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Last Updated on December 18, 2020

I Survived Burnout More Than a Few Times, and Here’s What I Learned

I Survived Burnout More Than a Few Times, and Here’s What I Learned

Burnout used to be like an old wild and disruptive friend who would show up in my life at the most unlikely times. One summer in particular when I was on a vacation with my family, I was a wreck. I couldn’t enjoy my time with my husband and daughter who were soaking up the sun, swimming, and enjoying their free time. I, however, could only see life through a very negative lens and spent more time brooding than playing. In the weeks and months leading up to that vacation, I had worked myself to the bone, was feeling under pressure on some personal family matters, and hit the proverbial wall. I had nothing left in my engine for myself or anyone else.

Burnout is a regular visitor to my life as I always step in to help others

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time burnout showed up. A hard worker and high achiever dating back to elementary school, my primary focus was on achieving at all costs. I am also a caregiver by nature feeling the need to step in and help when others need help. Through law school and then working in the nonprofit sector, I would work and work and work ignoring my building stress until I flamed out.

On that particular vacation though, I finally grew tired of burning out. Because after I came home, I decided to do something different. I decided I was tired of hitting the burnout wall and instead wanted to figure out how to avoid it the next time around.

In time, I came to learn the early warning signs of burn out and how to face it off before it took over. And here is what I learned.

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The fine line between “stressed” and “burned out”

Burnout happens when you are under excessive and prolonged stress. People are often able to respond to short bursts of pressure and demand without much trouble. But when that pressure continues day after day without a break, the stress can mound and potentially become burnout.

Importantly, you can be stressed but not burned out.

When you are stressed you are facing a lot of different pressures both mentally and physically but even still you can imagine getting things under control. On the other hand, if you have burnout, you are feeling empty, a lack of motivation, and don’t see a hope of positive change. Burnout is when you begin to detach and feel cynical or ineffective.

You may not recognize burnout when it’s right in front of you

We often think “burnout” looks like someone who is so incapacitated they are unable to work. Burnout doesn’t have to look so extreme. You can continue to work when you have burnout but instead feel every day at work is a bad day. You could be feeling disinterested in your work or maybe even depressed by it. You could feel overwhelmed by responsibilities and turn to distracting activities like drinking or social media.

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The most common sign of burnout is when your stress is so high you start to see diminishing returns at work and you are lacking interest in work or life.

Some of the other warning signs:

  • Lack of energy
  • Lack of sleep
  • Lack of appetite
  • Inability to focus
  • Physically and emotionally exhausted
  • Drained and depleted
  • Low or no motivation
  • Forgetful
  • Physical stress (e.g. chest pain)
  • Getting chronically sick
  • Anxiety
  • Anger

To be clear, there is not an official diagnosis of burnout – unlike depression which is a widely studied condition. And sometimes burnout may start to look more like depression which is why it can be important to seek professional attention. What is most insidious about burnout is that it creeps up on you over time. All of the indicators may be there but you may fail to recognize it when it is right in front of you.

Types of people who are more prone to burnout

The best place to start is to identify what is causing excessive and prolonged stress in your life. This can come from the workplace, home, or both.

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So while there isn’t any one type of person that is prone to burnout, there are some common themes of the types of people who are more likely to face burnout:

  • People who face heavy workloads or high stress positions.
  • High achievers
  • Caregivers including healthcare professionals at the front line of care
  • Working parents
  • Students

Burnout may not simply come because of excessive work

Keep in mind that burnout doesn’t just happen because of significant demands on people lives. It can happen if our mindset shifts.

In my coaching work, I have clients that exhibit signs of burnout but it may not come necessarily simply because of excessive work. Take, for example, Jennifer (name changed to protect confidentiality). She has an intensive job that has her working many evenings and most weekends. This is something she has been doing for years. But recently she has realized how exhausted she is from work. She is getting more upset with demands made on her than she has in the past. She is beginning to hate her job and can’t understand why all of a sudden she can’t “deal” with work. For Jennifer, the cause of the emerging burnout wasn’t the demands of the job itself. It began when she felt unappreciated and ignored. Therefore, burnout can manifest when we become disappointed by dashed expectations.

Create ‘margin’ in your reschedule

We tend to over schedule our lives. So our days can be jam packed with work, appointments, and other obligations. This has us running from place to place without a moment to breathe. Look at how you can start to schedule breathing room in your day. Avoid scheduling meetings back to back in your day. Schedule out time on your schedule to do some important catch up.

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Adopt resilience tools at work

While work itself can be stressful, there are ways to build in strategies that allow us to de-stress during the day. This includes doing some deep breathing, meditation, or just taking a walk outdoors. Productivity hacks suggest dedicating specific chunks of uninterrupted time (read: no email or social media) and then taking solid breaks around 10 or 15 minutes to clear your mind.

Adopt the strategy of “no”

People feeling burnout are often feel they must “do it all.” Stepping back from burnout means finding ways to lessen the stress which means saying the powerful two letter word NO. It may be hard at first but look for opportunities to delegate demands to others, shift priorities off your plate, or delay obligations.

Find regular times to unplug yourself

Don’t be under the illusion you always need to be moving to make progress. Sometimes, doing nothing is exactly what your body and mind are looking for. Find time to recharge by unplugging from it all. Taking real breaks – to eat, sleep, decompress – can give us the energy we need to remain productive.

To be sure, taking a real break can be difficult in today’s world when we are all expected to remain in constant communication though messaging and email. Consider giving yourself an electronics-free time so you can remove yourself from the noise of work, social media, and email.

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There was a time I was convinced that I was on a regular cycle of burnout and that my old familiar friend would re-enter my life maybe once a year or every couple of years. I thought I was just a person who faced burnout and that was just part of who I was. But that trip to the beach woke me up and forced me to finally face down how I was the cause of my own burnout.

I now have a personal program to manage my stress and avoid burnout. Sure, I can still get pretty stressed at times but I am much quicker to see the signs and take immediate action. You too can be empowered to tackle and stop burnout in its tracks.

More by this author

Danielle Droitsch

Certified Life Coach for Professionals

How to Say No When You Know You Say Yes Too Often I Survived Burnout More Than a Few Times, and Here’s What I Learned

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Published on July 15, 2021

Shift Work Disorder: 17 Ways to Manage it Better

Shift Work Disorder: 17 Ways to Manage it Better

Are you having trouble sleeping? Or do you feel like you can barely stay awake when you need to? Are you left tired and irritable, lacking the joy and motivation that life once brought? If these complaints are tied to your long or rotating work schedule, you may be suffering from shift work disorder—a common ailment among professions with schedules outside the typical 9 am to 6 pm range.[1]

Why does it matter? Let’s be honest—being tired stinks. It feels terrible and leaves you vulnerable to many health risks that well-rested people aren’t as susceptible to. Not only that, but it can also wreak havoc on your relationships and quality of life.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to help manage this, and you can start trying them out today! Some of the solutions may not be what you expect. For instance, you might have linked improved sleep to exercise, but did you know that being compassionate with yourself can also have an impact?

Who Are Affected by Shift Work Disorder?

Twenty-five million people are shift workers in the country, so you are far from alone if you are struggling with this. Shift work disorder is a condition frequently affecting anyone who works a job where their schedule is outside standard business hours. Nurses, police officers, firefighters, and factory workers are common examples of professions with schedules that rotate around the clock.

Rotating shifts naturally leads to a change in one’s schedule, including sleep. As your sleep schedule becomes more chaotic, your body is unable to adjust and regulate itself and can result in having difficulty falling or staying asleep. This inevitably leads to less sleep, which is where some big problems can arise.

What Are the Symptoms?

Sleep is one of the most important (and underrated) aspects of our lives. Enough sleep and good quality sleep are critical to our emotional, mental, and physical health.

Insufficient sleep can lead to a significantly increased risk of physical health problems, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and gastrointestinal disorders. Mentally, being tired contributes to having scattered concentration, difficulty processing information, and being more likely to make mistakes or have an accident. Emotionally, the fallout of being chronically exhausted is linked to poor emotional regulation including being irritated more quickly, as well as an increased likelihood of developing anxiety and depression.[2]

Any of this sound familiar? If so, keep reading for some scientifically-based tips to help you manage your sleep better and get your life back.

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17 Ways to Manage Shift Work Disorder Better

Quality sleep, or the lack thereof, impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. The most impactful plan of attack against shift work disorder and to regain quality sleep must also reflect that.

I suggest reading through all of the tips and formulating a plan based on what you think will work for you. Start by trying out one thing and build from there as you are able. Remember to construct a plan that addresses your physical, mental, and emotional health.

Let’s start in the most obvious place first:

Your Job

1. Make Your Schedule the Best It Can Be

Randomly rotating shifts has been found to have the worst impact on our health.[3] If you have to rotate your schedule, request to rotate shifts in a clockwise fashion.

For example: work the day shift, rotate to the nights, then to the early morning shift, then start back on the day shift. Sounds silly? It’s not. Studies show that our bodies more easily adjust to changes in schedule when completed in a clockwise manner.[4] This is because of something called our circadian rhythm—24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock that carry out essential functions. The most commonly known of these is sleep. It has been discovered that our circadian rhythm adjusts forward more easily than it does backward.

2. Speak to Your Manager About Keeping Your Workplace Bright

Special lights have been designed to assist with circadian rhythm. It turns out that absorbing bright light that is most similar to sunlight can positively impact regulating our circadian rhythm.[5]

3. Avoid a Long Commute to and From Work

Having a long drive home after working a rotating shift is statistically not in your best interest. It’s been shown that fatigued/sleepy employees are 70% more likely to have a workplace accident and 33% more likely to be involved in a traffic accident.[6]

To avoid putting yourself at risk by driving when you’re not at your best, catch a nap before leaving work, pull over to sleep, or stay at a friend’s house nearby.

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4. Speak to Your Manager About Your Concerns

Many companies that operate around the clock are willing and able to make accommodations to those working alternative shifts. Whether it’s helping you find a schedule that works best for you or connecting you with other programs designed to support your well-being, being in good communication with your employer is to everyone’s benefit.

Sleep Attitudes and Environment

5. Change Your Perspective and Start Prioritizing Sleep

Here’s the deal: despite some pretty well-known dangerous effects of not getting enough sleep, somewhere along the line, our society began to think of sleep as a luxury. Some even consider it a badge of honor to “power through” without much (or any) sleep. People have been made to feel embarrassed or lazy if they get the recommended amount of sleep each night.

Here’s the bottom line: sleep is not a luxury.

Let me repeat that—sleep is not a luxury, and getting a consistent and healthy amount does not make you a slacker. Sleep is actually when our body does a lot of repair work on itself—blood vessels, muscles, and other organs. Sleep also boosts our immunity.

If we could help people feel as proud about sleeping as we do about them working out regularly or sticking to a healthy diet, people might be a lot healthier.

6. Make Your Sleep Space as Conducive to Rest as Possible

This means tweaking your environment so it’s as enticing as possible for your body to go to sleep. Keep the room dark using blackout blinds, reduce the temperature (our body rests best when slightly cool), limit interruptions (phone calls, visitors, noise), and remove electronic devices.[7]

Set yourself up for success by supporting yourself through your surroundings. If you wanted to lose weight, you wouldn’t frequently surround yourself with cookies, cake, and ice cream, right? Same idea here.

Personal Habits and Choices

7. Stick to a Regular Sleep Schedule as Closely as Possible—on Workdays and Days Off

This is obviously difficult when your schedule changes on the regular, but the more consistent you can keep your bedtime, the easier time your body has getting to sleep and staying that way.[8]

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8. Allow Yourself Time to Catch Up on Sleep

Having enough days off to rest and recuperate is an important aspect of protecting your health. You wouldn’t expect to be able to drive across the country on one tank of gas, right? Filling your own personal gas tank is just as important.

9. Take Naps, but Don’t Overdo It

It’s recommended by the Cleveland Clinic to take a 90-minute nap just before starting your shift and then a 30-minute nap during your “lunch break” at work.[9] Again, this is all about keeping some gas in your tank and not allowing yourself to get to the point where you are running on fumes. Short naps will help you stay refreshed and alert on the job.

10. Limit Caffeine to the Start of Your Shift

Most of us love a good hit of caffeine, especially when we are tired. But overdoing it or having caffeine too late in your shift can negatively impact your ability to get to sleep when you finally have the time to do so. Moderate your intake to help yourself get some quality sleep.

11. Avoid Alcohol Before Bed

Unwinding after work with a drink can be tempting. It can make you drowsy, which many people mistakenly believe will help them get better sleep. Unfortunately, alcohol will actually keep you awake (or wake you up later). This obviously impairs your ability to get the quality of sleep you are looking for.

12. Don’t Smoke

Much like alcohol, people turn to nicotine to “calm their nerves” or help them relax. Also, like alcohol, nicotine has been shown to disrupt sleep.[10] Cut back or cut this habit out as able.

13. Eat Well and Eat Smart

Choose convenient nutritious meals and snacks. Nutritious food is the foundation from which our body creates the needed chemicals for quality sleep. Foods high in saturated fat and sugar have been shown to have the worst impact on sleep.[11]

Also, timing is everything as they say. Eating too much or not enough before your shift can cause you to feel tired.

14. Get Regular Exercise

According to numerous studies, exercise can be as effective in treating sleep disorders as prescription medication.[12] Yes, you read that correctly—regular exercise is the bomb!

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This one can be tricky to convince people to do, especially if they are already tired and short on time. If you don’t have the time to hit the gym, take a brisk walk, dance around your living room to your favorite song, or mow your lawn. Despite feeling tired, getting up off the couch and moving around (moderate to vigorous exercise) is best for reducing the time it takes to get to sleep and improving the quality of sleep.

Mental and Emotional

15. Establish Consistent Practices That Help You Relax Before Bed

This can include yoga, deep breathing, a warm bath, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, meditation, and hypnosis. These are designed to reduce physical tension and quiet your mind from thoughts that are keeping you awake. There are lots of great apps and free videos that can help you with this.

16. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT as it’s known, works by helping you to identify thoughts and behaviors that make sleep worse and then developing new habits consisting of thoughts and behaviors that promote sleep. There are psychologists and life coaches who are specially certified in CBT that can help you with this.

17. Show Yourself Some Compassion

Sounds silly? Well, it’s not. A seven-year study conducted at the University of Mannheim concluded that the daily practice of self-compassion positively impacted people’s quality of sleep.[13]

The concept of showing ourselves compassion is foreign (and uncomfortable) to many of us. Try going easy on yourself for being grumpy, and give yourself some credit for the efforts you are making in tough circumstances. What would you say to your best friend if they were struggling with the same situation? I routinely ask my clients this question as it’s sometimes easier to be compassionate to others than ourselves. This tip might take some practice, but the effort could result in a better night’s sleep.

Final Thoughts

Okay, there you have it—17 different ways you can help yourself manage shift work disorder, feel more rested, more like yourself, and enjoy life again. To get started with your plan, pick out a few tips that you can implement today, but remember to choose a well-rounded approach—addressing the physical, mental and emotional.

Be patient with yourself. It takes time to build new habits. And show yourself some compassion and kindness—you might just be able to sleep better when you do.

Featured photo credit: Yuris Alhumaydy via unsplash.com

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Reference

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