by Hannah Smothers: It’s not fair that work causes burnout, but that makes it even more important to get clear on our own limits…
The World Health Organization announced it would start classifying “burnout” as an official malady in May 2019, referring to it as an “occupational phenomenon.” Now, everyone is burned out. We’re all burned out! Even amid the crises of the past year and beyond, the churn of capitalism takes no breaks. Societal burnout has gotten so bad that the New York Times reports that some burned-out workers are quitting their jobs (though not necessarily in search of “adventure” and good vibes, as the headline suggests, but because of unrelenting demands at work).
As writer Jess Bergman recently wrote for The Drift, treating burnout as an issue of “personal mental health” misconstrues the fact that burnout is a result of systemic factors, like, oh, I don’t know, a lack of paid time off and childcare, to name a couple. But there are things you can do, on an individual level, to help stave it off for you, personally.
“I think people get to the point of saying, ‘I’m so burned out, I don’t know how I got here,’ but in retrospect, there are signs and symptoms before you get to burnout,” therapist Melissa Russiano told VICE.
To offer a little bit of help, VICE spoke with therapists who focus on occupational burnout—defined by Russiano as fatigue to the point that normal functioning stops, impacting you both emotionally and physically—about what you can do on a regular basis to help avoid a major crash. This might not be enough to help dig yourself out of a burnout rut; this of their advice more as practical things you can do to make major burnout a little less inevitable.
Create a “body budget.”
Russiano said one of the first things she does with clients who are dealing with burnout is have them write a list of everything that’s stressing them out, or making them angry and upset. Then, with her guidance, they go through the list and divide it into things that are within their control, and things that are beyond their control.
“You can’t avoid the IRS and bosses and deadlines,” Russiano said… but you can control things like how much you sleep, how much caffeine you’re drinking, and, to an extent, how much time you spend working after hours. The point of this exercise is to get familiar with what’s demanding the bulk of your time and energy, or, in other words, what’s chipping away at your “body budget.”
“You only have so much energy per day, and if you invest it in things that are out of your control, it’s going to be very difficult to have any energy left for the things that you truly care about and are in your control,” Russiano said.
If most of what you’re investing your time in are things that you can’t do anything about—like your boss’s proclivity for sending emails at 10 p.m., or a looming and unchangeable deadline—then Russiano recommended making changes in other areas, like some rules for yourself around which 10 p.m. emails you’ll respond to right away, and how you prioritize your time to meet said deadline.
Create “off hours,” but make them realistic.
Back when we were all commuting to our jobs, Carly Bassett, a therapist in Austin, told burnout-addled clients to use the transition between work and home as a buffer in which no work was allowed. Now that not as many of us are commuting, the line between work time and personal time is faint.
Regardless of whether you’re currently commuting, Bassett recommended setting aside a few hours each day that are completely your own. “I would even suggest marking it off in a calendar to really keep it separate, and to keep work from bleeding into your time,” Bassett said.
The only way this works, though, is if your off hours are realistic. If it works for you to say, I’m not looking at my inbox after 5 or before 9, then great, do that. But if you realistically know that you’ll be stressed out every morning if you don’t respond to a few quick emails or block out some work time at night, then leave a little window to work before bed. “If there’s work to be done or things that need to be followed up on, be explicit, like, ‘I’ll be doing it at this time,’ Bassett said. “That way it’s contained.”
Ask your workaholic boss how they manage work challenges.
If your workplace culture is all hustle, Bassett recommended asking your boss—carefully—how they personally manage tons of projects, long hours, and high expectations, and stave off burnout.
Bassett said this conversation is, of course, totally dependent upon the kind of relationship you have with your manager; if the two of you rarely speak or you get the sense that they’d be like, “What do you mean burnout, I love and live for this job?,” then perhaps skip this piece of advice. But if the two of you have a good rapport, Bassett said it can be a good way to let your boss know you’re struggling—and, ideally, get a little support.
“Managers are seeing it all,” Bassett said. “They may have some insight into practical things you can do. Like some people need permission to take lunch; there are a lot of unsaid rules and expectations that a good manager might be able to help you identify.”
Create “personal policies” to help you think about socializing.
While Russiano said one of the prevention tactics for work-related burnout is to have a robust social and home life, constantly getting texts/calls/DMs/etc. from friends can be taxing, too. To avoid getting into the “I’m actually at my emotional and mental capacity rn” zone, Russiano recommends setting “personal policies,” aka boundaries.
This can look however you want it to. Maybe it’s letting people know that you’ll mostly be slow to text back Monday through Thursday during the workday, but are down to FaceTime and/or hang IRL on the weekends. Or it could be as simple as saying no to certain things, because you’ve decided one of your personal policies is spending at least one day per week totally alone, being a blob on your couch. Whatever your policies end up being, though, you should stick to them as best as you can, and communicate your policies to folks in your inner circle as they come up. “And if somebody doesn’t get that you need balance, then where do they really fall on your continuum,” Russiano said—i.e., your close friends should understand that you can’t be “on” all the time, and anyone who doesn’t respect your boundaries might not be the friend you thought they were.
Balance shitty tasks with things that make you happy.
“Not to channel Marie Kondo, but know what brings you joy,” Russiano said. “If writing reports doesn’t bring you joy, you need to find something that’s going to balance that out, and give you energy to do something you don’t necessarily want to do.” That might look like making another list, this time of “things I hate doing” and “things I like doing,” and then making sure those two columns are a little more equally represented in your everyday life.
That might sound obvious, but as Russiano mentioned, the slippery slope into burnout can be gradual and sneaky; you might not notice until it’s too late, for instance, that 80 percent of your waking hours are dominated by menial work tasks and doing laundry. That’s why you may notice a pattern to all the advice given here: It all involves taking stock of what you’re doing, and how the things you’re doing make you feel. Doing that won’t dismantle the systemic factors that lead to wide scale burnout, but it may help you feel a little better on a day to day basis, which is a nice place to start—and will give you the ability to advocate for the bigger systemic changes we desperately need.