Hartung: Take a breath, relax to avoid burnout at work

Question: The stress of constantly pushing to fit more in at work and home is taking its toll. I’m exhausted. While I believe in the mission of the company I work for, I don’t like who I’m becoming. I feel hollowed out inside. How do I deal with this?

Reply: Feeling overwhelmed, depleted, and pressured is no fun. Too many professionals get burned out, sacrificing their health and wellbeing. Personally, I have had times when burnout brought me to a level of exhaustion and illness that my capacity was cut in half.  It is a good mental exercise to consider: What would happen if you could only work half the time you do now?

Mission-driven burnout is how I describe the consequences of getting our identities so wrapped up in our work that we sacrifice our own well-being. Most leaders I know have been through a phase like this. When a leader’s commitment to making a difference results in chronic over-doing, his or her energy for enjoying life dissipates.

If you tend to be highly motivated, passionate, and the type of person who steps up to responsibility, you are even more at risk than the average person for burning out. You may be pushing your limits and exhausting yourself precisely because you care so much. 

It is possible to take the road less travelled that avoids burnout without compromising your ability to contribute.

What is burnout?

Burnout depletes our emotional, physical, and mental capacity, and over time, our durability. It’s a psychological term describing the cumulative negative results of chronic stress, lack of rest, and perceived pressures beyond one’s ability to manage. Consequences of burnout include emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced performance, cynicism, loss of interest and energy for activities you once enjoyed, isolation, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment, including a loss of meaning at work. Burnout can be short-term or long-term — it can even become a life pattern.

Address the signs of burnout

Here are four specific steps you can take to keep burnout at bay and renew your drive, energy, and focus:

1. Take a breather. Literally, just breathe for two minutes. In and out through your nose. Balance the length of the inhale and exhale. You must breathe, so you might as well use what you are already doing to help you. Check in with yourself while you breathe. Close your eyes if it helps you notice how you are feeling on the inside. Conscious breathing repeated daily, or hourly, gives your body’s systems a chance to regulate.

2. Scale back to move forward. Your deep commitment to a mission can cause the urge to  overcommit. Scale back work so that the volume of high-priority items isn’t draining your effectiveness. Be honest with what you can do.  Explore what’s essential and what’s optional. Renegotiate and release non-essential commitments to create a set of priorities you can succeed with. Find a sweet spot of impact within a do-able scope.

3. Stoke your natural energy. Some activities fuel us. Adding in a daily dose of joyful activity is a critical strategy for reducing the impact of burnout. A study (by T.D. Shanafelt, et al. 2009), from the Mayo Clinic, finds that clinical professionals who were able to spend just one day a week focused on the type of work they most enjoy reduced burnout by half. Where’s the joy in your work? How can you spend more time doing that — starting this week?

4. Celebrate your triumphs, no matter how small. Appreciating our progress thus far gives us a boost to continue the journey. List three to four accomplishments you’ve achieved in the past month. How can you acknowledge that progress? Gratitude and appreciation are powerful allies for mission-driven leaders at all levels.

Keep breathing and use these tools the next time you’re feeling over-worked and stressed so you can preserve your ability to serve.

Jessica Hartung is a work coach and founder of Work That Matters & Integrated Work, a Boulder company. She can be reached at jessica@jessicahartung.com, 303-516-9001.