5 Ways to Help Prevent a Burnout

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

The road to burnout is paved with good intentions. You want to perform at the highest level and you care deeply about your work. But slowly, over time, the chronic stress and pressures lead you to feel utterly depleted and ineffective, like you’re running in quicksand, perhaps even losing confidence in your abilities or growing cynical or detached.

Often burnout results from a prolonged overload of work, but not always. Some people can work extremely hard for long periods and still feel happy and engaged at work, notes renowned burnout researcher Christina Maslach: “Sometimes the problem of work overload turns out not to be the most important.” Other common contributing factors include:

  • Feeling like you don’t have enough control over your work
  • Lack of clarity about your responsibilities
  • Feeling isolated or unsupported within your organization
  • Not enough feedback, reward, or recognition
  • A sense of unfairness, or conflict between your values and the values of the organization

There are no quick fixes to stem the tide of looming burnout — especially in cases where it’s triggered by something as serious as discrimination. (See your HR representative immediately if you suspect this is the root cause.)

But in other cases, with work and persistence you can make significant progress toward changing the behaviors and relationship patterns that are the more common culprits. These tips can help:

1. Build good personal habits that foster resilience (and break bad ones).

Building good personal habits is one of those blindingly obvious things that everyone nods along with but very few burned out people actually do. Why? Because those who most need to change their habits are often the least equipped to do so.

Think of it this way: When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re much more likely to slip into self-destructive behavior patterns that seem like time savers, especially if you’re highly focused on a challenging goal. To eke out every precious minute of productive work time, maybe you skip exercise, eat lunch at your desk every day, and work weekends for two months straight in order to meet a tough deadline. This strategy may even work. Once.

The problem is that these types of productivity shortcuts are mirages. Over time, they erode your mind and body of the capacity to cope with stress effectively and — potentially even worse — cloud your ability to recognize that you’re zooming ahead at an unsustainable rate.

You need to break this terrible cycle, and one way to do it is to focus on healthier work-life balance habits, in particular:

  • Prioritize physical exercise. While moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercise feels tiring in the moment, gobs of research suggests it’s actually rejuvenating for those experiencing burnout, increasing positive moods and reducing feelings of stress. Plus, the increased stamina that comes from being physically strong and healthy helps you resist exhaustion in the first place. If you’re having trouble fitting exercise into your schedule, try getting creative: Could you walk, bike, or run to work or at lunchtime? Buddy-up with a colleague for a post-work fitness class?
  • Reframe your mental approach to stress through self-awareness and calming techniques. You can never eliminate emotional stress at work, but pausing for a little deep breathing or to recognize when you’re feeling anxiety can go a long way toward minimizing the impact of stressors.
  • Take breaks — and vacations. When you step away from your desk and create some mental space, you’re providing your brain much-needed recharge time that’s likely to re-invigorate your attitude and your creative juices. One key: When you step away, truly step away, for example by leaving your phone (and email) behind when you have lunch and not checking in while on vacation.

2. Manage your workload by prioritizing and making smart time trade-offs.

It’s challenging to balance the many meetings, interruptions, and competing priorities that come with working in a fast-paced environment. It can feel like there’s never enough time to get on top of things or like it’s impossible to keep up — and ultimately this sense of time scarcity can feel overwhelming and contribute to burnout.

Efficient time management can help. So can adopting a ruthless focus on what matters most: To start, make a list of all the tasks on your plate, then determine which three to five are the most crucial. Check in with your manager to make sure you’re on the same page about what’s most important and where you should spend the majority of your time. What other tasks can you postpone for later, or cut out entirely? Where do you need more clarity or help from your manager to get the work done? Then, spend 10 minutes each day and 30 minutes each week scheduling time to work on your most crucial tasks.

3. Consider whether your relationship with your manager may be contributing to feelings of overwork or lack of control.

Poor communication, little to no feedback, unrealistic expectations, micromanagement — these barely scratch the surface of the possible relationship dynamics between you and your manager that can contribute mightily to sapping your energy, enthusiasm, and confidence. If you determine your relationship needs improving, the good news is that it’s almost always possible to do so, as long as you take the initiative. And even small changes in how you work together can make a big difference in your happiness and engagement at work.

When thinking through what’s not working well, it’s helpful to consider what role you might have played in establishing the dynamic. For example, say your boss regularly gives you a large project with a one-week deadline that means late nights and weekend work for you while your other projects slip through the cracks. Could they think the timeline is reasonable because you (perhaps eager to prove yourself) have delivered quality work this quickly in the past without communicating the sacrifices required to do so?

As for how to best address the issue, a lot depends on your boss’s communication preferences and the strength of your relationship. Being calm and direct in tone often works well:

“Nermin, I’d like to discuss my workload with you. In order to complete the project in that time frame, I’ll need to stay late and work weekends, which doesn’t feel sustainable in the long term. Would you be willing to discuss ways we could lengthen the time frame or get additional resources to contribute to the effort?”

4. Connect with a peer to help you feel less alone in your struggles.

It may seem counterintuitive to prioritize networking when you’re already stretched too thin, but taking the time to talk with a peer can help you uncover all sorts of useful information that may help you feel more connected and supported at work.

What common challenges do you face, and how are you both dealing with them? In addition to reaping the emotional benefit of a shared burden, you may learn helpful solutions you hadn’t thought of. Or, what details can you both share that will give you greater insight into your organization’s big picture and help you do your job better, or possibly find greater meaning in your work? Perhaps you’re struggling with a recent team shift in strategy, and your peer is able to offer advice on how they’ve adapted.

One caveat: If you have the cynical feelings that often accompany burnout, be careful that your conversation doesn’t devolve into a gripe session — negative, damaging ideas spread just as easily as positive, helpful ones.

5. Take time to reconnect with what motivates you at work.

Think back: What excited you about your job in the first place? Amid the rush of daily demands, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing. You can find ways to regain a sense of meaning in your work. For example, say you’re a designer driven by your company’s mission to help clients. Why not reach out to a past client to learn how you made a difference for them?

Even when this approach doesn’t work— for example, if you’re motivated by advancement but promotions are slow in coming at your company — it often has silver-lining potential. Maybe you can’t advance in rank right now, but could you advance your skills in some way (which might ultimately help you land a higher position)?

What if you just can’t shake it?

Work burnout can spiral into pervasive feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and it may not get better without help. If you’re not making progress, seek support and guidance from trusted friends, your manager, a mentor, HR, or a health care professional.