How to maintain a healthy work-life balance to prevent burnout

With the COVID-19 pandemic blurring the line separating work life and personal life, work burnout is becoming the new epidemic. We will review common signs and symptoms of work burnout and offer some strategies for managing this new epidemic. 

What is Work Burnout?

Work burnout is considered a type of work-related stress characterized by a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity. Burnout is not a medical diagnosis by itself, but it may exacerbate, or be a nidus of, numerous health-related problems.
Interestingly, researchers propose that individual factors, such as personality traits and family life, influence who experiences work burnout. Let’s consider how to know if you are suffering from work burnout and what you can do to relieve the suffering. 

What are common signs and symptoms of work burnout?

  • Becoming cynical or critical at work
  • Dragging yourself to work and having trouble getting started
  • Irritability or impatience with co-workers, customers or clients
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Lacking satisfaction from your achievements
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to void negative feelings
  • Sleep problems
  • Unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints
If any of the above symptoms resonate with you then consider whether you’re suffering from work burnout. It is always recommended to talk with your healthcare provider because these symptoms can also be related to health problems such as depression.

Who is at risk of developing work burnout?

  • Those who have a heavy workload and work long hours
  • Those who struggle with work-life balance
  • Those who work in a helping profession, such as health care
  • Those who feel they have little or no control over their work

What are some consequences of work burnout?

Work burnout can have significant consequences, including:
  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Sadness, anger or irritability
  • Alcohol or substance use disorders
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Type II diabetes
  • Vulnerability to medical problems, including infections

What are some strategies for managing work burnout?

  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout and assess whether they are negatively impacting your life. This is an obvious but often neglected first step!
  • Discuss specific concerns with a supervisor (if possible). Perhaps you can reassess expectations and develop solutions together. 
  • Prioritize daily tasks (more on this later)
  • Seek support. Whether you reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, support and collaboration might help you cope. If you have access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of relevant services.
  • Engage in one or more stress-reducing activities for at least 20 minutes each day. This may include yoga, meditation, tai chi, martial arts, mindfulness exercises, boxing, weight training, cross-fit, running, swimming, other aerobic exercise, sports, creative writing, painting, drawing, listening to music, playing an instrument, or reading for pleasure. 
  • Get quality sleep. We spend about a third of our lives sleeping. Sleep allows our body to reset. Interestingly, sleep is important for our memory, our immune system, and our ability to regulate our emotions.
  • Healthy diet. Junk food is comforting, but it doesn’t help your cause. Having the occasional “cheat meal” is important, but limit those sweets and saturated fats as much as possible. A high protein, high fiber, moderate fat, and low carbohydrate diet can improve your energy levels, concentration, memory, and mood!
  • Set healthy work-life boundaries. Setting healthy work-life boundaries will not only improve your mental health but prevent burnout and promote more effective and efficient work!
Let’s discuss healthy work-life boundaries in a bit more detail…

Work-life boundaries

Boundaries are the rules we set for ourselves in our relationships, our work, and our personal lives. Healthy boundaries mean preventing others from projecting beliefs, judgements, or expectations onto you. Many people will use “I don’t have time” as the reason for not taking care of their own needs. If you can’t make time for yourself, then what you are really saying is “my needs don’t matter.” This eventually leads to resentment and anger. A person with healthy boundaries can say “no” to others when needed without allowing the fear of disappointment to overpower your personal needs. Remember, if someone feels disappointed or let down because you chose to take care of yourself, then it probably means firmer boundaries were needed anyway. 

Take an honest look at your self-care habits

The first step in setting healthier boundaries is to honestly assess your self-care practices. Use this tool to assess your self-care habits.

Prioritizing your values

Boundaries should be based on your beliefs and values–the things that are important to you. These may or may not align with others and that is okay. They are YOUR boundaries.  The first step is to make a priority list. Example below:
  • Spending time with family
  • Personal Free time/Hobbies
  • Exercise
  • Productive and Efficient work

Prioritizing your time

Each day, it is important to make time for your top priorities. To do this, you will need to create a “skeleton” schedule. This does not mean scheduling your day minute by minute or hour by hour. You don’t want to become a prisoner of your own schedule! Here is an example based on the priorities listed above:
  • Wake up at 6:30AM
  • Exercise for 30 minutes before work
  • Check and respond to emails for 30 minutes 
  • Work from 8AM-11AM with 15-minute breaks every 45 minutes 
  • Spend 30 to 45 minutes eating lunch and visiting with a friend or family member
  • Check and respond to emails for 30 minutes prior to starting afternoon work
  • Work from 1PM-4PM with 15-minute breaks every 45 minutes
  • End all work at 5PM and spend 30 minutes checking and responding to emails one last time for the day
  • Spend at least one (1) hour with a friend or family member
  • Spend 30 minutes playing guitar (or other hobby)
  • Get ready for bed at 10:00pm
  • Leisure reading for 30 minutes in bed
  • Lights out by 10:30PM

Stop Obsessively Checking Your Email

Schedule the times you plan to check your email. One of the biggest mistakes people make is obsessively checking email. This is anxiety-provoking and inefficient. It disrupts your focus and is simply unnecessary. Use the auto-respond function to inform those who email you of when you check your email. You can also instruct people to call you directly if it is urgent.

Let Smartphones Be Smartphones

As with email, limit time on your phone as much as possible. When you need to focus on completing a task, silence your phone and place it facedown next to you. If answering phone calls is important for your work, place your phone on vibrate and keep it in your pocket. When not working, set a time to put your phone on silent in a drawer or out of view for at least 30 minutes. By doing this, you’ll learn that you DO NOT need to have your phone on you at all times.

Your Computer Needs a Break Too

Your computer should only be used for work during work hours only. When the workday is over, shut down your computer and/or put it away. If you need to use the computer for personal use, then use it for personal use ONLY. Some people find it helpful to have two devices – one for work and one for play. But this may not be possible.

Remaining Consistent

Try your best to remain consistent with your schedule! There will always be some flexibility but do your best to remain consistent. Try not to get down on yourself if you struggle at first to be consistent. Simply recognize when you’re deviating from the path and make adjustments to get back on track.

Using technology to help you

Many smartphones have reminder functions. Try setting reminders for when to take breaks, check emails, spend time with family, or exercise. There are many apps out there that can help with prioritizing your daily tasks as well!

Sharing your boundaries with others

It is important to share your new strategies with your family, friends, co-workers, and supervisor(s). Ask your friends and family to keep an eye on your behaviors so they can point out when you might need to make some adjustments. Inform your co-workers and supervisor(s) so they can provide input and suggestions. While it is important to maintain healthy boundaries, it is also important to know how to compromise. BUT…compromising does not mean trashing all your boundaries.
Whenever you have the urge to work during non-work hours, make a habit of asking yourself the following:
  • Is this in line with my values and priorities?
  • How important, on a scale from 1-10, is it that I complete this RIGHT NOW? (Anything 6 or below can wait).

Beginning and ending each day with anything BUT work

It is essential to begin and end your day with something positive. Something you enjoy. If the first thing you do each morning is check your email and the last thing you do is check your email, then you are setting yourself up for burnout. Do not let the first and last activity of each day be something work-related. 

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