What happens when you’ve just finished your week of welcome, and you’re already feeling burnt out?
Simple. Just don’t go to work. (I think I’m funny)
A lot of us dream about early retirement: days completely to ourselves where our time is our own. Freedom!
Oh, right — you probably have people to support, loans to pay, bills piling up (and to all my res life people, early retirement means immediate eviction). You might even like your work (even if it’s really, really deep down)? So if early retirement isn’t an option, we can throw Plan A on the backburner for a few more years (PSLF, amiright?).
But your burn-out is real. You’re feeling it now — heck, you were probably feeling it weeks ago — and maybe you’re feeling trapped. You’re wondering what your options might be.
First, let yourself know that it’s okay. It’s okay to feel burnt out. And you’re not alone.
In the words of my wise friend Sinclair Caesar…
Unpopular opinion: no one actually has it all together.
— Sinclair P. Ceasar III (@Sinclair_Ceasar) August 16, 2018
Burn-out is tricky because it strikes different kinds of people in different ways. There is no set timetable. There’s no single solution or specific prescription to fight it.
It happened to me. I was caught off guard all-too-early in my student affairs career.
It’s a familiar tale featuring residence life, wanting to do it all, and not knowing how to identify (or even discuss) how I was feeling.
I loved working with students and I always thought that’d get me through. But after a certain point, there were just so many straws, I’m not even sure which one broke me. I can recall one particular November where it all came crumbling down.
I was on call for two weeks that month. The first week had me up all night nearly every night of that week. When you’re on call, you expect to be kept up all night on weekends — but on weeknights, it’s unexpected and especially detrimental. On Thursday that first week, there was a student death in my residence hall. It was minutes after normal workday hours ended, and I had just stepped into my apartment and put water on the stove for tea.
The rest is really a blur. I remember running upstairs, and only the RA and the student’s roommates were there. Understandably, they were very upset. Then there were calls. Lots and lots of calls, and all sorts of emergency responders, administrators, family members…I can remember stepping into a stairwell in between all of it to cry on the phone to a friend for five minutes and then jumping right back into the chaos. We were all up the entire night.
I remember the second rotation, which took place over Thanksgiving (somebody’s always got to be on call). I remember feeling particularly lonely — I was working in Florida at the time and most of my family and friends were home in New England. My burn-out boulder started rolling faster and faster down the mountain toward me.
As the semester moved along and closing weeks were upon us, the straws kept coming. An unpopular policy came down from the administration. You know what it’s like on the frontlines: It wasn’t your decision, and you didn’t have a say, but you can’t let students know. One voice, they told us.
Then, a supervisor overturns a decision you made within the rules, but a student had connections to the board, somebody wrote an email, and now you’re the bad guy.
While the details vary from person to person, the theme is almost always the same: Everything has piled up so high that you lose sight of why you ever signed up for this in the first place. And you are burning out. Your passion turns to embers, the quality of your work dips, you can’t provide the energy or attention that people around you deserve.
I ended up leaving my institution in January.
Like I said…it’s a familiar tale.
If I knew then what I know now, maybe things would be different.
“Better to sweat in times of peace rather than bleed in times of war.” — George S. Patton
Effectively fighting burn-out means consuming a cocktail of proactive and reactive strategies. It’s never too late to treat or too early to prevent. And like all habits, it’s important to choose manageable and realistic strategies, accompanied by realistic goal-setting.
Sourcing tips and tricks from colleagues, industry experts, and personal experience, I came up with a list of short-term and long-term strategies to help cope with burn-out at all stages. Keep in mind, different approaches work for different people. See something here that you’ve never thought about? Give it a try!
Research has shown that most Americans would be happier, healthier, and safer if they were to sleep an extra 60 to 90 minutes per night. Sleep is usually one of the first things to go (accompanied by proper nutrition and exercise) when your workload starts adding up. Here are some tips to help get your sleep schedule in order.
Surprise! But really, there’s really nothing better out there for stress management. Learning to exercise can seem scary, and it’s okay to feel that. The best strategy is to start small, and there are plenty of resources out there for support. Maybe take a brief walk at lunch a couple days each week. Walking might lead to an experimental jog, or maybe a yoga, spin, or pilates class. Just be careful — walking is known to be the gateway drug of the exercise world.
3. Physical space
If your desk is a paper jungle, it might be time to try a minimalist approach. Looking at your desk shouldn’t make you feel stressed out! Try organizing your space regularly, injecting plant life, hanging art on your walls, or burning candles to reduce stress. Bring on the zen!
“My desk is my temple.” — A.J. (that’s me!) circa 2018
4. Talk with your supervisor
Ask yourself, “Am I contributing to my own burn-out by keeping things inside?” Chances are your supervisor has experienced something similar, and empathy makes a powerful ally. Try bringing up your stress or burn-out in your next regularly scheduled 1:1. Prepare some thoughts if it will help you process, and come up with some proposed solutions that your supervisor can buy into.
Setting rules for yourself can help manage the space that your job occupies. Is there a certain time of the day where you’ll no longer check emails? Are you going to reclaim your lunch hour? Your job doesn’t have to creep over the walls of the workplace and into your personal life if you don’t let it. You can strive to be 100% present at work and 100% present at home. Check out these quick Lifehacker tips about setting boundaries.
Meditation is the habitual process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts, and can lead to some serious benefits like improved sleep, reduced stress, better attention spans, and even strengthened memory.
I’ll happily admit that meditation is a tough one for me. My mind races like a distracted dog in a field of squirrels (where’s the gif for that one?).
I’m starting with an app called “Calm” which comes highly recommended.
7. Ask for help
This one is a bit of a repeat, but it’s important to know that you’re not alone in feeling your burn-out. I’d bet you wouldn’t have to look very far to find an empathetic shoulder. Try talking to a friend, family member, therapist, colleague, or mentor. Opening up about your feelings can help and provide some immediate stress relief.
8. New hobby
Okay, yoga isn’t for everyone. Full disclosure: I can’t even sit cross-legged, which makes the beginning of yoga sessions an 8 on the 1-10 scale of shame. Even though the yoga instructor says nobody is judging me, the 360 studio mirrors contradict that.
Picking up new hobbies can inject passion and new energy into your life, and lead to tons of health benefits that are tied to stress reduction. Reading, coloring, gardening, and journaling are some that I’ve personally enjoyed. Here are 150+ new hobby ideas — maybe you’ve really got some time to kill before that next meeting!
9. Massage (obligatory)
It wouldn’t be a post about treating stress and burn-out if I didn’t suggest at least one overly expensive solution.
Candles and essential oils are actually the bee’s knees. I recently got roped into a yoga class that started with the instructor going around the room and dabbing lavender oil into each of our palms. Breathing in deeply, I could almost feel the stress melting off me. You can keep lavender and other scents linked to stress reduction in your space without violating the housing policies around candles (sandalwood and cedar are also highly ranked scents in the world of calming).
I’ve heard it said that the best time to take a vacation is when you don’t have time at all. We all know that vacation is good for us. I’m just here to tell you that it’s okay to use the time you’ve earned. Americans waste more than 658 million vacation days a year. Don’t be another statistic.
Pro-tip: Scott’s cheap flights is a really neat listserv that tracks mistake or irregularly cheap fares on the internet and sends messages out to subscribers about applicable dates, destinations, and departures. I’ve booked a handful of flights just because of how darn cheap they are (round-trip to Colombia for $187 was my most recent). If you’ve got any travel funds saved and can be flexible with your departures, it’s a great tool.
All of these ideas can help, but the key to implementing any kind of change is to start small. When people say they want to get in shape, for example, process goals can be really helpful. Instead of “I want to gain 10 healthy pounds”, try “I want to hit the gym twice a week for one month” and see where it takes you.
Write down some process goals for any of the solutions you’ve seen, and set dates for accountability!
13. Mindfulness (MBSR)
I’ve been reading a book called Mindful Work and it’s really changed the way I perceive mindfulness in the workplace, and how seriously it can impact our production and happiness. It examines companies that have incorporated mindfulness meditation into the workplace, and the long-term effects of the work (even connecting it to the bottom line in some cases).
There’s a growing body of work out there suggesting that mindfulness may help create work/life habits that help you leave work at work, deal with stress, and remain self-aware and alert. It may take a few weeks, but the results are pretty consistent across the board!
Journaling, as a tool for burn-out management and self-exploration, yields the best results when practiced regularly and over time. That being said, even sporadic journaling can help when you’re writing about gratitude or processing emotions.
Research shows that journaling:
- improves cognitive functioning.
- strengthens the immune system.
- counteracts many of the negative effects of stress.
My favorite little journals? Word Notebooks. They’re affordable, pocket-sized, and have some pretty rad designs.
Similar to journaling, therapy can help with self-exploration and emotional processing. Licensed mental health counselors, therapists, and social workers can help equip you with the skills you need to manage stress or burn-out. Personally speaking, it’s pretty kickass to be able to build a relationship and talk with someone who has an objective point of view and your best interests in mind.
If in-person visits aren’t your thing, there’s even virtual therapy you can sign up for (While I personally haven’t used Talkspace, Kid Fury and Crissle from The Read can’t stop raving about it).
Here’s what the authors at the Harvard Business Review have to say about it:
“A growing body of research suggests that an exercise we call “job-crafting” can be a powerful tool for reenergizing and reimagining your work life. It involves redefining your job to incorporate your motives, strengths, and passions. The exercise prompts you to visualize the job, map its elements, and reorganize them to better suit you. In this way, you can put personal touches on how you see and do your job, and you’ll gain a greater sense of control at work — which is especially critical at a time when you’re probably working longer and harder and expecting to retire later. Perhaps job-crafting’s best feature is that it’s driven by you, not your supervisor.”
Check out the full article on the Harvard Business Review and give it a go.
17. Career change
And when all that is said and done, at the end of the day, it might just be time for a career change. How do you know when it’s time? It could be any combination of workplace environment, culture, reward structures, career ceilings, or more. Ask Google “when is it time for a career change?” and there’s no shortage of information.
Either way, you’ve got all kinds of passion and talent, and it doesn’t need to go to waste because you’re a victim of burn-out. Heck, maybe it’s even time to become your own boss!