Are You At Risk of Burning Out? How to Put Out the Flames Right Now

Burnout is an equal opportunity condition. Any job, from selling insurance to answering customer calls all day, can drain you of your calm, optimism, sense of purpose and good mood. And all too often, if your job isn’t recognized as stressful, the gravity of burnout hits you too late, long after you’re just ashes on the floor.

A recent New York Times article about military drone operators brought this truth home for me. Even though the drone pilots work in safe air-conditioned rooms far from the battlefield, the stress they experience is as real and damaging as pilots in actual planes.

If you have a nagging feeling that you’re burning out at your job (or if you’re all the way to five-alarm fire), give yourself the benefit of the doubt—and start addressing the problem now. Here are four ways to know if you’re burning out, and four strategies to take care of yourself before you’re burning down.

1. You can’t counter the bad stuff with the good.
First, I don’t mean that your days should always be perfectly balanced. I prefer to use the term “balance” as a verb, not a noun, something you continue to do to manage the ups and downs of your life. At meQuilibrium, we refer to these as “lifts” (the things that buffer you) and “drags” (those that make your stress worse). You can’t eliminate the drags, but when you’re burned out, it gets harder to locate and rely on your lifts.

TRY THIS: Fill your day with lifts. Purposefully—as in today, maybe even right now—start doing the things that bolster your spirits and your health. Talk with a friend (instead of canceling to do more work). Go for a long walk at lunch instead of sitting and staring at the screen. Spend a little more quality time with your partner before rushing off to reply to emails after dinner. Plant a row of petunias in a window. Watch dopey cat videos until you laugh at something—anything. Make these lifts part of every single day.

(Learn more about the connection between thinking and stress.)

2. You fight all the time. Or worse, you’ve given up the fight.
Maybe you’re not throwing pottery, but you know your own edge—the snippy, impatient tone of emails, simple miscommunications shooting you into the red zone. Fighting not only will derail your day, but will also create an impassable rift when left unaddressed. You don’t want to get to the point where, through constant fighting, you have completely withdrawn from your various relationships. Such isolation is a sure sign of burnout.

TRY THIS: Connect. Even when it’s hard.
Instead of shutting down, use that fighting energy to get out of the pit of burnout. Stop making jabs and furthering the friction; try to fight productively. Don’t push back defensively, but invite and encourage communication about the issues at hand. A heated discussion when you make your point but also stay open to hearing where you’ve fallen short, as well, can help you stay engaged in your relationships and circumstances. This kind of fight clears the air and generates an electricity that shakes things up (in a good way). Connection doesn’t have to be all rainbows and roses. Mutually agreed upon thunder and lightning can be good for you too.

3. You feel like the color gray.
You hit the snooze button six times. Your days seem flat and airless. You’re just bone tired and can’t remember being excited by anything. The very thing you’re passionate about—whether it’s your work, your kids, your hobby—ceases to stir you. This is the hallmark of burnout behavior, and you must counter it before your life actually becomes as uninspired as you feel.

TRY THIS: Don’t just sleep: rest.
Sleep is vital, but it’s not enough to save you when you are burned out. You need some time to restore your mind and heart, and you do that by reconnecting to what matters most, by giving yourself quiet, away from the chaos and distractions. If you’re not able to function normally (get up, go about a regular day), consult your doctor. Recognize that you are capable of revitalizing and returning to your normal, energetic self. But you do it by taking your foot off the gas, not pushing harder.

(Read: How to put your brain on vacation.)

A meQuilibrium user recently shared her run-in with burnout. “I have experienced this firsthand,” she wrote to us. “I was diagnosed recently with Stage 3 Adrenal Exhaustion. While recovering from and reversing the process will take several months, I am reflective of how to move forward with more balance, improved perspective, and better prioritization.”

She found a way out of her burnout. And you can, too.