You feel it coming—the malaise, fatigue, irritability, and lack of interest. It’s tougher to motivate yourself to do what you need to do. You’re heading toward full-fledged burnout. But the bad news is that you have zero flexibility to take time off to deal with it.
“When you’re talking about burnout, you’re talking about a spectrum,” says Paula Davis-Laack, founder of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a stress and resilience consultancy in Milwaukee. She shows her clients a chart that illustrates the “spectrum” of stress, ranging from boredom on one side to “breakdown” on the other. Roughly 1 in 5 highly engaged U.S. employees suffers from burnout, according to a University of Cambridge study published in the journal Career Development International in 2018.
But what happens when you’re experiencing the early stages of burnout when you’re in the middle of a big project or a “crunch” period? You can’t take time off, and you need to keep your performance on point. But there are still actions you can take to head off burnout before it hits a crisis point.
Find your stress “sweet spot”
We need stress in our lives, says Davis-Laack. It motivates us and helps us avoid danger. At the same time, too much is counterproductive and damaging. Finding our stress “sweet spot”—the point where we feel like we have the resources to handle stress in a good way—is one of the keys to avoiding burnout. When you’re in that spot, you get the benefits that stress offers without the havoc it can wreak.
That sweet spot is different for everyone. Davis-Laack helps people plot out where they feel best along the stress continuum, as well as the various demands on them, and which aspects fall outside of that comfort zone in three categories:
- Job demands. The tasks and responsibilities that require consistent effort and energy in their work.
- Job resources. The resources they have to get their work done.
- Recovery. What they do every day to recharge and recover from the demands placed on them.
This analysis helps people understand stress levels they can best manage, as well as what aspects of their jobs and actions are contributing to their burnout. Such insight can help them see areas they need to address to stay in their “sweet spot,” Davis-Laack says.
Guard your boundaries
When people are on the road to burnout, most of the time they’re not taking care of themselves, says San Carlos, California, career coach Amy Sanchez, who works with professionals dealing with the issue. If you feel it coming on, it’s time to reinforce those boundaries. First, “stop saying ‘yes’ to everything,” she says. “Companies are notorious for continuing to pile work on people until they push back. Are you someone who never says ‘no?’ If so, you’ll never get out from under your pile of work. There is certainly a professional way to express that taking on more would compromise the quality of the projects you are focused on, but you would be happy to take on more at [some] time in the future,” she says.
Davis-Laack adds that it may be easier to work on getting more resources than reducing workload. “It’s hard for a lot of people to lessen their workload, or have fewer emails, or not to go to as many meetings,” she says. But if you focus on building strong relationships with your colleagues, ask for feedback, and communicate well, you can build a supportive network of people you can rely on when you need help, she says.
Disconnect every day
The perils of our “always-on” culture are well-documented. Finding windows of time to disconnect every day and recover reduces stress and enhances engagement, says organizational psychologist Marc Prine, PhD, founder of MIP Consulting, LLC, a workplace consulting company based in Philadelphia.
Finding recovery time may mean meditation or exercise. Or it can be as simple as turning off your phone and doing something you like to do, Prine says. “While you might be usually like, ‘Oh, I’m just going to look at my emails while I’m watching television,’ don’t do that; actually disconnect,” he says. “You might not be able to take a week or a couple days off, you might be able to take a couple hours and take the time where you can and make it meaningful.”
Do some job crafting
Another effective remedy is to take more control of your workday and be more purposeful in designing it to the extent you can, Davis-Laack says. Focus on the times when you have more energy and plan to do high-value work at those times, saving the email responses and other rote tasks for low-energy times during your day. Think about how you can get back in touch with the meaningful part of your work and do more of the tasks and projects you like, she says. And relationships can help stave off burnout, too. Look for ways to reconnect with coworkers and bring more joy into your day.
“I think of jobs crafting as, ‘How do you change your job without leaving your job?’ Different strategies to help you kind of shift, and reframe, and look at what your work actually is. Because most of us don’t land the perfect job. We land a job description, and then we have to kind of make it our own,” she says. You often have more control over what you do and how you think about the work than you realize, she says.
If you’re tired and having trouble dealing with stress, your self-talk is probably suffering, too, Sanchez says. You may be making things worse by focusing on what’s wrong with your work and life. But you can control your self-narrative. “Pay attention to the messages that you’re telling yourself, so you don’t continue to compound your burden,” she says.
Find something to look forward to
Think about your career goals or how you make customers’ lives better—any part of your day that can give your work meaning. Finding the areas where you make a difference or that are helping you toward your goals can give you added motivation to deal with the energy-draining aspects of your job, Prine says.
Davis-Laack has a tactic that helps her clients think more positively on a daily basis: Changing their passwords.
For stressed-out clients, she recommends that they think about a big goal, a positive emotion, or something they’re looking forward to. Then, change your password to integrate that concept, which makes you think about it every time you key in your password. “It just gets your brain sort of working in a subconscious way, toward a goal that’s important to you,” she says.
Mitigating the early stages of burnout or heading it off entirely can help you avoid a more serious case that requires more time from which to recover.