We’re all feeling a little fried at work and home. But there are ways to stay sharp and recharge.
By Catherine Zuckerman
April 30, 2021
Raise your hand if you’re completely burned out. Your inbox is an overflowing bucket of urgent requests. You are consistently asked to do more with less. Your mind is constantly reshuffling priorities, perpetually calculating the number of minutes left in the day and whether you will have enough time to finish all of your work.
You’re not alone. The pandemic has left many people fried from trying to juggle work, parenting, caregiving and other responsibilities without enough support.
Though not a medical diagnosis, burnout — specifically job burnout — is linked to a range of health problems, from irritability to cardiovascular disease. In 2019, burnout was officially recognized as a work-related phenomenon by the World Health Organization.
Christina Maslach, now an emerita psychology professor and a researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote some of the earliest literature on job burnout and developed its definition, which includes feelings of exhaustion, inefficacy and cynicism — defined by a detachment from work and a lost sense of meaning. She also published the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most widely-used assessment tool for measuring burnout.
Burnout, she said, is rampant today, partly because many workers feel they can’t say “no” to their employers without being targeted, demoted or punished in some way.
Some, especially younger, workers are simply quitting. But for those who can’t or don’t want to quit, there are ways to beat burnout.
Kira Schabram is an assistant professor of management in the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, where she studies how to mitigate burnout in employees. Past research has focused on finding ways to help employers reduce burnout among staff, she said, but hers focuses on what people can do for themselves.
“For a long time, the assumption was that when you reach burnout, others need to pull you out of it,” Dr. Schabram said. Both she and Dr. Maslach emphasized that employers are ultimately responsible for conditions that drive burnout, but, Dr. Schabram said, “employees who cannot leave and are not getting support can still help themselves.”
Dr. Schabram’s research suggests that small, deliberate acts of compassion toward yourself and others can help reduce feelings of burnout, whether it is short-term or chronic. If your burnout is primarily caused by exhaustion, try to carve out breaks in your schedule for self-care, like cooking a meal. One study Dr. Schabram published with a colleague earlier this year suggested that some people might reduce feelings of burnout after just five minutes of daily meditation.
One-off self-care may help in the short term, but a more effective strategy for chronic burnout is to incorporate it into your routine a few times a week. It’s easy to shortchange yourself, so pick something you look forward to doing — whether it’s a walk or a dip in a pool — and set reminders for yourself.
Recharge and reach out.
For Chanea Bond, 32, taking self-care breaks has been essential to managing burnout. As an English teacher at Southwest High School in Fort Worth, Texas, Ms. Bond has experienced all dimensions of burnout — exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy — in the last year.
According to Dr. Schabram, burnout rates tend to be higher in people who view their work as a calling, and “not just a paycheck.” Like teachers.
On any given day, Ms. Bond may be simultaneously teaching a handful of students in person in her classroom, and up to 25 online. On top of that, she needs to be emotionally available to talk with her students, who are predominately people of color, about ongoing racial inequality and gun violence. “It’s overwhelming,” she said. “It’s a lot of layers of trauma without very many resources.”
Ms. Bond has found that writing in a journal, and making a point to focus on gratitude, helps recharge her mind and spirit. She has also found catharsis by participating in professional workshops and sharing her difficulties with co-workers, friends and on social media. When the emotional weight of recent miscarriages added to her burnout, she posted about it on Twitter and discovered a sense of comfort as people replied with words of empathy and support.
Still, she struggles day-to-day. “I’ve never wanted to get to Friday — and I’ve never dreaded Sunday — more than I do this year, and it sucks,” she said.
Lighten your load.
Burnout was also a problem for Dr. Sareh Parangi, an endocrine surgeon and professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and the chair of surgery at nearby Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Dr. Parangi’s burnout had slipped in without her noticing, caused in part by the weight of responsibilities she had taken on.
The cynicism it created manifested, she said, as a kind of curtness with patients (a sign of burnout for physicians), which was upsetting because talking to patients had always been a favorite aspect of her job. “I can’t keep going like this,” she remembered thinking.
One Friday night eight years ago she finally hit a wall as she sat down to write a grant after a full day of work. “I was exhausted,” she said. When she called her husband to tell him she would be late, he said he was coming to pick her up and that they were going to go out and have a nice dinner.
“It was astute of him,” she said. “I literally couldn’t move out of my chair. It took every last bit of energy for me to change out of my scrubs.”
Dr. Parangi realized she needed to do more things that recharged her — spending time with her family, gardening and swimming — and spend less time connected to the internet.
“I got into CrossFit,” she said, and “spent at least an hour, five days a week, exercising.”
Dr. Parangi also took stock of the responsibilities she had accumulated, and began offloading the ones that could be handled by someone else. By the end, she had cut out eight regular tasks from her work life that no longer required her to perform.
Ask for help.
No matter what your burnout feels like, it’s important to get help. Workplace cultures vary, but employers are legally bound to offer some form of protection for people who might be suffering from burnout, said Steven Azizi, an employment lawyer based in Los Angeles who specializes in representing workers in claims against their employers.
Whether your burnout has resulted in a medical diagnosis or not, he said, any employer that gives you a W-2 has to provide some form of accommodation. “If an employee is burned out, at the very least they may be entitled to a stress claim through their employer’s insurance.”
Letting others know you’re not OK is also key, Dr. Maslach said. “In some places, the workplace culture is such that if you’re not 150 percent, you’re weak or defective,” she said. “I can’t tell you how demoralizing that is for people.” So make a deliberate effort to share with a colleague that you’re tired, overwhelmed or maxed out. This can help create space for others to vocalize their own struggles, which can help build a more supportive workplace — and a more resilient work force.
Catherine Zuckerman is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in National Geographic and The Washington Post.