What burnout is, and how to avoid it

If you’re a regular reader of the Timetastic blog, you might have noticed we smash out a fair few posts; at least two a week throughout the year, mostly with my name attached.

I do love writing these posts but it’s time to take some rest, so I’m taking almost all of December off. Without a proper break, I'd be likely to get burnt out.

Freelancers like me are notoriously bad at taking leave. We say ‘yes’ to too many work opportunities to make up for the quiet times, and it’s easy to forget to take the right amount of rest. Taking one day off at a time doesn’t work, especially if you use it to catch up on sleep. The day’s gone before it’s even started, and then you can’t get back to sleep at a normal time for the next day.

Long-term, doing things like this is a classic recipe for burnout. And people of all employment types are prone to it, which is why it's important to spot it early and take action.

But what exactly is burnout, anyway?

Defining burnout

Burnout? Isn’t that just a dramatic way of saying you’re tired?

Not quite - it’s a bit more than that.

Occupational Burnout, as it’s defined by the World Health Organisation, is defined as:

“...a collection of issues from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
3) reduced professional efficacy”

The founder of social media app Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, wrote about his experiences burning out in this blog post.

Joel says the feeling hit him rather suddenly after a period of intense work:

"I lost motivation. I just didn’t care. I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. It was like anything could set me off, and make me well up. I cried a lot, by myself and with people close to me.”

It’s clearly a mental and physical health issue that can sneak up on you unexpectedly. In periods of high stress, even if we’re enjoying ourselves, we aren’t operating in a healthy way. The problem with running on adrenaline is that you don’t always realise you’re doing it:

"As soon as the adrenaline subsided my body, and mind, suddenly realised everything I’d gone through. That’s when the burnout really hit me. The adrenaline had been masking things.”

We’re all capable of burning the candle at both ends without always realising it. So it’s important to prevent burnout happening rather than try to cure it.

How to avoid burnout

When you’re wrapped up in exciting work projects, or are under lots of pressure in a busy environment, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and run yourself down. That might mean overdoing it on the junk food, alcohol, or electronic distractions.

This kind of thing can lead to a negative cycle - getting burnt out leads to not relaxing properly, meaning we’re less effective at work, so we’re more prone to getting snowed under with workload, and want to escape with stimulating distractions.

The only solution is some proper time away from it all.

For me, it’s got to be some time away from the screens, getting out into nature, and slowing down. Spending good time with friends has to be high on the agenda, and some time doing absolutely nothing does a lot of good, too.

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There are a few different tactics for avoiding burnout, depending on your type of work:

For employees: Make sure you take your full leave allowance! Plan it out through the year and don’t leave it all 'til December. The odd day off to relax (rather than go on adventurous trips) will do wonders for your physical and mental health.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, talk about it. Talk to your boss, partner, career coach - anyone that might offer some helpful advice or just a sympathetic ear. Getting out of your own head is key to understanding what to do next.

For company owners and managers: Taking time off is just as important for you as your employees. You need to get used to handing over control of parts of your business when you're away, and trust your employees to make the right decisions. In the words of Timetastic's Gary:

"Trust people to make decisions in your absence. When I go away I always say to my team, “The worst decision is no decision. Make a choice and go with it, I'll back you up even if I’d have chosen differently”. The point is, I’m away, and I accept what happens in my absence.”

Leaving your work email alone for a full day might seem scary, but if you give one or two key contacts an emergency phone number to reach you on, they should know to leave you alone unless it's urgent.

And if you're encouraging staff to take more leave, remember to set an example by doing it yourself, too.

For freelancers: Take time off more seriously. Track leave like you did when you were employed, and make sure you take at least 4 weeks a year off. The more rested you are, the better work you’ll do, which means clients are happier, and you’ll get more referrals. No matter what the LinkedIn gurus say, waking up at 5am every day to ‘get your hustle on’ just isn’t sustainable.

And for everyone: Rest.

The importance of getting enough of the four types of rest (physical, mental, social and spiritual) can't be overstated.

If you’re really feeling the exhaustion long-term, maybe it’s time to consider a longer break. A sabbatical might be the right option, giving you time and space to relax, recover and rethink where your career is headed.

Catching the signs of burnout early, and acting accordingly, will do you the world of good in your personal and professional life.