Self-care Guide for Preventing Burnout
I wish I could give a play by play self-care strategy for preventing burnout at work, but I can’t because I never did find one for myself. I burnout, and it was awful. I feel that if I had to do it all again, knowing what I know now, it would not have happened to me. I hope that this information helps you in your journey to preventing burnout. Based on my experience, here are some ideas and strategies for self-care to help prevent burnout:
- Integrate Self-care Into Your Work Day
- Use Anxiety Busting Methods
- Take Vacation or Medical Leave
- TBD What I Would have Done Differently
- Use Other Non-Self-care Avenues
I’ve detailed the ideas below, but before I get to those, I want to talk about the single biggest mistake I made regarding burnout.
The Biggest Mistake I Made
The biggest mistake that I made in regards to burnout, was that I did not take it seriously. I thought it was the type of thing where I could just rest up and feel better. It is not. If I had known just how long it takes to recover from burnout, I would have done everything different. I read that it can take up to two years to heal from burnout. For me, burnout left me physically/mentally incapable of working for 6 months. I was just too tired and stressed to do much of anything. Burnout turned my whole life upside down. Here’s how:
Jeopardized my Career
I let myself get so bad that I had to quit because I couldn’t go on. I even had a job interview lined up about a week after I quit, but I couldn’t go. My tank was empty.
Being unemployed, with a hard to explain reason for leaving my previous job is not ideal. Of course, getting a job when you are unemployed is much harder than when you are employed. I have had a real problem finding work, and am fearful for my career prospects.
I struggled to even get a less-stressful job because I am now “overqualified”.
What I know now, is that people who suffer from burnout, not only leave their job, but also their industry. Do you want to go back to school to learn a new career? I know I don’t.
Jeopardized my Health
I was miserable in almost every way that I could be miserable. I was depressed, anxious, and even suicidal.
I was also constantly angry and frustrated almost all of the time. I found myself saying really mean things about people, even people that I liked. I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore.
The thought of going to work made me nauseous. I threw up many times. I also experienced many of the symptoms of burnout including fatigue and headaches.
Jeopardized my Relationships
Aside from my physical symptoms, being burnout was also negatively affecting my relationships. My marriage almost ended because of it. Who wants to be around someone that is tired, stressed, and angry all of the time?
If all that was not enough, I was also getting scared by my inability to stop thinking about work. It was always on my mind. I couldn’t enjoy my life anymore.
If I had to do it all over again, the single biggest piece of advice I would give myself is to take burnout very seriously. It is a big deal. Don’t let what happened to me, happen to you.
If you think you are burnout or are burning out, I strongly recommend that you go to see your Doctor for help. Don’t make the same mistake that I did!
With that being said, I hope that this advice, from someone who has been there, will be helpful…
Integrate Self-care Into your Work Day
One of the best things that I did was to integrate self-care into my daily work routine. I accomplished this in large part by involving co-workers.
I had read in the “Power of Habits”, that people are more likely to succeed if they can find just one person who shares their goals. The reason for this is obvious: we will push each other to do it, even when we don’t feel like it. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, and you can use it to your advantage! Not only are you more likely to be successful in a goal if you involve other people, but the social interaction is also positive. Laughter is the best medicine!
I recruited co-workers to join me in most of the activities below. It wasn’t hard. I am yet to meet a single person that doesn’t want to be healthier. In a department of 20ish people, anywhere from 2-13 people participated in the following activities:
Team members from our department often went for group walks on our lunches or breaks. Sometimes, we’d even have a “walk and talk meeting”, instead of sitting in a boring conference room!
I also had regularly scheduled weekly lunch walks with friends, and compiled a list of people who were willing and able to go at on a more ad-hoc basis, to allow for my ever-changing schedule. We walked outside whenever possible. The fresh air and sunshine is so good for the soul if nothing else.
From my experience, it is easy to find others who want to get moving! A good heads up is to notice if anyone is wearing a Fitbit or other fitness tracker. They are very likley to take well to the suggestion of a lunchtime walk. There may already be a walking group established at your workplace. This is a free, and easy way to get self-care into your routine.
We printed a few stretching exercises, and we’d all go for 5 minutes in the break room in the morning. There are tons of stretching exercises online. Find ones that suit your needs.
While our stretching session was really short, they made a huge difference both in my morale, and my feeling that I was doing something to help myself feel better. Also helped my poor stiff aching muscles!
Yoga in Your Chair
Twice a week, a group of us would do exercises called “yoga in your chair”. They were stretches that were designed for office workers (like stretching to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome etc). Again, it was a lot of fun! We’d do it over the first 10 minutes of our lunch break, twice a week.
Gym Before Work
This is the only one that I did by myself. I had actually found three people who were willing to be my “gym buddy”, but it was too stressful for me to try to accommodate other people’s schedule. It can work well though. Considering that I actually stopped going to the gym, I maybe should have stuck with a buddy!
There was a gym at my work, so I’d go do some cardio and/or strength training. It felt amazing! If you can work this into your schedule, I highly recommend it. If I had kept up this habit I think I might have been ok.
Communal Salad Bar
I found that I was always rushing here or there, and never had time to eat a proper meal. A few of us got together and agreed to bring in various ingredients for a communal salad bar. It was really amazing. I felt really good to get in that healthy, quick meal, in the middle of the day. For this to work, you really need a group of committed people.
This was a beautiful addition to our self-care regimen. Our department was actually lucky enough to have hired someone who was trained in meditation take us through a guided meditation, once a week. It was amazingly helpful! I strongly recommend this to anyone. You don’t need someone to guide you. There are tons of great resources. You can find something on YouTube or download an app (I personally really like Headspace). Meditation is also something that you can do on your own. Some “me” time is definitely a good thing. Again, though, the social pressure to actually do it can be very helpful!
Use Anxiety Busting Methods
If you are like me, then anxiety is strongly correlated to your stress. Since taking time off, I’ve researched more about anxiety reduction techniques. Some techniques (like belly breathing and L-Theanine), I’ve used for years, but I realized that I wasn’t using them to their fullest potential. I had used these techniques whenever I was extremely anxious, and they helped calm me down significantly; however, it wasn’t until I left that I learned that building them into a daily routine can actually be very beneficial and reduce overall anxiety. Additionally, I’ve learnt more about the calming effects of lavender. I have actually written a separate article about how to use these items to reduce anxiety here.
Take Vacation or Medical Leave (aka Stress Leave)
If you visit your Doctor, one of the things that they may recommend is that you take some time off for medical leave (informally referred to as “stress leave”). Depending on your employer, this may be easy or hard. A lot of companies will allow you to take time off for medical reasons. If sick time is not an option, you could use vacation time instead. If you have worked long hours and racked up banked time, ask your employer to use the time for vacation time. If none of these option are available, you may want to take some unpaid leave. It will hurt financially in the short-term, but not nearly as badly as not being able to work for 6 months!
You may find it difficult to take time off from work. I know that I did for many reasons. I worried about what other people would think, or that the things that needed to get done wouldn’t get done. In retrospect, this was foolish. My health was more important. I should have made it the most important. By the time I finally took time off, I was really far gone. I waited until I couldn’t take it anymore. Don’t make the same mistake that I did!
When I finally went to see my Doctor, she recommended that I take a few weeks off. I took this time to rest, and also to implement new habits like starting an exercise routine, and changing my diet. I felt amazing. Taking the medical leave was far and away the most helpful thing that I did to manage help manage my burnout.
My Doctor later told me that a lot of her patients end up in her office again, in a few months, with the same problems, which is exactly what happened to me. To me, this suggests that for many of us stress leave/vacation time is a good short-term solution, but that it needs to be paired with more long-term solutions.
What I Would Have Done Differently
If I had to do it all again, there are a few things that I would do differently. As mentioned, there were some things that were definitely helping me I would have kept doing them and/or done them more. There are also a few other things that I have learnt with hindsight.
I would have kept exercising in the morning. I would have pushed myself to get out of bed, even if I was exhausted because exercising was really the only thing that made me feel like I was overcoming something, like I was going to be ok. Exercise gave me the time to center myself, to focus on myself and my needs. I would have spent more time thinking about how to overcome obstacles. Could I used banked time or vacation time to extend my lunch and go them? Should I reconsider going after work? Maybe I could do shorter workouts? I would have done whatever it took to make this a part of my daily life.
I would have taken 2 L-Theanine every day. I didn’t realize that taking it regularly would help with my overall anxiety. I wouldn’t have worried about the expense. I would have gladly paid the $20 a month to help my wellbeing.
I would have downloaded the HeadSpace app and meditated on my afternoon break. (I don’t think it even existed at that time!)
I would have bought a diffuser for my house, and always had lavender in it. Again, if I could just throw some money at the problem, why didn’t I? Probably because I was too tired to do the research!
I would have gone on Stress Leave Sooner
As mentioned, I put off going on stress leave until I was already at my breaking point. If I’d gone sooner, I think it would have been better for me. I don’t know if my Doctor would have let me go at that point, but I had tons of vacation time and banked time. I should have gone.
I wasn’t as Important as I thought I Was
I think a big reason that I had so much trouble, was because I had so much of my self-worth tied up in the job. If something went wrong, it meant that I wasn’t a worthwhile person. I had to work late. I had to work through my breaks. It was all up to me. Everything would fall apart without me. Was there some truth to that, I like to think so, but ultimately, it wasn’t true. If I went on my break when I wanted to, no one would have died. The world would have gone on.
If you feel like this too, I honestly don’t have an answer on how to overcome it. Resolving ones self-worth isn’t exactly an afternoon activity. I worked on it for those 6 months though, and I think that I got somewhere. For me, it has been about finding things that I care MORE about than how people at work see me. Like my marriage and my health. It is about realigning what is really important to me. There were two books that I found really helpful in doing this:
1) “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” by Mark Manson.
It is all about figuring out what you really care about in life, and then just not caring about everyting else. It has helped me to get some perspective.
2) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I got this book to help me declutter my apartment. I had no idea that it was basically therapy in a book. It is about determining what to keep and what to hang on, based on what YOU want. Learning to know what you actually want is a skill, and this book definitely helps learn it.
I Would Have Let Things Drop
If I had known then, like I know now, what is truly important to me, I would have set boundaries to help protect my health and well-being. No one was ever really stopping me. In fact, my manager often stopped by to make sure that I was going home on time, or staff would say “oh I can come back after you are done lunch”, but I just kept pushing myself.
In a lot of ways, it was me who was pushing so hard. It was me who didn’t want to look stupid if something wasn’t done or wasn’t done right.
If I knew that what others thought didn’t matter as much as my health did, as scary as it still sounds, I would have let things drop (like everyone around me told me to do). I would have done it because I know that I am not stupid, or incompetent, or anything other thing that someone might think. I was overworked. I didn’t have the time to do everything that needed to be done. And that wasn’t my fault. It never should have meant that I worked longer and harder to get it all done. I would have let myself feel the pain of worrying about what others thought, because I still do care, even if I don’t want to, but I would have known that the pain would be MUCH worse, if I didn’t let things drop.
Guarded my Off Time
Earlier I mentioned how helpful it was when I did my 5 minute stretches in the morning with my team. It was fun, it was invigorating, it gave me hope… I also missed it a lot. I was just too important. Too many things to do to stop for 5 minutes. If I had to do it all again I would:
- Take my breaks. Every day. At the same time.
- Recognize that there are fews things so important that it couldn’t wait 15 minutes. Figure out what those things are, and ONLY respond to them.
- Put a “break” time in my Outlook calendar, so no one would schedule a meeting during my break time.
- I could have asked my boss to move our weekly meeting back 15 minutes, so they didn’t overlap with my break time.
- I would take my breaks away from the office, so that none would ask me questions in the break room!
- If I spent my breaks with co-workers, I would enforce a stict “No talking about work policy”.
- I would go home on time, even if I felt like things were falling apart.
I Would Have Left my Job. A LOT Sooner
I stuck it out for a long time for a lot of reasons like good salary, and excellent benefits. I loved the people I worked with, and really enjoyed most aspect of my job. There were also constant promises that things would get better, with little result. I stayed because I wanted to stay, but if I could go back, knowing what I know now, I never would have applied for that job in the first place.
One thing that I want to note here, is that I tried a lot of things before I quit. Here are some non-self care things that I tried, which may work for you:
- Spoke with my Manager on multiple occasions about my concerns and possible solutions
- Made logical policy suggestions, which if implemented, would have reduced my workload
- Delegated/Asked for assistance as much as possible
- Sought advice from mentors and other seniors in my organization
- Sought emotional support from others
- Tried to let go of my frustration surrounding work, and just accept it (Frustration is actually one of the main causes of burnout)
There is a quote that I really like, “If you don’t find time to be healthy, you are going to have to find time to be sick”. As mentioned, my biggest piece of advice is to take burnout seriously. Do what needs to be done to stop yourself from becoming burnout. Don’t let pride, fear, or anything else get in your way. Take steps. If you haven’t already, I suggest you start by talking to your Doctor.
If you are like me, you may feel stuck. I felt like things were “happening to me” and that I had no choice. It was an illusion. I always had a choice. Leaving had consequences, but so did staying. You get to make your choices. I hope that you make better ones than I did.