I spent some time learning about burnout and I’m here to share some tips for prevention.
It’s 2022. We’ve been navigating COVID-19 for over two years. Pretty sure we can drop the ‘un’ from ‘unprecedented’. Also pretty sure that we can accept that life has changed forever, and it’s certainly changed here at Windscribe, where we’ve recently become a remote-first company.
Remote work brings its own set of challenges, though, especially for those of us with a proclivity for giving everything 110%. After all, if you work from home, then your job is in your house, and you’re always at work, right?
I recently went through my own little run-in with the edges of burnout. I’m enormously grateful that I’m surrounded by people who noticed me changing after a fender-bender which pushed me from ‘doing well in a moderate-pressure job’ into ‘omgwtfimsotired’ every single day. After my partner correctly pointed out that I’d spent three days that I’d booked off work literally lying on the couch in my pyjamas still responding to Slack messages and reviewing code, I realized I had to take action or I’d risk my job, and worse, my health.
There are myriad ways that we as a society can push for change in our rat-race culture, but that sweet work-life balance begins at home. This article includes 5 ways you can protect yourself against burnout, but first, let’s define our terms.
What is burnout?
“Job burnout is a psychological syndrome that involves a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” (Maslach, 37)
Maslach makes it pretty clear above. Are you, as my mum would put it, absolutely shattered before your work day even begins? Are you experiencing the Sunday Scaries? Are you struggling to focus, but even when you do, hear a little voice in your head saying ‘what’s the point’?
You might just be experiencing some of the symptoms of burnout.
Okay, that sounds like me. How can I avoid burnout?
Here’s a secret: your life is under your control. 2021’s job market and our collective awakening to the realization that we actually want to enjoy our lives before they’re swallowed up by some spikey boi means that now more than ever, you have the power and the tools to make changes. Here’s 5 ways you can start.
Admit that burnout exists and that you’re struggling with its symptoms.
Yep, you guessed it: step 1 is admitting you have a problem. Did I steal this directly from the literature of various 12-step-based addictions groups? Yes, I did. Is it still a good starting point? I promise it is. Once you’ve accepted that this is an issue you’re going to have to do something about, it makes it a lot easier to start doing something about it.
This doesn’t mean lying down on the ground, announcing that you ‘have burnout’, and refusing to do anything ever again, although that’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to do when I started to acknowledge what was going on.
Separate your work life from your home life.
We’re not getting into anything scary here like ‘work less’, but now is the time to delineate some physical boundaries for yourself, especially if you work from home. As far as I’m concerned, the gold standard here is to have a physical space in your home that is only for work, to only do work in that space, and to not bring home life there. When I take a personal call while ‘at work’, I walk away from my desk. When it’s lunchtime - I’m lucky enough to co-work from home with my partner - we deliberately go to another area of the apartment to sit down and eat. If I eat at my desk while working (this happens - you can be an overachiever without making yourself ill!) I always make sure to leave early that day. Boundaries are good.
It isn’t always possible to have a dedicated space for work, so think about other things you might be able to do to draw a line between ‘work’ and ‘everything else’. Do you use a work computer? Is it sometimes just closer to you than your personal computer, even when it’s 11pm and you’re baked? Do you then use that work computer to Google how long a sloth takes to reach adulthood, or whatever? Yeah, stop doing that. The more we can separate these two parts of our lives physically, the more they’ll be separated conceptually, leading to lower stress levels, better focus when you are working, and less worrying about whether work knows about your sloth obsession.
Develop an off-switch, and communicate clearly about it.
The best trained dogs in the world have what’s called an ‘off switch’, where they can go from high-intensity zoomies to a chilled, relaxed state in seconds. You, too, can be a border collie if you put your mind to it. Set your out of office reply when you go on vacation, then love and respect yourself enough to truly be out of office. When you’re on lunch, set an away message on Slack, or whichever service you use, noting when you’ll be back. There’s probably not going to be anything that comes up in those 30 minutes that they can’t solve without you. Be clear about the boundaries you set: “I’m going to be AFK Monday and Tuesday next week. I’ll be completely unavailable, so please contact Fred in an emergency”, and more importantly, stick to them.
If your colleagues, or worse, your employers, don’t respect these boundaries, approach them about it, or better yet, start looking for a job where your time and health is valued.
Just kidding. But learn to say no! This is the ‘plate’ that this article’s title refers to. You should aim to have it about 90% full, so that if you, say, rear end someone on the highway, you have a little buffer space to freak out without plunging yourself into pyjama-couch-land for several weeks. If you’re reaching capacity and you’re asked to put something else on your list of tasks, let your employer know which of your other tasks this will have to cut into.
Understand that protecting yourself from burnout is not only best for you: it’s also best for your employer.
I adore my job. I’m incredibly lucky to work where I work, to be trusted with the responsibilities I have, to be handed the tools to work completely flexibly and always given avenues to ask for the things I need to do better in my job or in my life. I love it so much that I recommend it constantly (psst… https://angel.co/company/windscribe/jobs)
It’s my love for my job that made it so difficult to do the first four things in this list. I felt guilty. Guilty about setting boundaries, saying no, having an off-switch, telling our “Human Developer” that I was struggling after a tiny car accident, guilty even about writing this article… but the alternative is that we keep working, we keep saying yes, and eventually we lie down on the couch and we just don’t get up.
That is the last thing your employer wants. They pay you for a reason. It’s not to work so hard that you can’t work anymore. It’s in their best interest, as well as yours, to love yourself enough to walk away. And that’s what I’m going to do right now. It’s 5.13pm and I am done for the day.
Maslach, Christina, and M. P. Leiter. "Burnout." Stress and quality of working life: current perspectives in occupational health 37 (2006): 42-49.