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How to Beat Workplace Burnout – And Come Back Swinging

Is this you? Are you suffering from work burnout? Follow our tips to get rested and back in the game.

The most obvious symptom? I was letting my house plants die.

Crackling dry leaves and drooping stems greeted me every time I came home from work, and all I could think was “Who cares, anyway?” I wasn’t returning phone calls, I had constant pain in my wrists, and my kitchen sink was a hazardous waste zone of last week’s dirty dishes.

We’ve all had rough weeks on the job, but what happens when you come across a true and lasting burnout? With all the shutdowns, sequesters, and budget cuts lately, job burnout is a real risk among government employees. If feelings of stagnation, apathy, and frustration are becoming part of your daily life both at work and at home, it’s time to take steps to reinvigorate your job.

How to Spot Burnout

How do you know if you’re just tired from a long week, or if you’re well and truly burned out? Start by looking at your behaviors, both in the office and at home.

Are you acting differently at work? Perhaps you’ve become overly cynical or critical, or you’re snapping at coworkers for any little offense. Maybe you’ve lost track of why you’re working on a particular project, and don’t care anymore about the outcome. Your work is beginning to suffer, but you hardly notice – let alone care.

Burnout doesn’t just affect your work – the symptoms often extend to the home. Stress can change and disrupt your sleep patterns, which can compound your already troubled mood. Your willpower – which only has so much energy to begin with – will begin to flag, and you may find yourself eating less healthfully, and indulging overly in alcohol, cigarettes, and sweets. You may stop caring about your appearance, or the cleanliness of your home. (Or, like me, your formerly beloved house plants.)

Our mental state affects our health, and unexplained headaches, backaches, and other physical pain can be your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong mentally. Stress also saps our immune systems, so if you’re experiencing lingering colds or not healing quickly enough in other ways, it may be a sign of burnout. But please, check with your doctor to be sure it’s not something more.

Understand Why You’re Burnt Out

Burnout can come from a variety of places. A recent study, summarized here in the Washington Post, names three different types of burnout: frenetic burnout; under-challenged burnout; and worn-out burnout.

The first is a result of being overwhelmed with work responsibilities and commitments; the second results from feeling underwhelmed by a lack of development in your job; and the third comes from being just plain exhausted.

What this points to is that burnout isn’t just the result of being overworked. While your job’s to-do list may be overwhelming (especially in this age of constant budget cuts), your burnout may also be a result of working in a job that doesn’t challenge you, or which has become so mired in irrelevant details it no longer resembles the job you were once passionate about.

A frustrating office situation may also be to blame, such as if you have constant problems with a coworker or your manager. Government shutdown and mandatory restructuring can leave you feeling like everything is out of your control, which can also lead to a feeling of burnout.

Kicking Burnout to the Curb – and Getting Fired Up Once More

Once you pinpoint where the burnout is coming from, try one of these tactics to get yourself moving once more.

1. Decide which factors you can alter, which you can mitigate, and how to cope with problems which won’t change. It may take miles of little steps to overcome a truly entrenched case of burnout, but every step in the right direction will get you a little more momentum.

2. Freshen up your job. If you’re feeling stuck, it can help to change up the rhythm of your job. Take on a new role, volunteer for a community project, or tackle a new skill. You may even consider a lateral transfer to broaden your skills or expertise within your department, or talk with your manager about adding some flexibility to your schedule or environment.

3. Seek support from your coworkers and boss. If tough times have hit your department, chances are your coworkers are feeling the stress, too. Let your boss know what your situation is, and check in with your agency’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to take advantage of the available services, which include things like free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, and referrals.

4. Look for networking opportunities within your field. Remind yourself why you used to love your job by writing an article for a trade magazine or becoming more involved in the local chapter of a professional organization. Connecting with other professionals in your field can help expand your point of view beyond the walls of your cubicle to see what the rest of the world is doing.

5. Find passion outside of work. Dive into good book or dust off an old favorite hobby. Sign up for to volunteer for a cause you really believe in, or to take a class that has nothing to do with your job – like salsa dancing or pottery. Finishing a home improvement project or learning something new can give you a sense of control and completion to help break you out of the burnout rut.

6. Get some exercise. It’s an old standard, but it works every time. Good old-fashioned exercise gets those endorphins pumping, lifting your mood, giving you a sense of accomplishment, and inducing clarity of thought.

Follow a few of these tips; perhaps catch up on some sleep; and before you know it, you may be feeling reinvigorated by your job once again. Burnout can be frustrating – but it doesn’t have to be forever.

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Profile Photo Sam Ashe-Edmunds

Nice points, Jessie. I interviewed tennis coaches many years ago about how they avoided professional burnout and a common theme emerged — education. Attending workshops and seminars, going to conferences and trade shows, buying educational DVDs or books, learning a new software program, and taking a night class or online course can give you new tools and ideas, increase your interest in what you’re doing, re-energize you and motivate you to keep moving forward. I’d suggest adding at least one educational activity to your skill-set building each year to increase your interest in what you do and to help avoid burnout.

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Profile Photo Jessie Kwak

Mike, I think that’s a great point. I just heard a great thing about creative rhythms yesterday – basically, instead of trying to achieve perfect balance for everything in your life, try to get into a good rhythm of busy times and rest. That idea really resonates with me.

Sam, I love your points about education as a way to keep yourself invigorated! That’s really fantastic.

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Profile Photo Dale Fowler

Really liked this post. Unlike other things on this subject that I have read, this post contains some nicely nuanced and detailed strategies and ideas. Also liked the different kinds of burn-out. I thought that was helpful and new.

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