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4 Things to Do When You're Burning Out at Work

Burned out? These four steps could turn things around for you.

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I first experienced severe burnout (and overlapping depression) years ago, when I was an Emergency Medicine resident. I never wanted to hit bottom that hard ever again and decided to learn everything I could about resilience and mental wellness.

I started working as a coach over a decade ago, helping busy, overwhelmed women create more balanced, meaningful lives. Almost every client has some sort of work-related stress they need help with. Over the last few years, most are either on the edge of burnout or in the throes of severe work-related depletion.

Many are so fed up that they hire me to help them ditch their current position and find something else.

If possible, I counsel clients to wait and try smaller changes first. If you’re suffering from true burnout (read this post to learn about the key signs), you’re emotionally and mentally exhausted and not in a good zone to make life-altering decisions.

Here’s what I advise clients to do:

1. Identify what’s causing you the most stress, and see if there’s a solution.

Maslach and Leiter, leading researchers on the subject of burnout, determined that there are six areas of work-life that can lead to burnout: excess workloads, lack of control, insufficient rewards, workplace community issues, unfair practices, and value conflicts.

I’m working with a client who exhibits almost all the signs of burnout. She’s seriously considering leaving her position, though she used to love her work and still loves the company. In cases like hers, I’m concerned that thoughts of leaving are almost exclusively burnout-related.

Some very specific issues are pushing her over the edge. Rather than sending in her resignation, she asked her superiors if they could make key changes. They highly value her and have agreed to respond to her requests. If they do, the positive impact will be significant, and far more convenient than having to chase down new work.

2. Stop doing work that’s not yours.

Excess workloads are one of the most common causes of burnout. When I ask clients where they might be able to cut back, the usual response is “Nowhere!” My next question: “Is there anything you’re doing at work that’s really someone else’s responsibility?”

There almost always is. Highly conscientious people are at high risk for burnout, and they’re usually doing other people’s work. They want to help (rescue) others, or have a hard time saying no. Or perfectionism has entered in: The other person won’t do the task as well as they can, even though it’s not their responsibility.

If you’re overwhelmed with work, look at everything you’re doing, and then get rid of anything you don’t actually have to do.

3. Place hard boundaries between work and the rest of your life.

Another client feels extremely stressed and burdened by her job, with little to no time for herself. She starts early, works long hours, and usually works into the evening at home. She doesn’t actually have to, but she feels continually pressured and ends up working in her off hours by default.

When I asked her what she might do about this, her response was immediate: “I can leave my laptop at work! That way when I’m at home, I’ll be forced to do something else.” Perfect. I’ve had other clients do similar things, such as putting their work phone in a drawer—not to be touched—over weekends.

How might you draw clearer boundaries between work and home?

4. Start taking care of yourself physically.

If you’re getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, you’re likely to feel exhausted and fried. If you’re skipping breakfast, mainlining espresso and grabbing junk food all day to keep yourself going, you’ll be sure to feel awful and perform even worse. If you sit at a desk all day without breaks and never get any exercise, it’s not surprising that you feel irritable and stressed.

If you’re scrimping on sleep, not eating properly, or hardly moving at all in a given day, this is good news to me as a coach, because I know that as soon as you begin to get more regular sleep, eat better, and get moving, you’ll feel dramatically better. You might even start liking your job again.

As I always say, if you feel like you’re burning out it’s important to see your doctor or a qualified psychological professional. (This post is not intended to replace their advice). As I personally experienced, burnout can overlap with depression. Some experts even believe that burnout is a work-related form of depression. Other medical conditions can also present with similar symptoms. Life’s too short to feel continually stressed and at the end of your rope. Try these steps to take your life back, and see how much better you feel.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas

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Leiter, Michael & Maslach, Christina. (1999). Six areas of worklife: A model of the organizational context of burnout. Journal of health and human services administration. 21. 472-89.

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