How can we stop burning out? — Getting our work-life balance

As a new year begins, it becomes important to practice self-reflection and think about things to improve on from the previous year. Things that could come up may be related to personal relationships, work, feelings of less than expected levels of productivity, overall stress, and points of burnout.

For many of us, we have experienced what burnout feels like. The feeling of being overworked, overwhelmed, and losing a sense of control over our work. When I recognize this feeling, I need to have the self-management skills to take a step back and reassess the situation. Developing the self-awareness to recognize burnout not only improves your well-being by letting the healing happen earlier, it also improves your work overall.

Life often feels like a Sisyphean task. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king that was being punished by the gods to roll a rock up a hill for eternity.

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You can often feel like there is an inevitable list of tasks to do and it becomes a constant uphill battle.

Research describes burnout as, “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

Burnout is often attributed to the workplace, but those feelings described happen everywhere there are expectations to maintain a high intensity of work. This is especially common in schools as young students have to compete through exams and grades as they prepare for their future. Grades and standardized testing become synonymous with how “educated” the students are and becomes associated with their self-worth.

While research is conducted to support the return of employees to a productive level, this article will be discussing how burnout affects all of us in a general way, and building the self-awareness for healing. I personally have struggled with the cycle of burnout at every point of my professional life and had to develop my own methods to manage burnout.

Culture of Work

As a society, we often closely associate stress, productivity, overworking, and burnout together. The social norm of overworking is carried as a badge of honor that shows commitment and willingness to go the “extra mile”. We glorify overworking and relate long work sessions with high productivity.

Despite the fact that we know that work stress and overworking is bad for us, we justify it as making sure we get things done. We consider success impossible without overworking, and that is where burnout slowly sneaks into our lives. An issue with these working habits is the damage it does to the motivation for the work. When there is reduced motivation, there is often overall less long-term productivity.

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It is important that we define stress and burnout differently. Stress is the response to the workload and deadlines we have. Burnout is the result of the stress overload leading to a sense of lack of meaning and motivation.

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Burnout also can cause a multitude of different health issues:

  • Excessive stress

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • Sadness, anger or irritability

  • Alcohol or substance misuse

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Vulnerability to illnesses

This is why it is so important to understand and develop the self-awareness of when you are burning out.

Recognizing Burnout

You might be wondering, “OK, what does burnout look like, and how do I know if I am burning out?”

Burnout has signs that can be used to make sure that you stay mentally healthy and manage a work-life balance. According to Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, there are 12 Phases of Burnout that can be used to identify where someone is during the burnout cycle.

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Some people skip certain stages or find themselves at multiple stages at once. This is something that varies differently for each individual.

Phase 1 — While there is nothing inherently wrong with ambition or the need of proving themselves through the work they produce, it becomes a danger if they closely associate their identity and self-worth by what they do. Their identity and self-worth should be developed based on their individual internal values and not driven by external factors such as their salary or occupation.

Phase 2 — Increasing their workload to show themselves or others that they can “crush it” and having the need of proving that they are “irreplaceable”. In today’s job market, this is something that is commonplace as competition is fierce and the rat race is something difficult to escape. It is important to be able to “turn off” from work and enjoy life.

Phase 3 — Needs begin to be neglected and de-prioritized in exchange for time for work, like sleeping, eating, and spending time with close friends and family.

Phase 4 — The physical symptoms of burnout and the effects of stress begin to develop. They may feel something is “off” but they cannot find the source. They become very dismissive that anything is wrong. They may feel tense, threatening, panicky, and jittery.

Phase 5 — Instead of spending time with their friends or favorite hobbies, work becomes the only focus. All other things that were previously valuable lose their importance.

Phase 6 —They start to develop perceptions of their teammates being lazy or undisciplined. Cynicism and aggression are displayed and their problems become associated with deadlines and workload, not their mental health.

Phase 7 — There is complete social isolation and they start using alcohol or drugs as relief. They develop feelings of hopelessness.

Phase 8 — People close to them begin asking them about their behavior and are concerned.

Phase 9 — They start losing touch with themselves. They start living by “going through the motions” and lose perspective of time. They see neither themselves or others as valuable.

Phase 10 — Feelings of inner emptiness are compensated by excessive eating, sex, alcohol, and other activities.

Phase 11 — The symptoms of depression emerge as they start feeling indifferent, hopeless, and believe that their future is pointless. Their life starts losing meaning.

Phase 12 —Total mental and physical breakdowns occur. They also start having suicidal thoughts to escape their situation. Immediate medical care is needed.

Looking at these stages, are there any that you can recognize as having experienced yourself?

Take a moment to reflect and write down moments when this happened to you and how it affected the work you produced as well as your relationships with teammates, friends, and family.

Advice for Work-Life Balance

There is no easy way to balance the demands of life and work, but it shouldn’t stop you from trying. I will share what I have found that worked for me:

  1. Block out time in your schedule for self-care. Find what works for your self-care. Take an hour, a day, if possible a weekend for yourself to recover from an intense work schedule. I personally try to block out at minimum 1 hour a day for meditation and reading books.

  2. Find time to connect with people through meaningful relationships.Reconnect with friends and family that you have not seen in a long time. Pausing your work to spend time with other people may not sound intuitive, but it is good to give your brain a break. Talking to other people can also help inspire new creative thoughts and opportunities.

  3. Prioritize tasks and forgive yourself. My personal method of managing time has been using To-do lists and prioritizing the list for the day and the week based on respective deadlines for the tasks. By organizing tasks based on priority and deadlines, you would able to manage tasks in a way that makes sure deadlines and high-priority items are not forgotten. If you feel overwhelmed by tasks and find yourself not completing some by the end of the day, forgive yourself for not being able to do what was intended and prioritize getting it done tomorrow. Forgiveness and self-compassion are important to carry out a heavy workload over a long period of time.

  4. Remember that being healthy will lead to you to produce more quality work. If you are driven by ambition and a constant need to produce as an overachiever, it is important to keep in mind that you will be able to produce more quality work the better your mind and body are. The more healthy you are, the more resilient your body is to stress. It is important to give the body and mind time to recover so when it is time to perform, you will be a rock star.

More Information

I hope with this information, you are now better equipped to help yourself with burnout. Please take some time in your day and invest in your well-being.

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Thank you!


Danny Tsoi