Burnout is the emotional exhaustion that comes with feeling constantly overwhelmed at work—and in life! It can impact us all, no matter how much we love our jobs. It can start with tiredness, apathy, anxiety, self-doubt, loneliness, or irritability. And it can lead to physical ailments, like headaches, changes in appetite, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, and a lowered immune system. Oftentimes, burnout manifests itself in emotional and physical ways that can take years to reverse. When I started to feel burnt out at work, I turned to Jen Paterno, an empowerment coach who focuses on all things career, wellness, and self-discovery. She gave me five tips for reversing and recovering from all the negative emotions I was feeling.
Paterno taught me that burnout stems from feeling out of control. This is why most of us experience it in relation to our careers. “When work-related burnout strikes, more often than not, it’s because it feels like ‘I have not done this to myself; someone else has done this to me,'” Paterno said. “We can manage our social calendars and our personal relationships, but when something needs to get done for work, we don’t always have a say in how or when it gets done. Eventually, that leads to a feeling of ‘I have nothing left to give.'”
If you’ve ever felt burnt out or overwhelmed by everything on your plate, check out Paterno’s tips and implement them into your daily routine.
1. Take time for self-reflection
The ideal time for self-reflection is before burnout fully strikes. It’s something to incorporate into your everyday life. “Self-reflection asks you to notice the little tinges of ‘this doesn’t feel right’ as they occur—long before you’re fully burnt out. When you first notice the symptoms, take note of when, where, and with whom you feel them,” Paterno said. In other words, if you’re filled with dread and anxiety every time your boss pings you, take note.
Self-reflection is important because it will alert you to any red flags that burnout may be approaching. If you’re starting to feel misunderstood, irritated, or hard on yourself and the people around you, start asking yourself what (or who) is causing these feelings. You’ll want to address them before they turn into physical symptoms. Journaling, free-writing, and meditation are great examples of how to add self-reflection to your day.
2. Practice (actual) self-care
“Once your self-reflection practice has helped you to recognize what’s weighing you down, you can begin to use self-care to lean into what makes you feel better,” Paterno said. Making time for physical activity and recharging are great examples of burnout-related self-care. However, when it comes to physical activity, Paterno said that an hour at the gym isn’t the only answer. “Sometimes walking the dog, standing up at your desk, stretching, or having a one-song dance party is enough,” she said.
Recharging is totally different. “Recharging should be low-effort and high-joy, like something simple that makes you feel really good,” Paterno said. Reading, listening to a podcast, doing something creative, or playing fetch with your dog are great examples of recharging activities. “Be careful not to confuse recharging activities with mindless downtime,” Paterno warned. “Mindless scrolling and Netflix binges can feel like a mental break, but they typically don’t make you feel any better once you’re done.” Stick with feel-good activities that don’t require much effort.
3. Rethink your priorities at work
When it’s time to get back to work, Paterno suggested rethinking your approach to how you tackle the day. “Ask yourself what has to be done today. A long to-do list can be very overwhelming, but separating what needs to get done today from what needs to be done by the end of the week can be very helpful.” She also recommended getting clear on what you need to do to be at your best. “For me, I know that I will be better able to conquer my to-do list after a workout, so instead of spending three hours trying to accomplish the things I have to do today, I’ll spend an hour at the gym so that I can be at my best when I’m done,” explained Paterno. “Then, I’ll be far more focused and productive when accomplishing those tasks.”
4. Surround yourself with a support system
It’s immensely important to have friends, family members, and professionals you trust. They can help you prioritize and mitigate known stressors. “Oftentimes, work issues don’t have simple solutions, so having a friend or family member to call and simply vent to, without help or advice, is huge,” said Paterno. “Additionally, people with more experience, like a mentor who can help you think through some of the work-related tasks you need to prioritize, are really important, too.”
Whether the conversation is with a friend, significant other, or mentor, Paterno encouraged setting firm boundaries. Begin the conversation by clearly stating what you need: advice, assistance, someone to listen, etc. This ensures you’re in control of the outcome. “Having someone whose only response is, ‘You should just quit’ is not helpful, especially if you can’t or don’t want to quit, so setting boundaries around these conversations is key,” Paterno said.
Finally, don’t forget about people you just like to hang out with. “Not every interaction with your support systems needs to be about work,” Paterno said. “Sometimes it’s just important to have someone to go for a walk with, talk to about the latest book you read, or go to a pottery class with. Whatever your recharging activities are, doing them with a friend can make them even more enriching.”
5. Incorporate daily recovery
Whether you’re worried about eventual burnout or already in the midst of it, daily recovery is essential. “Some of these things can feel overwhelming or like yet another thing to add to your to-do list, so daily recovery is the idea of breaking them down into bite-sized pieces that you can do every single day,” said Paterno. Every single day is the operative phrase. “People tend to wait for the weekends or vacation to finally take care of themselves and try to address their burnout, but that’s a mistake. We need to do one thing every day to prevent or recover from burnout, whether it’s starting with a five-minute stretch in the middle of the day or simply putting your shoes on and walking to the mailbox and back,” she said.
Paterno recommended making a “daily recovery menu” with a few options to choose from to keep the daily practice meaningful yet doable. When it comes to preventing and recovering from burnout, it’s the small stuff that counts. “Taking care of yourself, noticing what triggers the feeling of burnout, and having support systems in place to help you cope are all really important ways to help you through tough times in work and in life,” she said.