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Burnout Busters: 10 Ways to Cope When Work Becomes Overwhelming


Last updated 10/6/2014

T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, but for many American workers, the other 11 months are no picnic either. Their work lives are defined by a time-crunched, overbooked, technology-fueled frenzy that has brought them to the brink of that all-too-common 21st-century malady—burnout.

Stress is taking a toll on today's employees—and everyone pays the price. Businesses suffer because overstressed workers are far less productive and uninspired. And the employees themselves suffer most of all; because they can't "turn off" the stress at the end of the day, their partners and families are affected, too.

So what can stressed-out workplace warriors do to avoid experiencing a total meltdown? Begin by incorporating the following “burnout busters” into your life:
  • Start the day with some high-energy music. Research shows that people who listen to high-energy music before they face the day’s challenging situations increase their productivity by as much as 200 percent. Whether it's rock, country, jazz or pop, listen to music that "pumps you up" and makes you feel good. You’ll experience a sense of positive energy and enthusiasm that will help you tackle any challenges that you might encounter.

  • Set aside blocks of time to complete various tasks. For example, you might designate the hour from 2-3 p.m. for dealing with e-mail. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted during this time. Sure, you've heard about this technique—but have you really tried it? You’ll be surprised at how much your efficiency will increase. Plus you’ll be spared the anxiety caused by trying to handle 20 things at once.

  • Adopt "fix it, then forget it" as your mistake mantra. Don’t become devastated by your mistakes. Do everything you can to fix a problem with clients or associates in order to make them happy. After that, do not dwell on what went wrong. If you find yourself obsessing over something that went wrong in your life, remember this quote: “Do not blame yourself for past errors. You are no longer the same person who made them and you cannot blame a person who does not exist.”

  • Get an accountability partner to help you stay focused. Ask someone other than your significant other to fill this role. Make sure it's someone you trust and feel comfortable enough with to just be yourself. Meet with this person at least once a week to talk about your goals, progress, setbacks and thoughts on your personal and professional life. The discussions you share with this person will help you to look at things objectively, understand yourself better and be more well rounded.

  • Lighten up. Attach a funny cartoon to routine, boring paperwork at the office. You might also consider installing a "humor board" in your office where people can share cartoons, jokes or funny pictures—it's a reminder to everyone that a good hearty laugh is the best stress releaser of all.

  • Take a nonworking lunch now and then—with others or by yourself. When you feel overwhelmed, go out to lunch with friends or associates. Talk about your hobbies, sports or whatever you enjoy—anything but business matters. This gives you a respite from the pressure cooker of stress. If you don't feel like dealing with people, eat lunch by yourself a couple times a week. This gives you the chance to just enjoy quiet time when you don’t have to talk if you do not feel like engaging in conversation. There can be tremendous power in silence.

  • Take a power nap. If you feel tired and unable to concentrate, a 15- or 20-minute nap will work wonders. First, elevate your feet. This will allow blood to more readily flow to your brain, increasing the oxygen levels you need to feel well rested and alert. Second, set a "low-tech alarm clock": hold a pen or a set of keys in one hand, keeping the arm holding the object slightly raised (but obviously comfortable). When your body reaches a complete state of relaxation, your grip on the object will release, causing it to fall to the floor and startle you awake. These few minutes will give you almost the same benefit as a long, luxurious sleep—amazing, but true.

  • Walk it off . . . exercise!  Even if you do not have time to go to the gym, you can take a walk around the block a few times during lunch or in the evening. Or, work out with a fitness video at home. Exercise makes you feel good about yourself, helps dissipate built-up stress and allows for more refreshing sleep. It takes discipline to work out on a regular basis but the benefits far outweigh the little push it might take to get you going. (Consult your physician to find out what kind of exercise would be best for you.)

  • Use those vacation days.  Really! Give yourself a break. Too many people believe that if they take a break from the rat race of life, they’ll be left behind at work. The opposite is true: If you don't make time to relax away from work, you will become bitter and unproductive when you are there. Ultimately, you’ll become a victim of burnout. The most productive workers take time to relax—guilt-free.

  • Practice saying “NO.” When you are already booked or have all the commitments you can handle, say no to anyone who asks you to take on even more work or social obligations. Spreading yourself too thin can lead to dangerous stress and anxiety levels. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the world is not going to end if you say no. If you really think it could cost you your job or a friendship, it might be time to reevaluate your career or your friends.

Concluding Thoughts
Ultimately, neither your goals nor your career path should ever be set in stone. Circumstances and people change and you may find yourself on a different road than the one you had originally set off upon. Stay flexible. Keep in mind that if something is not working for you, it's okay to change directions.

To avoid bitterness and eventual burnout, understand that whatever you choose to do with your career and your life has to lead to your own well-being. Only you can decide what’s best for you.

With all that happens in today's workplaces, it is easy to let stress get the best of you. Learn how to be resilient to work-related stress with this AMA webinar.