Corinne Kalupson
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Events pro, writer, mom, chaser of dreams.

How does work burnout happen?

Work burnout is an affliction nearly everyone has experienced at some point in their career. At the height of burnout, you may find yourself at the same time exhausted and frantic. Other times you’re both completely obsessed with work while also plotting to run away and change careers altogether. Burnout tends to sneak up on you and can turn you into an unrecognizable puddle of a human being. Not only do the symptoms make work nearly unbearable, but it can also reduce your enjoyment of your life outside of work. Left unchecked, you may start to feel like you’re past your career prime or that it’s otherwise time to move on. Sure, it’s irrational, but stress-related burnout can make our brains go haywire.

Burnout isn’t exclusive to people who hate what they do, either. Have you ever talked with an accountant at the end of tax season or a retail professional around the holidays? They do what they do in part because they thrive on the breakneck momentum and the adrenaline rush of the busy season. Eventually, though, the wheel needs to stop turning. By the same token, burnout at work can set in even if your job is a fairy tale: you love what you do, the environment is supportive and positive and you’re making a reasonable living. In that case, rather than achieving your success at a gradual pace, the drive to achieve greatness may send you right over the edge. Whether you’re on your climb to the top or trying to maintain an existing level of excellence, before you know it, you’ve hit a wall.

9 signs of burnout.

Here are nine major red flags that indicate you may be at the end of your rope. On the positive side, you may be able to achieve recovery in the form of a simple reboot and refresh.

1. Poor time management. 

You feel like you’re rushing through tasks and that there are never enough hours in the day. Things are getting dropped or forgotten, and you put off things that are unpleasant, so they’re left until the last minute. You find yourself working overtime just to get caught up on your day-to-day responsibilities, responding to email at ungodly times of day and sitting at your desk when everyone else has gone home.

2. Inability to concentrate. 

You’re fidgety and can’t get comfortable at your desk, you have too many tabs open on your computer, your voicemail is full and your email inbox needs its own zip code. You blame the blinds on your window or the size of the printer on your desk. Even the simplest of tasks evade you, so your to-do list keeps growing.

3. Overextending yourself past what is realistic. 

In trying to make up for the feeling of not accomplishing anything, you take on additional projects. There’s a shift in your pace from being productively motivated to frantic and frazzled. Inevitably, the juggling act falls apart.

4. Obsessing over other people’s perceptions. 

You’re full of excuses for being late and scattered and then try to appear busier than you actually are. You find yourself sitting in your office later than you anticipated because the boss is still there or micromanaging things that you delegated a long time ago. Consequently, you never clock out.

5. Forgetting about yourself. 

Our bodies are machines that shut down when we don’t take care of them. You choose diet soda instead of a glass of water or a bag of chips so you can finish “one last thing” before taking a break to eat. Suddenly, you’re eating lunch while hunched over your desk, not taking a precious few minutes to walk away and stretch your legs. Lack of fuel and sunshine contributes to that tired, distracted feeling.

6. Substance abuse. 

Having a glass of wine after work to “unwind” is the oldest stereotype in the book. The problem arises when you start drinking more because you “deserve” or “need” it. Repeat after me: too much wine = not enough sleep = a jittery, miserable feeling all day.

7. Attitude change. 

Being obsessed with work makes it difficult to draw lines between what is personal and what is professional. You begin to feel as if challenges at work are actual, personal betrayals, leading to inappropriate emotional reactions. Very few work situations warrant yelling at coworkers or bursting into tears.

8. Withdrawal from friends and family. 

Time with loved ones is colored by the stress you’re feeling about work. You feel like you always have to have your finger on the pulse of the office, and that no one understands the pressure you’re under. As a result, you aren’t able to enjoy the simple pleasures.

9. Reckless thoughts. 

You fantasize about either quitting abruptly or having a knock-down, drag-out argument in the office, just to let off some steam.

What causes burnout at work?

Work burnout has both internal and external roots. The most easily identifiable culprit is a toxic work environment. Toxicity can come in the form of either indifference or of active harassment. Difficult coworkers and/or administration add an impenetrable layer of fear and need to overcompensate. Not only do you have to concentrate on your workload, but you’re also forced to stay one step ahead of those who may be ready to sabotage you at every turn.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t quite so dramatic. There’s normal pressure associated with work: a new project, a pressing deadline, the busy season or a staffing challenge that catches everyone off-guard. Any of these can cause you to push yourself to the breaking point.

How do you handle burnout at work?

With a little bit of effort and self-awareness, you can pull yourself out of the dumps. The most tried-and-true methods for recovering from (and avoiding altogether) stress and burnout have that reputation because they actually work. It really is that simple.

1. Exercise. 

Sweating it out at the gym is great, but taking a quick walk outside when things get crazy can be just as beneficial. Pop in your earbuds and walk around the block. A few minutes of fresh air will clear your head.

2. Restrict your own cell phone use. 

Evaluate if you actually DO need to be on call 24/7 or if it’s a self-imposed rule. If you don’t — that is, you’re not an on-call neurologist or volunteer firefighter — shut it down in the evenings. It’s a tough habit to break, but once you’re free, you’ll never look back!

3. Hydrate. 

Coffee is not hydrating; neither is diet soda. Water solves a wealth of physical problems: joint pain, headaches and an unsettled stomach can often be treated with a giant glass of water. Flavored sparkling water is surprisingly satisfying. Pretend it’s a cocktail, if that helps.

4. Practice mindfulness

Step away from your work and close your eyes. Purposefully unclench your jaw, allow your shoulders to drop and remove your tongue from the roof of your mouth. The 60 seconds you spend are worth it.

5. Use your jam-packed calendar to schedule free time with your family and friends. 

You can’t be productive if you never take a break from the everyday. Schedule happy hour on Friday, breakfast on Tuesday or a weekend away every quarter. Remember to laugh! Perspective is everything.

6. Pre-book hair, doctor and dentist appointments. 

Keep those appointments. Thirty minutes in the chair or on the table, when you don’t have to have control over the situation, are incredibly freeing.

7. Ask for help. 

Let’s say that again: ASK. FOR. HELP. Visit human resources, take a vacation day and delegate a piece of the project to a colleague. Rely on your loved ones for help, too: ask someone else to manage cooking a couple of nights a week or to throw in a load of laundry. Hire someone to clean your house every couple of weeks or order grocery delivery. Tiny changes to your everyday activities will change your life. Remember that no one likes a martyr.

The key to avoiding burnout at work is to catch the signs before things get out of control. Truth be told, a little bit of professional overexertion can actually enhance your career if you manage it properly. Adrenaline is fun and exhilarating, and going through a wild time at work helps teams become stronger and more resilient. That said, if you find yourself in a rut of burnout at work more often than not, it may be time to shift gears, after all. Be kind to yourself and listen to your gut when it tells you that things are off-kilter. Take action quickly, one way or another, and slay the burnout monster.

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