Burnout. Chances are you’ve experienced it in the last year. And you’re not alone: a 2020 study by McKinsey & Company and Lean In found three out of four senior-level women have thought about downshifting or leaving their careers, because of burnout exacerbated by the pandemic. But working isn’t the only activity that triggers burnout. That’s according to licensed psychologist Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein. We called her up for advice on how to identify and manage burnout. Because as the world starts to return to normal, we don’t want to keep feeling the burn.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Burnout is related to chronic stress. It’s made of three parts: emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and a decreased sense of accomplishment. But you don't have to have all three to be experiencing burnout.
Burnout can look a little different for everyone. It can impact you physically the way stress does (i.e. affect your fertility, menstrual cycle, and libido). But there's no set criteria for it, and it’s not a destination that you get to. It’s more like a slow drip. So you should pay attention to what your signs are. Try to notice when your pot is starting to fill up — maybe you’re sleeping too much or not enough, or pulling away from those you care about — before it boils over.
I think, as a way of coping with COVID-19, a lot of us focused on one thing because there was so much unknown. And when there's a lot of unknown, you want to control what you can. Some people went all in and became exercise fanatics or redecorators or homeschoolers. But all of these things when taken to the nth degree are really draining over time, and you lose broader perspective. And as we lose perspective, we get tunnel vision. And with tunnel vision, comes burnout.
A big one is that it's only related to work. But you can experience burnout in any area of your life — in caregiving, in self-help, and when recovering from an illness — there’s no limit.
This is not the answer you want to hear, but it’s different for everyone. A lot of people will come to me after they’ve quit their job. They think they’ve decreased the stress in their life or removed that ‘big thing’ that they thought was the source of their burnout. But they still are experiencing the symptoms. And they’re like, “But, why? I quit! What's wrong? Isn't that what you do? Just take a semester off, a leave of absence?” And that’s kind of what we've been told. Yes, vacations are so warranted and critical, because they force you to slow down, reconnect with yourself, and take a break from a rigid schedule. But no, a break is not a long-term fix.
What I recommend to everyone I work with, even if burnout is not an issue for them, is doing what I call a "calendar audit." That’s jotting down how you feel after certain activities to see what drains you and the things that fuel you throughout the day. You might not even realize that things like responding to emails, some meetings, or certain types of people, don’t refuel you. There might be a yoga class that you actually leave feeling anxious. So that doesn’t really refuel you. But maybe a run or cooking a meal does. An audit will help you figure out what drains and fuels you, so you can stagger your schedule. If you have three really draining activities, try to fit a fueling one in there.
If you’re feeling like you're completely unable to function anymore, get professional help. And finding someone you’re super comfortable with — beyond theories and frameworks and all of that — is important. Ask people you know for recommendations. Or look for a person that you connect with by starting with their picture or bio — then call and try to hear their voice to see if they sound like someone you could talk to. I think once you find the right fit, anyone who's a trained clinician should be able to guide you in the right direction.
If you’re experiencing burnout, you’re certainly not alone. But there are steps you can take before making a drastic life decision like quitting your job. One tip: audit your daily life to notice what fuels and what drains you. Once you figure out your energizing activities, make sure you stagger them throughout your day and treat them as non-negotiable appointments that are vital for your health and well-being. Because they are.
Skimm'd by Carly Mallenbaum and Becky Murray
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