Written by Amy Beecham
A psychologist shares their top tips for coming back from burnout in a sustainable and healthy way.
Burnout is the cultural phenomenon we can’t seem to escape. We know the causes, the signs and the toxic workplaces that often cause it.
But what happens after we’ve burned out? How can we start to get stuck back into our working lives without falling into the same bad habits?
“Burning out from pushing too hard can feel like a kind of self-betrayal, so it can be difficult to trust ourselves again,” writes psychologist Seth J Gillihan for Psychology Today. “[But] with care and attention, we can rediscover the joy of rewarding, life-giving work.”
So if you’re returning to work after a well-needed break, these are the six steps, both preventative and curative, that you should be taking.
1. Look out for the warning signs
It may be easier said than done, but the best way to recover from burnout is to avoid it in the first place. But in a world of ever-increasing stress, pressure and responsibility, it’s something most of us feel powerless to avoid.
“The signs of impending burnout are usually obvious in hindsight, like having low energy and dreading work, but it’s easy to disregard them,” notes Gillihan.
He suggests starting to pay more attention to how you’re really doing and practicing listening inwardly.
“What is your body telling you? What is the state of your mind? Is your spirit expanding or contracting?” he writes. “The warning signs of too much stress are there when we are open to them.”
2. Notice when you’re running on adrenaline
Tackling work with a restless energy and raring-to-go attitude is a sign things are going well, right? Well, maybe not. “It’s common to feel wired before a mental, physical or emotional breakdown,” says Gillihan. “The body can mount a temporary coping response that allows us to keep pushing through high levels of stress, like the burst of energy that gets us across the finish line of a marathon – before we collapse.”
Instead, it’s important to learn how to differentiate healthy, sustainable energy from this stress-driven activity that eventually leads to exhaustion.
Feeling excited at the prospect of your career is great. Operating on overdrive out of fear that you’ll fail is not.
3. Don’t overcommit
Even after a short period of rest, there’s nothing better than filling our cup back up. However, it can be easy to fall into the trap of switching straight back to the same levels of stress and anxiety, which is a surefire way to take us right back to where we started.
“Once we start feeling more energetic and less burned out, there’s an understandable desire to take on more work,” explains Gillihan.“Be careful about making hard-to-escape-from commitments that could easily overtax you, like attending a four-day conference away from home, especially early in your recovery process.”
Instead, he advises thinking through your commitments carefully and assessing what will actually be required from you – and whether you’re ready to take it on.
4. Don’t live for the weekend
According to Gillihan, a common pattern that occurs before burnout is not feeling truly rested after holidays or weekends, and feeling like we need more time off.
“Living for the weekend and for paid time off is not a sustainable stress management strategy,” he says. “We need to learn to let go of stress in real time.”
Take time out during the day to relax – such as going for a walk on your lunch break and taking short moments to rest during the day. Try releasing stress through exercise, journaling and mindfulness, and prioritise your mental and emotional wellbeing over arbitrary deadlines.
5. Set clear boundaries
When he was recovering from his own period of burnout, Gillihan says that he set rules that worked for his own recovery: taking a lunch break every day, finishing work by 5pm and limiting the number of meetings in a day.
“Find what works for you,” he writes. “To start, be conservative about what is realistic to accomplish in a day, and guard against the strong tendency to do more than you’re ready for.”
And once you’ve identified your own rules, ensure you stick to them, even if it feels unnatural at first.
6. Mix things up if they’re not working
However, Gillihan says to allow yourself a little bit of wiggle room.
“At the same time, hold your rules lightly. Otherwise, they can become their own source of stress. As you build back your strength and reserve, experiment with doing more if you want to,” he continues.
The key, it seems, is balancing your expectations of yourself with what’s realistic, but also remembering to be kind to yourself throughout.
“If you do overextend yourself, watch out for hindsight bias (I should have known better!) and self-blame,” Gillihan concludes. Take the information on board and use it as a learning experience to make better decisions in the future.
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