The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” and not everyone who finds that their job no longer aligns with their values can leave, at least right away. Kira Schabram, an assistant professor of management in the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington offers, “employees who cannot leave and are not getting support can still help themselves.” Here are a few examples of things to try.
Communicate. Dr. Kim Gorman, Director and Psychologist of WCU’s Counseling and Psychological Services, recommends having a conversation with your supervisor about your burnout concerns. Having a conversation about expectations and solutions may result in a shift where work is not so burdensome. Communicating your struggle with your co-workers is also important. Dr. Gorman and her staff communicate strife and let one another know, “I need grace this week.” That sends the message to everyone that things may not go as smoothly as usual.
It’s in the best interest of employers to face burnout head-on, since the fallout of unchecked burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic, can include fatigue, excessive stress, sadness, anger or irritability, and serious diseases such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Alcohol and substance abuse are also consequences of job burnout. If you work in a unit where expressing such concerns is unsafe or if you fear retaliation for speaking up, heed that as a red flag. In that case, you likely need to find employment elsewhere sooner rather than later.
Take your earned leave. Take regularly scheduled time off. The US Travel Association reported that American workers did not use 768 million of their paid days off, losing more than $65 billon in benefits. No need to travel or spend money on your days off. Schedule regular days off and recharge at home. Watch your favorite movies, take naps, read, do whatever you need to do to recharge. If you have vacation leave hours, schedule vacation time regularly.
Manage your calendar. Dan Rockwell, experienced leader and creator of the Leadership Freak blog, recommends putting white space on your calendar. Dan writes, “overcommitment is sprinting into oblivion with your hair of fire.” He also suggests investing your time, energy, and talent in one or two things a day.
Another recommendation related to calendar management offered by Dr. Kim Gorman is to “chunk out” your work outlook. For example, it may be daunting to look at the whole academic year or even a 16-week semester. Try creating chunks within those long time periods. For example, for a fall semester, this may look something like, “I can make it to Labor Day in September, and I have two vacation days scheduled in October (see take your earned leave above). Next is Thanksgiving with a couple of days off and then on to Winter break. I can make it.”
Take breaks to do things you like. Dr. Schabram recommends incorporating things you look forward to into your weekly routine. Make a list of a few small things you can do throughout your day that make you happy and then do them. It can be as simple as applying your favorite hand lotion three times a day, packing one of your favorite meals (here’s a balela/chickpea salad that I love) and eating lunch outdoors, or meeting a friend for a 5-minute walk around your building once or twice a day.
Show compassion for self and others. Dr. Pope-Ruark writes, “practicing self-compassion, taking the time to regulate and honestly check in with ourselves with the same kindness we would offer others, is necessary to ward off or work through burnout” (p. 125). Dr. Schabram’s research shows that having compassion for yourself and others reduces feelings of burnout. Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor, Educational Psychology Dept., University of Texas at Austin and co-creator of Mindful Self-compassion training program offers several practices including self-compassion exercises. Examples include supportive touch, self-compassion breaks (see take breaks to do things you like above), and self-compassion journaling.
Consider the questions below.
What are things you would like to incorporate into your weekly routine that brighten your day?
What calendar management changes can you reasonably try?
Which self-compassion practices seem doable to you?
Center for Mindful Self-compassion. https://centerformsc.org/train-msc/
Mayo Clinic. (2021, June 5). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
Pope-Ruark, R. (2022). Unraveling faculty burnout: Pathways to reckoning and renewal. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rockwell, D. (2023, February 24). 4 ways to do less and get more done today. Leadership Freak. https://leadershipfreak.blog/2023/02/24/4-ways-to-do-less-and-get-more-done-today/
US Travel Association (2019, August 16). Study: A record 768 million US vacation days went unused in ‘18, opportunity cost in the billions. https://www.ustravel.org/press/study-record-768-million-us-vacation-days-went-unused-18-opportunity-cost-billions
World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burnout an “occupational phenomenon”: International classification of diseases. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
Zuckerman, C. (2021, April 30). How to beat Burnout without quitting your job. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/well/workplace-burnout-advice.html