll be fine.
In the long run, healthy boundaries will ensure you stay mentally fresh, can consistently perform at your best and achieve success in both your work and personal life.
Setting boundaries is one thing, but actually completely unplugging is often necessary to help ease the demand on workers.
Since we now live in a highly-connected world and struggle to ever truly disconnect, even in our downtime, scheduling in a digital detox will help you remember to detach yourself, even if it’s just for a short while, from the hustle of the world.
And if you feel as though you’re already burning out, a good unplug from technology and your day-to-day is often the quickest way to get you back in prime form.
Think about switching off technology for a weekend at home and connecting with your loved ones or your hobbies. If you think the Wi-Fi will tempt you too much, take a road trip and go camping where you won’t feel the constant need to scroll on your digital devices.
Unplugging will reboot your brain, boost your mood, allow you to be present, and even sleep better. For me, regular unplugging has been the best thing to avoid burnout, plus it’s helped spark new passions and hobbies.
Prioritise your hobbies and passions outside of work
Between working, sleeping, eating, taking care of your family, and social catch-ups, you might think finding the time for your passions and hobbies is near impossible.
However, with a little scheduling and enforced healthy boundaries, you should be able to squeeze in some time to engage with your hobbies and passions. Because unfortunately, binge-watching Netflix all-weekend every-weekend (binge-watching can cause insomnia and fatigue) doesn’t bring the same satisfaction as a hobby or passion does, which in turn boosts your mood and reduces stress.
Find a hobby that’s both challenging and rewarding, which can include anything from sports and fitness to volunteer work to arts and crafts. Engaging with a hobby will help you cultivate a rich non-work life and you’ll soon realise those feelings of burnout have banished.
Sleep (and get enough of it)
Sleep is essential for every aspect of our health and wellbeing, including avoiding burnout. Sleep deprivation and burnout go hand-in-hand because chronic stress and overworking ourselves chews into the quantity and impacts the quality of our sleep.
You should aim to get at least six hours of sleep at night, with seven to nine hours being the sweet spot. However, better and longer sleep should come naturally after implementing other changes in your life that help to reduce chronic stress.
When you’re burning out you’ll often struggle with insomnia due to the inability to switch off, so when you deal with the issue of stress your body should follow suit.
Find your relaxation practice
When we think of relaxation, poolside cocktails, luxurious face masks and pampering are what come to mind. While those things are great and can work for some, relaxation practices are not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. Just like how painting might be the perfect way to unwind at the end of the day for some, for others it could add to their stress levels.
I’ll admit that it took some time to find which relaxation practices worked best for me but I’m beyond thankful that I finally did. I tried everything from running to calligraphy to bubble baths but ended up finding it easiest when reading books, practising yoga, and colouring in (yes, I now have stacks of those adult colouring-in books).
So, don’t give up too quickly and settle on a practice that doesn’t feel right for you. Channel your passions and interests and eventually you’ll connect with a relaxation practise that will become essential to unwind from the daily grind.
Make sure your job is right for you
Unfortunately, no matter how much time and effort you put into unwinding and destressing, if your job continues to feed chronic stress then you’ll never truly feel as though you can beat the feeling of burning out. If that’s the case, it might be time to go job hunting.
While that might sound a little drastic, in a Deloitte survey on workplace burnout, nearly half of the millennial respondents said they have left a job specifically because they felt burnt out.
You should never feel guilty for putting your health above your job, especially if it’s doing so much damage to you. Besides, there might just be the perfect job out there for you and the feelings of burn out will swiftly become a distant memory.
This article was written by Laine Fullerton and originally published on A Girl In Progress.