The Smartest Career Move: Avoid Burnout

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler.
In the late summer of 2014, I decided to leave my day job and finally go full-time as a freelancer. I wasn’t quitting because I wanted to get away from the grind, but because I was looking to make a career shift. Since I was self-employed, I definitely felt the need to take on as many assignments as I could and prove myself (and make enough money to eventually move out of my parents house). However, my days were consumed with all that writing, pitching, and engaging with editors, and I suffered from some of the worst burnout of my career. I was waking up early, skipping meals, staying up late. The work never stopped, but eventually I had to.

I knew I took things too far when I started getting terrible headaches, and I was tired all the time time. It was actually impossible to go on. Burnout is a very real thing, and goes beyond the normal stress levels of work. Actions that seem like good workplace practices — like coming in early, leaving late, and being constantly available — are not only bad for you, but they’re also bad for the company you work for.

According to a recent study from Staples Advantage, more than half of U.S. workers say they feel overworked. Most likely, you can relate. It’s not just exhaustion, but feeling unmotivated, lacking creativity, or having trouble sleeping. And, in our 24/7 always-on-call culture, it can happen to anyone, whether you work in an office or from home. Personally, I struggled to juggle it all, because while everyone talks about work-life balance, rarely do they outline the actual efforts that can help you truly achieve it. While it’s a good idea in theory, it’s hard to square with your daily workload — the job has to get done no matter what. Right?

“Most people think of scaling back at work means negative consequences,” says Laura Westman, a trained life coach. “But the world does not need more burned out, angry people.”

I worked with Westman to come up with actual tips for achieving more balance at work. It turns out, you can reach a happier place where you aren’t a slave to the grind — without negatively impacting your performance or perceived competency. Check out our best tips ahead:

Don’t think of work-life balance as “work vs. life” balance.
Instead, think of how your happiness and good health make you better at your job. Why? Simply because this means you’ll be more reliable, better prepared to take on bigger projects, and less likely to have that undercurrent of resentment from burnout.

Don’t just assume you won’t be able to get what you need.
Talk to your boss, and work together to come up with win-win solutions instead of asking for permission. No need to be covert about this sort of thing. If you have a timely family obligation, speak up and ask to work from home, or offer to put in some overtime to make up for the time you’re away from the office. If you’re sick, talk to your manager about how your load can be lightened so you have time to rest and recover. Communication is key here: They will appreciate you initiating the conversation, as it shows you respect their time and the importance of doing a good job. If you’ve proven your worth as a good employee (coming in on time, turning in quality work, being engaged), your boss will trust you, and will be more likely to accommodate your needs.

In some cases, it’s good to see what your coworkers are doing. If they ask and receive the time off they need when they ask for it — especially if they’re a colleague who’s known for doing good work — there’s no reason you shouldn't as well.

If you’ve proven your worth as a good employee, your boss will be more likely to accommodate your needs.

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Who you are at work doesn’t need to be separate from who you are at home.
There’s this idea that we have to do a mental shift when we switch gears from work to the rest of our life. But work is part of our life, and feeling the need to change who you are between environments is exhausting. Don’t be afraid to apply some of your awesome work skills to getting things done in your personal life. Your attention to detail might make you great at hobbies like cooking or woodworking. You can also apply those slick scheduling skills to coordinating plans with friends. In the same vein, the personality traits that your friends and family love, can be vital assets at work.

Be honest about your habits.

Are you always over-promising and under-delivering? Maybe you’re taking on too much because you think you should. If you’re under-promising and over-delivering, you might be unconsciously following a strategy that prevents communicating your work reality to your boss.
Don’t underestimate the importance of taking care of yourself.
If you’re skipping a meal or staying up late to finish work, that’s not giving your all — that’s a sign of burnout. Pay attention to how your body handles stress, what it’s telling you in terms of needs, and prioritize things that keep you happy and healthy. Take time to exercise; choose healthy snacks over junk food. You might worry that not putting in extra hours to complete a project will set you back, but you’ll do better work if you’re fully rested.

It’s also important to avoid getting into bad behavior patterns like drinking too much after a long, hard day or becoming heavily dependent on caffeine. Those might be indications that you’re pushing yourself beyond your limits and could be leading to a crash.

Take time to exercise; choose healthy snacks over junk food.

Get a “burnout buddy.”
Maybe this is a spouse, trusted coworker, or even just a good friend, but have someone who’s watching out for you and vice versa. They might see the warning signs before you do. Burnout buddies will remind you to stand up and take a walk, make sure you eat lunch at a reasonable hour, or encourage you to tell your boss about extenuating personal circumstances.

Above all, have strong boundaries between work and life.
Being communicative about your needs and limits with your boss before problems happen will make it easier for everyone to come up with workable solutions when personal problems do arise. These can be boundaries you set for yourself, like not checking your work email at certain times (like after 9 p.m.) to make it clear that you’re not constantly available. Other times, it’s more clearly expressing your needs, like letting your boss know well in advance that you won’t be available during your sister’s wedding weekend.

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