You can be the most productive person, have your morning routine in place with the best recipe for an energy-boosting smoothie, and feel invincible to exhaustion but can still burn out. Burnout is more than a temporary feeling of 'not-enough' or the urge to end work early on Friday and go out for drinks.
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion mainly caused by working long hours for a long period of time. It can also happen as a result of an unsupportive, under-appreciative, or uninspiring work environment.
High-achievers who continue to push themselves to achieve their goals, even if they are struggling, are at greater risk of burnout. They tend to ignore the signs of burnout to "get sh*t done" & disguise it as busyness. Admitting it would mean doing things they resist — slowing down, giving up control, becoming non-perfectionist.
How can you spot if you are feeling burnout? What small, practical changes can you make in your working style to not feel like a depleted battery? Let's explore all that.
Signs of Burnout… Do You Have Them?
Quiz yourself to identify emotional signs of burnout
- Brain Fog: Have you suddenly started making mistakes at work that seem avoidable? Does your mind often wander, and you can't concentrate for even a few minutes?
- Cynical behavior: Do you have a bleak outlook about others at home & work? Do you find yourself questioning their sincerity of actions?
- Lack of intrinsic motivation: Is there no willingness to improve yourself, invest in your skills, or do better?
- Lack of external motivation: Does work that you enjoyed earlier no longer satisfies you & it seems like a burden?
- Self-doubt: Do you find yourself doubting your abilities and questioning all the contributions you've made to your team/work till now?
Ask yourself these questions to identify the physical signs of burnout
- Insomnia: Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep more than two nights a week, or you can't sleep even if you are extremely exhausted?
- Illness: Do you frequently get headaches, feel your heart beating faster, or feel nauseated in anticipation of going to work?
- Fatigue: Do you feel physically exhausted, and any thought of physical effort feels 'too much?’
- Overweight: Have you recently gained a lot of weight? Chronic stress elevates levels of cortisol which is linked to an increased likelihood of being obese.
This list of symptoms is not exhaustive but covers all the major aspects of burnout. There's also no magic number of 'yes' answers that will diagnose you as 'facing burnout' or not. The intensity of symptoms, your life context, etc. also matters in making that judgment. If you feel something is wrong and you said yes to some of the answers, then it's highly likely that you are experiencing burnout. Moreover, you don't have to be 100% sure to seek help or make your life more balanced.
How Do You Know If It's Stress, Burnout, Or Depression?
Stress is commonly faced by people who are under too much pressure with too few resources. For example, short-staffed teams, too many meetings, or unrealistic deadlines.
Burnout is when you are in such stressful situations for too long. If you are an executive who's always putting out fires or an individual contributor who's always being pulled into high-stake projects. The difference between stress and burnout is also the degree to which you’re experiencing symptoms.
And you can determine if it’s depression or burnout with a simple question — Does removing the source of stress make you feel better? If yes, then it's presumably burnout and not depression. However, burnout can lead to depression, just like constant stress leads to burnout.
Can You Stop Burnout Even If You Have A Highly Stressful Career?
Did someone suggest taking vacation or time off? That's like suggesting using a shot glass to empty the ocean. Trendy self-care tips marketed as a cure for burnout are even more unsavory. Getting a manicure, going to an onsen, or drinking purple tea won't help.
You need mindset & lifestyle changes.
Speak to a professional
If you’re experiencing even one symptom of burnout, first go to a mental health professional to make sure what you’re experiencing is burnout and not a more serious condition.
Talk to your manager
Have an honest conversation with your manager about how you are feeling and discuss your priorities & expectations. Is there anything that you don't enjoy and can delegate to someone else? Request no-meeting days so you can take it slow and focus on deep work. If you find yourself drowning in too many tasks, don’t be afraid to say “no."
Set realistic expectations
By default, we judge ourselves against all the things we want to do in a day, not the things we actually accomplish in our limited time and energy. So when we don't tick everything off our to-do list, we feel disappointed in ourselves. It's common to underestimate the time it will take to do a task and overload our plate, ultimately leading to disappointment when we can't get through our checklist. Be realistic about the amount of work you can do in a day or time period to feel motivated and fulfilled.
Manage your time
Find the time of the day when you are most productive and block that for focused work that will give you a sense of progress and accomplishment. If your day is inundated with meetings, try time-blocking.
Time blocking is a time management strategy that divides your day into smaller blocks of time. In each block of time, you work on a single task or a group of similar tasks. Unlike a to-do list, time blocking not only tells you what to do but when to do it.
In Sunsama, you can see your to-do list and calendar side-by-side. Categorize your tasks using tags and then drag them to your calendar, creating batches of similar tasks. Doing this will show you how much actually can be done in a day, and you will naturally start prioritizing your work better.
Try this Swedish trick called 'lillördag', or “little Saturday." It's a concept where on a Wednesday, you let yourself enjoy the time after work as if it was the weekend. It can be a small pause but a big relief just when the week starts to feel a little taxing. Read our founder, Ashutosh's experience with this practice here.
Create a mindful daily routine
We tend to think in terms of black-and-white that we can either be successful and sacrifice the things that are important to us — family time, leisure, well-being, mental health — or we can be unsuccessful if we don't want to make the tradeoffs. We foolishly choose the former.
Reframe your thinking & create a more mindful, practical daily routine that balances your work and life. Mark the end of your day with a shutdown ritual and schedule time for leisure just like you would schedule your work. This will give you something to look forward to.
If you use the Sunsama app, you get an in-app nudge to switch off for the day when that time arrives. This leads to a space for the daily shutdown ritual. You can review your work, reflect on your wins, and share it on slack. Then you pack up and go home (or step away from your desk).
- Identify the emotional and physical symptoms of job burnout either by quizzing yourself or by seeking professional guidance. Don't wait to be 100% sure. If you feel something is wrong, it's enough to seek help.
- If you are facing burnout at work, talk to your manager, and set realistic expectations for others and for yourself (especially if you are new to the job and feeling overly excited at the beginning), & manage your time well
- Re-examine your lifestyle choices and make changes that lead to a more sustainable routine. Try "little Saturdays” and maintain a work-life balance that makes you happy and not just rich and miserable.
Don't delay taking the necessary actions. The best way to keep doing the work you love is to take care of your mind, body, and soul. Understand the limitations of the human body and mind to make sure that you are not over-working them to the point that they collapse to save whatever is left of them. Take this week to re-examine your lifestyle and choices to see that you are being kind to yourself.