How to Prevent (And Manage) Burnout

It seems like everywhere I turn—from Instagram to conversations with my clients—burnout is on the rise. After all, we’re in month 20 of a pandemic, moving into colder seasons, and experiencing daily ups and downs. Hearing this buzzword with such frequency has made me tune in to my own experience of burnout. You may find yourself in a similar head space. Whether you feel burnt out or you’re feeling refreshed, it’s important to know how to prevent and manage burnout.

how to prevent burnout

What is burnout?

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined “burnout” to describe the exhaustion of motivation or emotional and physical strength due to prolonged stress and frustration. Initially, burnout was labeled a workplace-related phenomenon. Now, it’s commonly attributed to experiences like caregiving or consistent high-level endurance activities. Research shows that first responders, helping professionals, or Type-A personalities are more at risk of developing burnout. 

Signs of burnout

Now that we know what burnout is, how can we spot it? Below are typical signs of burnout:

  • Exhaustion –Feeling mentally or physically tired even with adequate rest is a common symptom of burnout.
  • Isolation – Isolation can appear in a variety of manners. Isolation may look like choosing to spend more time alone than with friends or family. It may also look like choosing to work alone on projects that you may typically collaborate on with others.  Isolation may also look like arriving to work or commitments late and choosing to leave early. 
  • Irritability – Irritability is an inability to manage emotions with loved ones or colleagues. Experiencing negative emotions when engaging in typical daily tasks like household chores, childcare, or a work meeting is also a sign of irritability.
  • Illness – If you find that you are more frequently experiencing colds, flulike symptoms, body aches, insomnia, or increased mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety, burnout may be a cause.
  • Fantasizing about escape – When we feel burnt out, we often want to be free from the cause. This may mean wanting to quit our jobs or hanging up our running shoes to never run again. This occurs because our stressors may feel too large to manage and escape seems to be the only viable option.
  • Low motivation – If we’re burnt out, we often lose motivation to engage in whatever our stressor is. This may mean wanting to avoid caregiving responsibilities or only having the ability to do minimal responsibilities at work.
  • Change in personal outlook – When I experience burnout, my loved ones tell me that I seem different. What they mean is that my typical optimistic attitude is no longer present and I am more pessimistic. This is common as burnout can influence our abilities to feel our typical range of emotions.

How to prevent burnout before it starts

Looking over that list of symptoms, it’s totally understandable that burnout can seem really scary. Thankfully, there are ways to stop burnout before it begins. Here’s how to prevent burnout:

  • Set boundaries early – I often hear from clients that they are expected to be available for work more regularly now that they work from home. In these circumstances, it’s important to set boundaries. You can set boundaries at any time. Realistically, however, boundaries are commonly discussed at performance reviews, in meetings with supervisors, or upon being hired. Examples of boundaries may be turning off work-related notification when not on work hours or identifying boundaries related to work tasks.
  • Take intentional breaks – We are humans, not robots, and even robots need to recharge. When looking at your calendar, set aside specific times each day and week that you take a break. When taking breaks, rest mindfully or engage a different part of your brain so your work brain can rest. 
  • Have multiple sources of purpose – If we only feel fulfilled by one purpose, we can easily experience burnout. I love my role as a therapist, but when I feel like my life is entirely oriented around therapy, I notice that I lose motivation. Engaging intentionally in relationships and training for marathons are two ways that I find purpose outside of my job which helps me avoid burnout.
  • Maintain personal routines – As humans, we thrive with structure. To avoid burnout, create a structure that works for you. I often encourage my clients to map out their week with this activity. You’ll see how you currently spend your time, and you can build a routine related to your current behavior.

How to manage burnout when it happens

You may read over the symptoms of burnout and recognize yourself. If that feels true for you, here are tips on how to manage burnout after it has begun.

  • Identify the stressor– It’s very challenging to overcome burnout if you do not know the cause. Sometimes it’s obvious and other times it is more complex. Take time to reflect on the root cause of your stress.
  • Engage with your personal support system – Reach out to the people you love and trust. Tell them what you are experiencing and ask for what you need whether it is advice or a listening ear. Isolation is a sign of burnout; connection is the antidote.
  • Meet your needs – Try reflecting on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If a basic need is not met, like physical safety, a higher-level need cannot be managed. 
  • Change what you can – Making change is necessary to manage burnout. The change may feel small—like running five days a week instead of six—or it may feel large, like transitioning careers. If your burnout abates, you will know you have made the right change.

Burnout may be common, but it does not have to be chronic. Use this guide to support your relationship with burnout to support more balance in your life.

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Mental Health Think & Feel

About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.

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