Once you recognise you're burned out, you can pull yourself back from the ledge, but it'd be best to never get there in the first place. Luckily, the signs are usually right in front of you: you just don't want to see them, or you're too busy actually working to recognise them. If you keep an eye out, you'll be able to cut off burnout before it takes hold so hard you can barely get up for work. Illustration by Jim Cooke.
The Early, Subtle Signs of Burnout
Most people only think about beating burnout after it's gotten really bad. We've explained how to bounce back and how to re-engage with your work, and that's great...after you're already feeling overwhelmed. In reality, the best things you can do to beat burnout start before you hit rock bottom. Here are the early warning signs to watch for:
- Disaffection and snark about your work, workplace, or colleagues. If you catch yourself reacting poorly to things you would normally take in stride, or suddenly showing a ton of snark or contempt for even minor announcements around the office, you're suffering from the first, earliest signs of burnout. Don't get us wrong — a little snark about work is normal. When the boss starts talking about "synergising core competencies" it's normal to roll your eyes. But if you're rolling your eyes more than you think about what's being said, it's time to step back.
- Creeping exhaustion. We're not talking about that post-lunch food coma. If you're just dead tired from when you walk through the door to when you leave, and never feel like at any point during the day you're getting into "the zone" and firing on all cylinders? You're probably getting burned out.
- Feelings of stagnation, as though your work just isn't getting you anywhere. In the same vein, if you feel like you're doing a ton of work and it just never stops (even if the nature of your job is one that's never-ending), you're also probably starting to feel burned out. You should be able to take some solace in finishing something before picking something else up, even if it's the bite-sized chunks of a big project. If you're so heads-down you're missing those smaller points of accomplishment, it's safe to say you need a break.
- Boredom and detachment, even though you have work on your plate. Being bored even though you have plenty of work to do is a sure sign things are heading downhill. Even being bored while you do the work is a bad sign, since it shows you're not engaged with what you're actually doing. Maybe you're just doing busywork, or wish you were doing something else, but either way it's grating, and wears down your motivation.
- Higher-than-normal levels of procrastination. Everyone procrastinates a little. Too much, however, shows you're trying to get away from your work. Maybe you just dislike it, or you're not inspired, or not motivated for whatever reason. If it's work you'd otherwise do easily, it's time to step back and take a breather.
- Mysterious illnesses and above-average stress you can't seem to shake. Keep an eye on your health. If you find yourself coming down with mysterious, often-stress related illnesses, like stomach discomfort, insomnia, or headaches when you normally don't suffer from them, stress is probably getting to you. This is different than just catching a cold: Everyone gets sick from time to time, but if your body is reacting to the stress and lethargy that you experience because of your job, something is wrong. The last thing you want is your overall health to suffer because of work.
- The realisation that you've never taken time off. If you've never taken a vacation from your job, or you have a ton of leave lying on the table you haven't taken, it's a sure sign that you're starting to get burned out, even if you don't feel like you are. Everyone needs a break from time to time, and if you're not taking them, even if you think you feel great, you're probably burning the candle at both ends. Even worse, if you're struggling to get through the day thinking "I really need to take a vacation," you're definitely burned out. Don't let it get to that point.
All of these are some of the early physical, psychological, and behavioural signs of burnout. They're not the only signs, just the ones that might creep into your day-to-day without you realising what's really happening. As you get stressed, it's natural to get a little snarky about your work, or put off the unpleasant tasks, or struggle through a few headachy days. If they're one-offs, that's fine. But if they become the norm, as Psychology Today explains, you're should try to cut them off before they threaten your mental (and physical) health, not to mention your performance on the job.
Stop for a Moment and Assess Yourself (and Your Job)
If any of those bullets above sound like you right now, it's time to step back and reflect on what you're doing at work. Take an hour — maybe this coming Friday — to stop working, and get a view of everything you have going on. What parts of your job do you like, and which do you hate doing every day? What about your job makes you dread coming into the office, and which parts made you excited to take the job in the first place (even if it's just the paycheck?)
The more you can step back and reassess not just what work you're doing, but why you're doing it, the easier it is to identify what you should focus your energy on, and what you should try to offload. For example, if you love writing your team's status reports but hate presenting those reports in your weekly meetings, see if someone else is willing to do it, or let your boss know that you love collecting the information but hate standing up and fielding questions about other people's work. There might not be anything you can do about it, but trying to do something is better than just suffering through it.
Finally, take a bigger look at your whole career. Maybe you're burned out because you thought you'd be further along, or you're not making any progress towards where you want to be. Maybe you took your job with promises of advancement and training, and they're suddenly all "out of the budget" or only available to other people. It's possible that it's not your actual job that's got you bummed, but it's something else entirely outside of work that's bleeding into your performance. Your personal life is more important than your job, but your job does pay the bills. It makes sense to fix them both if there's a common problem between them.
Nip Burnout Early, Before It Gets Worse
So now that you've identified the early signs of burnout, and you've taken stock in where you are in your job and why you're getting burned out, it's time to deal with it head-on. Here are a few tried-and-true ways, both in and out of the office:
- Take breaks whenever you can. We're not just talking about hanging around the water cooler, either. Good, real breaks from your work gives your brain an opportunity to process what you've done, shake out the cobwebs, and then get back in the game. It also makes you more productive overall, especially if you can get outdoors for a bit.
- Schedule a vacation now, for whenever. Don't leave your leave on the table — it's part of your benefits, and not taking it is like leaving cash money in your employer's hands. Plan your vacations out early, and make sure you take them. If you're worried it's not a good time, don't. There's never a "good" time, so you should just go. The benefits, even if just taking time off feels stressful, outweigh the drawbacks. Then you can come back strong, feeling refreshed.
- Offload the crap and focus on what you love (or what actually matters to you.) Doing what you love at work is a surefire cure for burnout, but few of us are lucky enough to only do what we choose to do at the office. Everyone puts up with some crap, but if you can, offload and delegate the worst of it to people who would rather do it, or are better suited for it. I can't stress this enough: If you have day-to-day responsibilities you hate, talk to your boss about whether you can offload them to someone else or another department. If they're core to your job, that's impossible, but if they're not, you can make a crappy job much better with one conversation.
- Put it to paper. Keep a work diary. Having something to flip back through makes it easy to see your accomplishments and be inspired by them, identify the things about your job you dislike, and of course, makes it easy to pick our achievements and notable projects if you need to update your resume. All of this serves as catharsis for those crappy moments, but it's also useful for offloading the crap, or picking up projects that you know will inspire and engage you — the ones that make you happier to come to work in the morning.
Some of this advice is good for just about any career situation, whether you're feeling burned out, you're happy with your work, or you've had it and you want to quit. But that makes it even more important. The benefits of taking your vacations, taking breaks, and keeping track of your achievements goes far beyond just helping you through the day-to-day slog, they make a difference in your entire career. Best of all, if they can help you stay engaged, and help you avoid burning out, throwing up your hands at work, and just hating everything that crosses your desk, they're invaluable.