It’s 10 am on a typical work day. You‘re juggling multiple tasks with a heavy workload and deadline pressures. More than that, you’re one hour in and already exhausted. Yawning through meetings, you prop yourself up with a steady drip of coffee. As the afternoon approaches, your energy dips further, taking your motivation and productivity down with it. Sound familiar? This is more than tired—it’s burnout.
Sure, who doesn’t feel overwhelmed or stretched thin sometimes? But when you’re experiencing exhaustion, chronic stress, and a lack of interest over an extended period of time, you may be experiencing burnout. Burnout occurs when the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with them. Growing evidence suggests that burnout is more than a state of mind: It’s a condition affecting both your brain and your body.
Left unchecked, burnout can wreak havoc on your health, happiness, job performance, and relationships. The best way to both treat and prevent it is to protect your energy and build resilience in the three key areas of well-being: physical, mental, and emotional. Here’s how:
The Burn: Your foundation is shaky. Exercising regularly, eating well, and restorative sleep are foundational to stress management and good health. In fact, this basic trio of self-care “is your first line of defense against burnout,” according to meQuilibrium Chief Medical Officer Dr. Adam Perlman. If you don’t lay this foundation, anything you try to build atop it will be unstable. Do small stressors, like being five minutes late to a meeting, trigger a major emotional reaction?
The Out: Make a self-care plan that makes exercise, sleep, and healthy meals part of your regular routine: Schedule your workouts, grocery shopping, and bedtime like you would any other obligation. The goal is to have these habits become second nature, so you aren’t tempted to fall back on unhealthy coping mechanisms when stress hits.
The Burn: You’re running on empty—and autopilot. You know that feeling of brain fog, when every decision feels like a burden and you can barely concentrate on the task at hand? That’s mental exhaustion, a telltale sign of burnout.
The Out: A crucial step in building a mental burnout barrier is informed mindfulness, which is a practice of being tuned into the present moment and then using that awareness to make knowledgeable choices. Dr. Perlman describes it as a way to put your knowledge and values into action. For example, it’s much easier to decide how to spend your time if you’re in touch with your values and the goals that they drive. If your calendar is bursting at the seams because you find yourself saying yes to every request that comes your way, you won’t have enough time to take care of yourself.
Once you’ve developed the awareness that you need to more mindfully protect your time, informed mindfulness allows you to step back and evaluate your schedule: which commitments can you hand over to others, which can you put off, and which are truly important for you to keep? (Here at meQ, we call this Delegate, Delete, Do.) Taking a moment to tune in, reflect on your values, and then act can help you live proactively instead of reactively and prioritize your time and your life in a way that’s most meaningful to you.
The Burn: You’re feeling disconnected at work. You’re distracted and drained of creativity, watching the clock instead of engaging with coworkers or the task at hand. You just need to get through the day.
The Out: Feeling uninspired doesn’t necessarily indicate that what you’re doing has lost meaning—it means you would benefit from mindfully reconnecting with what you do. There are three levels of connection to work: the first is strictly about the pay and benefits, the second goes a step beyond that to enjoying the work you do and connecting with coworkers, and the highest level is a sense of purpose.
Studies on motivation show that meaning is what moves us, so if work feels monotonous, challenge yourself to dig deeper and find the purpose of the task you’re working on. Start by writing down three ways that you contribute to your company’s mission. Remind yourself of the reason you started working at your organization in the first place. Even if you’re at that first level of connection, think of specific ways your income makes an impact: meeting your family’s basic needs, supporting your children’s education, funding a dream vacation, and so on. No matter what your work is, reinstating how it aligns with your values can be that wellspring of resilience that you can go to in tough times and that will protect you from burnout.
You don’t have to wait until your stress comes around to collect its dues. By regularly building a burnout barrier that’s as strong and resilient as you are, you can redirect that valuable energy towards being the best version of yourself.
Elior Moskowitz is the Content Coordinator at meQuilibrium. She is a frequent Cup of Calm contributor and writes about leadership, lifestyle, and well-being. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and English from the University at Albany.