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The Top 3 Candidates for Burnout (and How to Avoid Being One of Them)

The Top 3 Candidates for Burnout (and How to Avoid Being One of Them)

    Even if you love your job, do too much of it, and you’ll hate it.

    That’s the conclusion of Mark Cullen of Stanford Medical School, who studies overworked execs. Pride yourself on your work stamina, how much you can take, and you can get taken—by the terminal exhaustion of burnout. That’s when productivity, not to mention your brain and body tank, but you can opt out of that.

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    Burnout is the last stage of chronic stress, and a job- and life-killer. If you’re good at endurance and believe your value lies in taking more of a pounding than the next person, you are a prime candidate for it. The irony of the professional world is that it’s the hardest workers who fall prey to burnout—1) the most conscientious, 2) the Type A’s, 3) the bravado warriors. They can take more, and so the usual warning signals of stress are ignored. The fact is that humans, as of yet, don’t have Pentium processors, only Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy.

    The hollowing-out of burnout happens gradually. Your body adapts to chronic stress so it looks like you’re handling things, but it’s an illusion. Adrenaline pumped out by the stress response masks the fact that it’s taking your body down and suppressing your immune system.

    Doctors say that when patients arrive with burnout symptoms, there is always a long prelude: Heart palpitations, headaches, back pain, insomnia, irritable bowel, hot flashes, exhaustion. Ignore the signals leading to burnout, and you can wind up adapting to the stress response until your resources are gone, no forwarding. Burnout can trigger stroke, depression and a host of things you can do without, not to mention reduce the sense of accomplishment, interest and joy in your life to zero.

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    Opt Out of Heroics

    Burnout is a three-way shutdown — mind, body, and emotions. It’s the depletion of all your energetic and emotional resources. The result is dramatically lower productivity, guilt, shame, cynicism, falling behind, not giving a whit about what you used to.

    One of the hallmarks of burnout is disengagement, the opposite of getting things done. This makes burnout a big problem for any organization, since it takes down the top talent. Productivity plummets for anyone with burnout, a cause of presenteeism—you’re there physically, but not mentally—and the sick days and medical bills mount.

    Preventing burnout takes a vigilant mind, paying attention to the stress signals and doing something about them, not gutting them out with heroics (which only prolongs and deepens the stress cycle). You have to be proactive and break out of autopilot.

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    Recognize and dump the behaviors that drive the burnout trap—work overload, perfectionism (see “How to Get Work Done Quickly by Not Being Perfect” ), no refueling or recreation, unviable schedules, nonstop busyness (check out this post, “3 Ways to Be Less Busy and More Productive”), chronic conflict, and giving too much of yourself emotionally. It’s also critical to build skills to communicate about key burnout funnels: lack of reward, control, and community, pieces organizations need to address too.

    You Do, Therefore You Are?

    You can turn down the stress by altering the way you do your tasks, deal with stress, expend emotion, and set boundaries. Regular recovery strategies are key to buffer stress and chronic exhaustion, which can be the start of the withdrawal from life that marks the downward spiral of burnout.

    The tendency to overdo it drives the burnout beast, so you’ll need to wean off compulsive behavior. Why is it so hard to turn off the go button and stop? It could be you are getting all your value from performance. When performance is the sum total of your identity, and you pull back from constant busyness and production, you have no value.

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    Do less, and you actually get more done, the research shows. And you just might like your job again.

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    The Top 3 Candidates for Burnout (and How to Avoid Being One of Them)

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    Last Updated on April 19, 2021

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

    Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

    The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

    Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

    In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

    When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

    Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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    1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

    When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

    As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

    That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

    The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

    What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

    Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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    There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

    So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

    2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

    When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

    No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

    3. Move Your Body

    A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

    It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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    So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

    4. Connect With Another Person

    Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

    One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

    Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

    5. Use Your Imagination

    When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

    That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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    And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

    Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

    Final Thoughts

    Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

    Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

    More on the Importance of Taking a Break

    Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

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