- Three determinants of burnout are emotional exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and depersonalization.
- Some problems are intractable, but often you have more ability to impact your work life than you might realize.
- Burnout can make you feel one dimensional; be sure to do things you want to do, not just more things you should do.
We’ve all had days—or more than a year (a la 2020 and 2021)—when we feel like a salmon swimming upstream: we exert our best effort, only to be swept back by forces beyond our control. To make matters worse, we all know what happens to the salmon when they reach the end of their journey.
But what if your entire job starts to feel like an ill-fated upriver struggle? What started as your dream job somehow morphed into a nightmare. Now what? The three big determinants of burnout are emotional exhaustion, reduced accomplishment, and something called depersonalization, which is basically growing bitter and cynical about the people you’re supposed to care enough about to serve. How to handle this trifecta of misery? Read on for seven tips to help you handle burnout.
1. Start with your body.
This is cliché, but take care of yourself. When was the last time you ate lunch without staring at your computer or spent a night without Netflix? How much wine are you drinking after work? When was the last time you exercised? Make a decision to trade screen time for shuteye, skip fast food, and work regular exercise back into your routine.
2. Pinpoint which of these six areas are causing your problems.
According to the foremost expert in the field of burnout, Dr. Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, work problems can be boiled down to six things:
- Workload: you’re bogged down with an endless to-do list and can never catch up; it keeps coming at you like that I Love Lucy episode with the chocolates on the conveyor belt.
- Control: or rather, lack thereof. You feel like you have no prerogative in setting or influencing duties, processes, or deadlines.
- Rewards: You feel like you’re being exploited. There is little reward to your work, whether in terms of finances, prestige, or positive feedback.
- Fairness: Your work environment is hostile or unjust.
- Community: There’s a lack of support and camaraderie from colleagues. Or worse, backstabbing and mean-spiritedness are an unofficial chapter in the company handbook.
- Values: You work against your values, like evicting old ladies or harpooning baby whales.
Once you’ve pinpointed what’s snuffing your fire, try...
3. Look to the future.
The opposite of job burnout is something called job engagement. So imagine what it would take for you to be engaged. Where would you like to be? What comes to mind when you think about a great place to work? How can you feel like you can have some autonomy about your work, rather than having decisions made for you?
4. Try to make a better match.
Once you’ve pinpointed the problem(s), see if you can create a better match. Some problems are intractable, like working against your values or an unethical company culture. For that, see Tip #5. But sometimes change is possible. Can you diversify your job description? Transfer to another team or location within the company? Justify hiring an assistant? Make the case for flex time or working from home one day a week? If the problem is social, can you suggest some changes that will help all employees?
5. If improving your current job doesn’t work, make some big decisions.
Make some executive decisions. If making a better match doesn’t work, it might be a sign to look for another role someplace else or consider if now’s a good time to go back to school.
Hear me out on this one: By “delegate” I don’t mean reassign the part of your job you dread to the intern. Instead, fight the feeling that you’re the only one who can handle things.
Interestingly, those with a sense of over-responsibility—you think if you want something done right you have to do it yourself—are more vulnerable to burnout. And sometimes your thought might be true—your dissertation, your patients—sometimes you are the one in charge. But sometimes things can be delegated. If you suspect you’re a little on the over-responsible side, test out delegation and see what happens.
7. Diversify your time.
By the time we burn out, we’ve often become one-dimensional. Life whittles down to work and a workout when we’re done, which we chalk up to “taking care of ourselves” but is really just another duty. Do things you want to do, not just more things you should do. Ask yourself what you used to like to do, and then dust off your hiking boots, your madeleine pan, or your table saw. And to that end, take your time off too; whether you take a few days after you finish that big work project or after you wrap up your current job and before you start the next one. During your vacation, see friends, if you can swing it, travel, or at least rest: read some novels, work on your house, or play with your kids.
So if you reflexively enter your work password when logging into your personal computer, test out some of these seven tips. You'll go from burned out to fanning the flames.
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