How to Fight Burnout
2020 has been both physically and mentally draining. We’ve had to adapt to remote work, juggle careers and homeschooling, miss out on important celebrations and milestones, and distance ourselves from friends and family. If all of this, plus constantly evolving lockdown restrictions and worries about the COVID-19 virus itself, has left you feeling exhausted, you’re not alone. A survey by the Harvard Business Review found that 60% of respondents felt burnt out often or very often during the pandemic, while 85% felt that their well-being had declined over the last year. Meanwhile, a study by the American Psychological Association found that 84% of adults experienced emotions associated with prolonged stress over the course of the pandemic. With all the change that has occurred in the last year, feeling worn out makes sense. Our bodies have been overexposed to stress, leaving us feeling depleted of energy and like we’ve hit a wall. While stress in normal doses is a natural part of life and can even be motivating at times, chronic stress can lead to burnout, which can wreak havoc on our health, happiness, relationships, job performance and daily functioning. Here’s what you need to know about burnout:
What is burnout?
The term burnout, first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, was originally defined as, “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Simply put, burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive, severe, or chronic stress. It is typically characterized by a lack of energy or motivation and a sense of hopelessness or cynicism, as well as increased mental distance from one’s job. Unlike with regular fatigue, those experiencing burnout may feel overwhelmed or incapable of coping with stress or handling responsibilities. Burnout can also lead to trouble concentrating and reduced job performance. Though typically related to one’s job, factors such as child care, work-life balance, societal pressure, and social media, can also exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety and lead to burnout.
Preventing and Managing Burnout
The good news is that burnout is avoidable. Whether you’re feeling burnout already or sense you’re heading down that path, here are some ways to protect your mental health.
1. Practice Healthy Habits
Taking care of your physical health is one of the best ways to improve your mental health. In times of high stress, it’s important not to let good habits fall through the cracks. This means maintaining a healthy diet, getting a good night’s sleep, practicing good hygiene, and exercising regularly. Try to eat nutritious foods, while being mindful of your caffeine and alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a depressant and can significantly affect your mood, motivation, energy, and sleep, even days after. Meanwhile, caffeine is a stimulant that we can become overly dependent on when we’re already burnt out. You should also moderate your sugar and refined carb consumption as well, as both can leave you feeling sluggish and low energy. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, and aim for at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Research shows that getting less than 6 hours of sleep can increase your risk of burnout, as it can impact your productivity, concentration, and motivation. Likewise, regular exercise will boost your mood, improve your concentration, and help you sleep better. Even engaging in just 10 to 20 minutes of exercise a day can significantly boost your overall happiness level and relieve stress.
2. Set boundaries
One of the biggest contributors to burnout is a lack of a healthy, work-life balance. For many, though, it’s been difficult to have a clear separation between the two while working from home.
Without a commute or physically leaving the office, it can be easy to get wrapped up in a task and work longer or later hours. One Medical Mental Health Specialist, Sherese Ezelle, LMHC recommends creating a “virtual” commute for yourself to give yourself time to unwind. “Create a new at home commute by taking a quick walk around the block and listening to a podcast or music.” said Ezelle. “If you used to read on the subway or train on your way home from work, pick up a book or listen to an audiobook at home when you finish working. Replicating this commute time can help you disconnect and more easily transition to your non-work activities.” Do the same in the morning, by having a cup of coffee or reading the news before launching right into work. It can also be helpful to designate a specific part of your home for work only. This could be a guest room, desk, or even just a corner of your apartment. This space should be separate from where you go to relax, watch TV, or decompress, in order to prevent the stress of work from pervading your other activities. Likewise, try to set clearly defined working hours by logging off from your computer and turning off email notifications at a regularly scheduled time each day.
3. Make time for fun
Oftentimes, we get so caught up in our day to day responsibilities or caring for others, that we forget to make time just for pleasure. Engaging in activities you enjoy can actually help you recharge and destress, and return to your work or chores with a more positive attitude. Hobbies can also distract you from everyday stressors, help you feel more in the moment, and ultimately boost your work performance. You don’t have to carve out a huge amount of time for these things either. Do a 10 minute yoga session, work on a puzzle, read a book for bed, try a new recipe for dinner, or even just play with your pet for a few minutes. Even just finding ways to enliven your everyday tasks can help, “Ask yourself, ‘What brings me joy?’ Then find and create structured opportunities to incorporate that into your day’,” said Ezelle. “ if you love to sing, sing while doing the dishes or taking a walk. Practice incorporating these fun and meaningful activities in your daily life.” Avoid checking the news, social media, or you email during these moments and enjoy the activity at hand.
4. Take regular breaks
When we’re feeling burnt out, we aren’t as productive or creative as we normally would be. Whether you’re working from home, homeschooling, caring for children, or facing other stressors, it’s important to take regular breaks throughout the day in order to return to your work or responsibilities with a fresh, renewed perspective. Try setting an alarm, leaving yourself reminders, or scheduling recurring breaks into your calendar. This could be for lunch, a quick snack or coffee, a walk around the house, or just for a few minutes of stretching.
5. Practice mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness can reduce stress, help you feel more rooted in the present, and help you stay in touch with your emotions. For some people, mindfulness may mean breathing exercises like this body scan, or starting a gratitude journal. “Spending time being aware of your surroundings is a great way to stay present and positive in times of increased stress,” said Ezelle. “A great way to practice mindfulness is to engage as many of your senses as possible in one activity. For example, wash dishes with fragrant dish soap, be aware of the sensation of the bubbles, and hear the squeak of the gloves.” For others, it may mean getting outside and observing the world around you, paying attention to the sounds, smells, and sights of the outdoors. Studies have shown that physically placing yourself in nature has the ability to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as boost your mood. You can also try focusing your attention on something that requires active thought and focus, like reading a descriptive novel or going on a bike ride.
6. Take time off
While microbreaks each day can be a great way to alleviate stress, time off from your normal routine can be especially rejuvenating. Use your well-earned paid time off to plan a vacation and give yourself something to look forward to. If you can’t afford to take a vacation right now, even just giving yourself a mental health day can help your recharge. For some this may mean, taking a day off from work, while for others it may mean just using a weekend day to sleep, eat well, and relax “Give yourself time to reset and remind yourself that taking the time to recharge makes you more productive and efficient and can lessen your stress and feelings of burnout,” said Ezelle.
7. Reach out to loved ones
Burnout is often accompanied by feelings of loneliness, but it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Many people are struggling with similar feelings right now and it can help to share your experiences with supportive loved ones or keep a line of open communication with your supervisors or colleagues. Sharing these feelings can help you feel less isolated and more optimistic, as well as figure out ways to better manage your workload.
With all that has gone on in the world in the last year, it’s understandable that you may feel burnt out or exhausted. Luckily, these feelings are not permanent or inevitable. If you feel like you are struggling with your mental health right now, reach out to your primary care provider so that you can work on a treatment plan.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
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