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Beating Burnout: What to do if you think you're burned out

Beating Burnout: What to do if you think you're burned out

Welcome to the last post of this three-part series on Beating Burnout. In this third instalment, Robyn Tyler covers what you can do if you are suffering from burnout. 

Beating Burnout: What to do if you think you're burned out

If you tick too many boxes for burnout, you might be on the on-ramp. Knowing that is powerful. Now it's time to act.

One action you won't see here is any advice on quitting your job. Work isn't just a source of income, it's an opportunity to be part of a social community, and a way to feel productive and purposeful. These are important for us humans. While it might be the right decision in the end, the decision to quit needs good consideration and this can be hard when you're not in the best headspace. If you think you want to quit, take a break first to clear your head a little and seek the counsel of others as part of your decision-making process.

Practice self-compassion

Beating yourself up or thinking you're somehow weak or flawed is not useful or true. Treat yourself like you would a friend. What advice would you give a friend? What words would you say? Now say them to yourself. 

Reach out

Contacting your GP can be helpful, but it's important to talk with your manager too (if safe) or HR, to get support. Find someone with good judgement whom you trust and respect to seek counsel. This could be a safe colleague or mentor.

Take a break

Maybe you can't take a big holiday, but can you take a long weekend where you do nothing but recuperate and relax? The idea is to get some space to work out what to do next and a tiny bit of charge in your batteries to take a small step forward.

Gain understanding

Reflect on what has caused the burnout so you can prioritise your next steps. Understanding can feel empowering too, giving you a sense of control.

Reflect on where you spend your time

When our identity is strongly tied with what we do professionally it can be hard to rebalance our lives. But we will never lie on our deathbeds wishing we'd spent more time at work. Consider what's most important in your life and whether your current time spend reflects that. Then make small, sustainable nudges to reset the balance.

Remove some commitments

List your current commitment and cancel, delegate, or reschedule. Find energy vampires and commitments you feel you 'should do' but which drain you. Reduce stressors where you can. Give yourself space to heal. 

Individual strategies to help prevent and recover from burnout

Focus on your circle of control

"I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions."

— Dr. Stephen R. Covey

Dr. Stephen Covey's work on the Circle of Control talks about areas you can spend your energy on:

  • Your circle of control: what we can control.
  • Your circle of influence: what we can influence.
  • Your circle of concern: things we care about, that may affect us, but we have little or no control.

 According to Covey, highly effective people spend far more time focusing on the two inner circles, and mostly on their Circle of Control.

When it comes to burnout there may be a whole lot of things you don't have direct control over right now – your Circle of Concern. However, there will always be things in your Control and Influence. Sketch out your circles, save your energy and focus your attention on what's in your control.

The Pareto Principle

This is about helping you focus on things that will get the results. Because when you get the results, you feel good.

The Pareto Principle maintains that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. If we apply this to work, 20% of effort leads to 80% of impact.

It was developed by Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. He noticed that 20% of the plants in his garden produced 80% of his harvest. He also observed that 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population.

This Principle is a helpful reminder that focusing your efforts can maximise your impact. You can also use it to prioritise the tasks you need to get done. If 20% of the tasks will have 80% of the impact, identify the tasks with the most impact and focus on those.

Just remember it is not that 20% of your energy gets 80% of the results. It's about causes and consequences. You still need to put 100% of your energy into that 20% focus to get 80% of the results.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Dwight Eisenhower was the 34th president of the US. He was a very productive man who sustained his productivity for decades. He used a simple decision-making tool known as the Eisenhower Matrix.

Separate your actions based on four possibilities:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

The idea here is to write a to-do list and use the Eisenhower matrix to organise it. This won't solve burnout, but having a more manageable workload helps a lot. It's also something that's within your control, as much as sometimes it feels like it isn't.

The Pomodoro Technique

Burnout impacts our ability to manage time effectively. Time batching, also known as the Pomodoro technique, helps you focus on a group of similar tasks in a dedicated time period, without interruption. This could be committing to check your inbox only once or twice a day, not when every message arrives.

Francesco Cirillo developed this method in the late 1980s. The idea is to break work into batches that you complete in 25-minute intervals. Each interval is called a Pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used.

A Pomodoro interval is 25 minutes, then you take a short break of 5-10 minutes. After four sets of Pomodoros, you take a 20- to 30-minute break. Then you start again.

Having a structure and boundaries around a block of time lets you deep dive into completing a group of similar tasks without interruptions that break your workflow. Multitasking is a myth, and it reduces productivity. If you want to feel like you're accomplishing things, multitasking is not the way.

There is also research on the benefits of getting into a state of flow, including that is helps people stay resilient in the face of adversity. And several studies show it takes at least 15 minutes (on average 23 minutes) to refocus your attention on a task after a distraction or switching to a new task.

Setting Boundaries

It can feel difficult, even risky when you're saying "no" to your boss or a stakeholder. Learning how to say no well, and set boundaries (not in a career-limiting way), is an essential skill when it comes to thriving and being effective at work. Here are some tips.

It can be surprising how often we don't find out the importance of the task before jumping in with a response. Ask: How integral is this task in helping to achieve my priorities? Is this going to help me move closer to achieving our goals or strategies? Or is it a nice to have?

If saying 'no' straight away is too hard:

  1. Buy time. "Let me think about it and get back to you.".
  2. Negotiate priorities: "I'm currently working on X, however if you feel this new project is more important, are you comfortable with me prioritising this over that? Or could we consider assigning this work to someone else?"
  3. Or let go of something else on your priorities list entirely.

If you have to say 'yes', ask for a due date – don't offer one. Self-imposed deadlines are not usually reflective of the actual need.

Recognise the mind-body connection

How you think can affect how you feel. And how you feel can affect how you think.

Researchers in Finland induced different emotions in 701 people and got them to colour in a body map of where they felt increasing or decreasing activity. Despite participants being from many different countries and cultures, the found remarkable similarities in how people responded.

When your body is well, and when you use some straightforward interventions to incorporate physical health, your resilience at work is increased. Looking after our whole being is important.

Here are three things to try:

  • Change the narrative. Practising Expressive Writing for 20 minutes daily can help us gain new insights into our lives and change our perspectives.
  • Too much high-intensity exercise can trigger our stress response. Try relaxing, lower-energy exercises like yoga, golf, or walking. Yoga is research-backed as a stress reducer.
  • Meditation and mindfulness are science-backed powerful stress reducers. As is breath work.

One study shows that Body Scan meditation decreases negative thoughts of past and future. In this meditation you focus on each body part in turn from your head to your toes, letting go of any tension you find. Strong feelings often manifest physically, so relaxing the body helps to dislodge them.

I know if you're starting to feel burnout, you're also feeling like there's an avalanche of work about to fall on you and that you don't have time to do these things. You need to do them. The road you are on doesn't lead anywhere good and these practices do help.

Do a regular well-being check-in

A regular well-being check-in can help catch warning signs early. It can also allow us to see small signs of improvement, too.

I've used a well-being continuum with my direct reports:

  • Burnout: I'm struggling to cope, I have physical and mental exhaustion.
  • Overwhelmed: I'm overcome by the situation or by the emotion I'm feeling.
  • Surviving: I'm getting by.
  • Adapting: I am adapting to this change.
  • Thriving: I feel supported, I am learning and growing.

We started this during the 2020 COVID lockdown as a daily checkpoint to nurture connection and support. Later this moved to a quarterly check-in, but for some it remained more frequent. It's a powerful way of framing an important conversation, getting people talking about it, and seeing changes over time.

Know that recovery will happen

Burnout won't go away on its own and it won't go away unless you address the underlying issues causing it. Ignoring it and thinking you can dig even deeper will cause more damage.

Recovery can be a slow journey, but it will happen.

I hope you can pick up some of the strategies and approaches I've shared here and implement these either for yourself, for your team, or more broadly in your workplace. Let's see the rates of burnout in Aotearoa come down.


Part 1: Beating burnout: What it is and what causes it?
Part 2: Beating Burnout: Mythbusting and taking action


This blog series is inspired by the free webinar Beating burnout (myths, insights and strategies). The recording is available to watch now on our Insights page.

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