Burnout. It’s a word you hear often.
Luana Marques, PhD, clinical psychologist, Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport MGH Research Scholar 2020-2025 and director of Community Psychiatry PRIDE (Psychiatry Program for Research in Implementation and Dissemination of Evidence-Based Treatments), defines burnout as a chronic state of emotional distress that prevents you from doing the things that matter most to you. Many of us experience acute stress and some level of exhaustion — you could have had a bad day or even a week at work — but when it’s prolonged, it can take a toll on your mental health and lead to burnout.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to fight burnout at any stage. Dr. Marques shares five tips, plus advice for employers, on how to prevent and treat burnout. By keeping these recommendations close at hand, you begin to build resilience — a life-changing tool to deal with life’s stressors.
1. Understand Your Indicators
It’s important to know when you’re close to, or currently experiencing burnout. And it’s equally as important to acknowledge that burnout is a progression, meaning it can advance over time.
Recognize your symptoms — are you feeling stressed for a long period of time and believe there is no end in sight? Is it difficult to concentrate on simple tasks? Every person is different, but once you do an internal review of your typical indicators, you’ll have a better understanding of the severity of burnout.
2. Identify What Triggers Burnout for You
Everyone handles stress differently, but if you want to stop burnout in its tracks, it’s important to understand the things that trigger it in the first place. Maybe you’ve overbooked your schedule so you have no time to unwind? Are you checking email outside of work hours and feeling pressured to respond? If you know what sets you off, you’ll be able to act early, build resilience and respond to stressors in a healthier way.
3. Prioritize and Set Boundaries
Now that you recognize your burnout symptoms and triggers, it’s time to prioritize the things that matter most to you and set boundaries to help you keep those priorities. If family time is a priority for instance, let’s find a way to make sure work is not getting in the way of that. If your weekends are overbooked with plans that don’t fulfill you, then change or cancel those plans! Putting boundaries in place to ensure you’re doing what makes you happy and healthy will help decrease stress and avoid burnout.
4. Implement Healthy Habits into Your Day
Our body is like the battery of our car — if we don’t drive our car, the battery dies. In times of stress or burnout, the couch seems like the best option. But the sedentary nature of that action can exacerbate the problem. It’s important to take actions that keep that battery charged. It could be a 15-minute walk on your lunch break, or simply breathing and stretching between meetings. Choose a healthy habit, stick to it and own responsibility for implementing it into your daily routine.
5. Transform Your Anxiety into Power
Ready to turn your anxiety into something useful? Here are three steps:
1. Shift: Whenever we’re stressed, we must shift our black and white perspective and think about what we would say to others in a similar situation to our own. Ask yourself, what would I tell my best friend in this situation? This question can help you to talk to yourself in a nicer way.
2. Approach: When we fear something, we must learn how to approach or face that fear. Rather than walk away from discomfort, think about little changes you can make to get you out of your comfort zone and closer to something important to you. What is one thing you can do right now that allows you to approach?
3. Align: And finally, strive for a life driven by your values. It’s the beginning of a new year and the perfect time to look at your schedule and examine how your future actions align with what’s most important to you. What is the value you want to focus on first this year?
Employers Can Make Changes Too
There are steps employers can implement to reduce stress for employees and make them feel valued.
Open and clear communication as well as flexibility are critical to employee happiness. For example, employees should understand expectations: What hours are they expected to work? Do they get a lunchbreak and if so, for how long? When expectations are clear from the beginning, an employee can then decide if those expectations are aligned with their own.
When flexibility is part of the culture, the expectations laid out feel less oppressive. An employee can more easily go about their day, knowing that if something unexpected comes up — their child may be home sick from daycare with them — their employer will be supportive and understanding of the temporary inconvenience.
Luana Marques, PhD
Luana Marques, PhD, is a leading expert in cognitive behavioral therapies. Her major clinical and research interests include the treatment of anxiety disorders, with a particular focus on the implementation of empirically supported treatments for patients suffering from various anxiety disorders in community health clinics. Her research goal is to decrease disparities in care for psychiatric patients, especially among low-income and ethnic minority patients.