It’s quite common to feel tired after a long day at work or need a holiday after a month-long sprint to finish a new project. But when relentless work stress becomes so debilitating that it pushes you to the point of physical and/or mental breakdown, commonly referred to as burnout, then it becomes a serious problem.
My first encounter with burnout was in 2015, when I was completing the development of a school’s online portal that I had been working on for months. I was stringing together a series of coffee-fuelled sleepless nights to complete this task and thankfully, I did, but the week that followed was hell.
Naturally I was appointed another task at work but at that point, my body had basically shut down. I was extremely fatigued, unable think through seemingly menial tasks and there was just an air of negativity about how I was conducting my work. I was completely burnt out and it got so bad that my boss had to send me home for a few days to get some rest.
I had a similar experience in 2016, on the build up to the launch of my website design company, TheRichFab Websites. I had spent so much mental and physical energy in the planning phase, that I was burnt out on the day of the company launch and had to rest for two days before I could actually commence work.
It is important to avoid getting to this point of burnout because it affects your performance and overall well-being, whether you work in a traditional 9-5 or own an entrepreneurial venture.
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What exactly is burnout?
Rebecca Knight, in her article for the Harvard Business Review, described burnout as the mental and physical exhaustion you experience when the demands of your work consistently exceed the amount of energy you have available. According to a team of psychologists, burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and it has three main components- exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.
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As you can see from these two definitions, a common theme of consistent unrelenting stress can be found with burnout.
What are the effects of burnout?
Studies have linked burnout to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety. Moreover, burnout has been shown to produce feelings of futility and alienation, undermine the quality of relationships and diminish long-term career prospects.
What causes burnout?
According to Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outweighs your individual need for rewards, recognition, and relaxation.
A major cause of burnout is the hyper-competitive economy we live in today, where it is so easy to fall prey to information overload, “perpetual busyness,” and constantly racing against the clock.
Ron Friedman, the founder of ignite80, agreed with this premise when he argued that people are at greater risk of burnout today than we were 10 years ago largely because “we’re surrounded by devices that are designed to grab our attention and make everything feel urgent.” This feeds into the always-on, 24/7 organizational culture that is so common today, it gives off the feeling of simply having too much to do with too little time.
So, how can I overcome it?
After copious hours of research on the various ways that people experience and deal with burnout, I have devised three effective steps to help you overcome burnout:
- Identify the underlying cause
Situational factors at work are the biggest contributors to burnout, so assessing your work life is the logical first step to take to overcome burnout. However, in order to actually overcome it, you would need to zero in on the exact underlying cause of stress in your work life.
To help you narrow the underlying cause down, here are the common fronts where the battle against burnout in our work lives tends to be fought:
- Over-commitment: this often shows up as doing too many things, which often comes from an inability — or lack of resolve — to draw boundaries or say “no,” or from being unrealistic about what it will take to complete projects.
- Resource issues: not having enough resources (time, money, people) and/or not using them effectively (e.g. via delegation).
- Perfectionism: pursuing perfection instead of focusing on what’s “good enough.”
- Focus problems: focusing on things that are urgent but not important — and on things that just “come up” (e.g., simply responding to emails coming in versus managing your time according to your priorities); or procrastinating on things that are difficult.
- Reduce exposure to stressors
After identifying the cause of your stress, the next step is to reduce your exposure to these stressors. This usually involves resetting the expectations of colleagues, clients, and even family members for what and how much you’re willing to take on, as well as ground rules for working together.
In this step, you’ll have to be honest with yourself about the amount of workload you can handle and develop the ability to say ‘NO’ when it is necessary. You’ll also have to actively limit the use of your work phone after work hours. Put your phone away when you get home so you’re not tempted to check it; or devise a rule for yourself about turning it off once it is 8pm.
You may get pushback. But those around you must know that you’re making these changes to improve your long-term productivity and protect your health.
- Effectively allocate your time
The final step is to effectively allocate your time because you need to take proper care of yourself to ensure that you can work as effectively as possible. Effectively allocating your time involves three things:
- Firstly, it involves managing your time at work to make sure you are doing the right things at the right time and hence, reducing work stress.
- Secondly, it involves allocating time (in the short term and long term) to rest & rejuvenate as you go about your work life. This involves scheduling time to shut everything off and just rest including scheduling time away from social media at regular intervals. I personally struggled with being able to allocate time to rest but believe me, two hours of rest is better than one week of burnout.
Key questions to answer to allow for short term breaks include: How do you start your day? Do you have a morning, mid-day, and evening routine that allows for breaks and reflection, do you exercise?
Key questions to answer to allow for long term breaks include: Do you take the time to travel and rest? Do you actually take your vacation time and fill it with adventure, enjoyment, and rest?
- Thirdly, it involves doing work that genuinely gives your life meaning. One of the causes of burnout, it turns out, is not filling our lives up with deeper meaning and genuine connection with others. This isn’t the easiest thing to do though, it may require you to think long and hard to connect your current assignment to a larger personal goal or even quit your job if you get no meaning/fulfilment from what you do.
Key questions to answer: Are your work and life infused with purpose and fulfilment? Do you have a vision of the good life that you’re working toward? Do you bring your values, strengths, and passions to work or leave them at home?
If you are able to effectively allocate your time along the aforementioned lines, then you will be able to keep burnout at bay in your life.
This concludes my article on how to overcome burnout and stay motivated at work and/or in your entrepreneurial venture. I hope that the information provided in this article has brought you a deeper understanding of what burnout entails and the three steps highlighted above will help you overcome any signs of burnout you might experience. Take care.