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Coping with burnout at work

Writer and social psychology expert Oliver Burkeman, shares advice on how to deal with stress at work

by Psychologies

The project

You know your job is stressful, but when moderate stress turns into long-term burnout, you can feel it: the exhaustion never lifts, the sense of depletion is joined by one of meaninglessness, even despair. (No wonder some psychologists argue burnout is a form of depression.) All this is a problem in itself, but we make things far worse by responding incorrectly.

The aim

It’s crucial to see that burnout needn’t always result from having too much to do: often, it’s caused by a lack of control over your work, or by insufficient challenges in your job. It’s tempting to respond by working harder, to get over the ‘hump’ of feeling overwhelmed, and by cutting out exercise or socialising. Unlike computers, humans are ‘cyclical’ so working more doesn’t just make you miserable, it makes for worse work, too.

The theory

The first vital anti-burnout step is to give yourself permission to ease up. Some bosses are bad at allowing downtime, but the greater enemy is often yourself: if you’re ambitious, perfectionistic or insecure, chances are you don’t like letting yourself rest. Focus on ‘pacing yourself very carefully’, as burnout expert Michael Leiter told The New York Times. Start small, with tiny screen breaks, or a walk at lunch, plus a fixed bedtime to avoid ‘sleep procrastination’ (checking social media or emails). Re-introduce rhythm to your life: intense activity alternating with a more relaxed pace. Then, you’ll be far better placed to make longer-term work decisions, including possibly switching jobs.

Now, try it out

  • Stop trying to ‘motivate yourself’. If you already feel drained and bored, don’t add unnecessary pressure to that and waste valuable energy trying to get motivated, which really just means beating yourself up for feeling bad. Allow yourself the negative feelings, while taking productive action.
  • Socialise outside your workplace. Sherrie Bourg Carter, a psychologist and writer on burnout, recommends social time with non-colleagues: it’s far less likely to turn into moaning about work. Make a plan to meet up with an old friend instead.
  • Use next-action thinking. When you’re truly overwhelmed, use productivity guru David Allen’s favourite question: ‘What’s the next action?’ You only ever need to do one thing – answer one email, travel to one meeting. And then one more, and so on. Remembering that can be very liberating.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

More inspiration:

Read What can we learn from those colourful people who thrive, rather than simply surviving at work? by David Head on LifeLabs

Photograph: Corbis