Have you ever been burned out?
When I led wellness groups in the past, I used to open with this question. Since the pandemic, I skip ahead to “How do you know when you are burned out?” Nearly everyone has experienced some form of burnout over the past 2.5 years, especially healthcare workers.
As we habitually readjust to our “new-normal” and the continued repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, managing our mental health and well-being has become increasingly important. As you settle into the new academic year, and prepare for the fall, now is the ideal opportunity to re-assess your burnout level.
Let’s start by getting clear on how you experience burnout. In order to avoid burnout, you need to first recognize what burnout looks like for you. When you are experiencing burnout, how can you tell? From a practical perspective, how do your behaviors change when you are experiencing burnout? Do you start to avoid social plans? Do you eat more take out? Stop exercising?
While burnout may start at work, it can impact all areas of your life…so rather than focusing exclusively on work, think about other areas of your life that are impacted by burnout(1), such as:
The best way to avoid burnout is to know your warning signs! Like any ailment, prevention is easier than treatment. If you can recognize you are headed for trouble, then you have the opportunity to change course. If you are already burned out, it is more work to recover from burnout and then set yourself up to avoid it in the future.
A quick disclaimer: When I talk about burnout or the R-word (resilience), it is often met with frustration and resentment. There is a sentiment that many of the reasons for burnout are caused by the administrative burden/EHR, the institution, insurance companies, or even federal policy. And in many cases, this is true. However, these are large systemic issues and change takes time. I encourage people to advocate and fight for these bigger issues, but in the meantime, your quality of life and mental health are taking the hit. In order to avoid burnout within an imperfect system, you must be willing to take action to address your needs.
With that said, now that you have started to think about your burnout red flags, here is the key question: what are your warning signs for burnout? In other words, what behaviors to do more of? And what do you do less of? For example, do you get in more arguments with your spouse when you are headed for burnout? Do you mindlessly scroll on social media more? Do you have more piles of paper on your desk? Do you start snacking more?
Once you have identified your warning signs, you have the opportunity to do something different. Awareness is half the battle. Often, we don’t realize we are headed for burnout until we are already burned out, or worse, someone we care about points it out to us. If you can see it coming, then you have the chance to redirect.
Here are some tips to help you avoid burnout:
Start with maintaining the skills that you already use.
When you are burned out or headed for burnout, the best thing to do is to re-incorporate the coping skills you normally use. Paradoxically, we often stop using our normal coping skills when we are stressed out. For example, even though exercise is well documented as a way to regulate emotions and manage stress(2), it is often one of the first things to go when life gets busy. This may mean altering your skills to adjust for increased time demand, such as squeezing in a 15-20 minute workout instead of your normal hour long workout.
Make time to disconnect.
Even if you only have limited time, it is important to be intentional and allow yourself short periods to disconnect. If you are not at work but are spending all of your time thinking about work, checking the EHR, or responding to emails…you are still working. When we do not take the time to allow ourselves to disconnect and reset, burnout is a natural consequence. Set some boundaries around when you are available or how quickly you respond when you are not working.
Are you really recharging?
Is the activity you do to recharge actually refilling your cup? While a Netflix binge may feel like self-care (and there is definitely a time and place for it), I have never felt better after watching 1 hour of TV compared with 4 hours. Think about what you/your body needs and what types of activities make you feel good. Do you like spending time in nature? Doing a creative project? Being social? Going for a run? What activities allow you to feel more energized and refreshed?
If you know you have a busy stretch coming up, be proactive. Think about what you can do to offload some of your non-work burden. Can you meal prep and freeze some meals so you have easy (and healthier) options quickly available? Can you do your laundry before your on-call week or send it out? Can you get a baby sitter for an extra night to take off some of the pressure or allow you to recover? Also, set up a reward. Plan something to look forward to after you make it through this “crunch” time. Having a treat at the end can make it easier to push through.
Reframe your goal.
When you are feeling stressed or headed for burnout, you may not always be able to fix or prevent the situation, but you can get through the situation without making it worse. Often when we try to fix or cope with the situation, we choose options that make it worse. For example, taking out our frustrations on people close to us or numbing with food/tv/social media/drugs/alcohol. Make sure you are engaging in activities that help you recharge and refill your cup; rather than turning to these numbing practices which allow us to disconnect, but do not help us to feel better or fix the situation.
Coping skills are like a new pair of shoes, the more you wear them the more comfortable they feel and the easier they are to use. Pick a couple of things you do regularly that help you recharge and find ways to keep doing them (or modify them) to support you during periods of higher stress. If you are already in the habit of using these skills, it will feel easier to use them when you are stressed and you are more likely to remember this is something you can do in the moment.
1. “8 Dimensions of Wellness.” www.recoveryvillage.com image accessed from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/6d/55/bb/6d55bb72a46261ed064216779dfdf4f0.jpg
2. Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. 2017. Exercise and mental health. Maturitas. 106:48-56.