How Work-Life Balance Helps Avoid Burnout

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When you’re in the heart of the hustle, it can be hard to heed – or even recognize – signs that you’re at risk of burnout. But you should.

Burnout, explains author and psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, is a state of chronic stress that can lead to health issues and emotional exhaustion; feelings of ineffectiveness; and a sense of detachment.

The key here is that risk factor is chronic stress -- it’s normal to experience acute instances of stress, like having a bad day at work, or getting stuck in a traffic jam. But when that stress feels relentless and ongoing, it can have a lasting, negative affect on your wellness and mental health.

If you have difficulty separating yourself from your work, you may be especially vulnerable to burnout. The Mayo Clinic identifies these risk factors and warning signs:

  • A high workload
  • An inability to leave work at work
  • The feeling that you have little control over your work
  • A profession in which you identify as a "helper" (such as nurses or support staff)

Worried about burnout? Watch yourself for signs of burnout such as fatigue, irritability, apathy, tooth-grinding, or insomnia. Better yet, put on the brakes before it’s too late.

Here are some ways you can avoid burnout, and achieve work-life balance, even if you’re busy.

1. Set a timer to remind yourself to take breaks, and respect it. If you’re not already savvy to the Pomodoro Technique (based on the old-fashioned tomato-shaped cooking timers), this is a great place to start. Grab a timer or get an app to remind you to take 5-minute breaks every 25 minutes, and take a longer, 15-20 minute break after about 4 of these cycles.

2. Build a schedule that works for you. Everyone’s body chemistry, diurnal rhythms, and work patterns are different. Figure out what works for you. Get a planner and map out your workflow. Take care to identify the times you feel most clear-headed, productive, and energetic. If you have control over your schedule, try to keep those times free of meetings and other distractions so you can get your best work done when you’re at your peak.

Pair this with setting firm work limits for yourself, like “after I complete X tasks or meet Y deadlines, I’m clocking out.” Remember, the aim is to work smarter (yes, not harder) so you can accomplish your goals and use that newly freed time to take care of yourself in your personal life, not to cram in more hours of work.

3. Schedule out social media in advance. Distraction fragments our attention and our workflow, affecting our memory, effectiveness at work, and concentration – and every time you drop out of your daily tasks to update social media, you’re disrupting your mental processes further.

Sit down once each week and plan your social content for the days ahead, then take advantage of a scheduling tool like Hootsuite, Zoho, or Loomly to pre-schedule your posts. Many apps offer insights into trending keywords or top times to post, so you can optimize even further while freeing yourself up to be more present. As Amy Mitchell of Four Bears Sticker Club notes, "Planning social media in advance so it doesn’t always need doing = peace of mind.”

4. Automate the small stuff. Are you spending precious energy on repetitive tasks every month? Reclaim your time with set-it-and-forget-it subscription services. Whether it’s setting up a recurring snack order for your office, making sure you've got coffee at home, or even restocking feminine products, subscriptions free you up so you can spend your time more efficiently and get back to the things that matter.

5. Ask for help. Especially when we’re high-achieving or feel like there are many eyes on us, it can be scary to acknowledge we’re struggling. But asking for help can do more than grant you a little extra breathing room on a deadline: It also allows you to build others up, gain new insights, and harness what bestselling writer and thought leader Brené Brown calls the power of vulnerability. So cut yourself a break – it’s for the best for your wellbeing and your career.

6. Acknowledge (and celebrate!) accomplishments. “Once you achieve a certain level of success, I think most of us who are very ambitious move the bar higher,” said bestselling author Roxane Gay on the LGBTQ&A podcast, “and don’t even enjoy it. Oftentimes, you don’t even take stock of what you’ve done.”

Avoid burnout by taking a moment to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments, rather than taking them for granted. Treat yourself to a night out, nosh on a sweet treat, or even take a luxurious bubble bath at the end of the day to reinforce for yourself the idea, I have worked hard to achieve this goal, and now I need to celebrate, practice self-care, and recuperate.

7. Become a self-care guru. You take your work seriously. Make sure you’re taking your mental, emotional, and physical needs seriously, too. Make sports or fitness part of your routine. Prioritize getting a good night's sleep. Laugh more. Learn more about self-care and find tips here.

Putting these steps into practice

Whatever your lifestyle, professional track, or schedule constraints, striking a work-life balance isn’t just integral for your mental wellness, physical health, and emotional sustainability. It also helps you be present for your loved ones and others around you, and build the bonds that will sustain you as you continue to achieve. So if you're experiencing symptoms of burnout, pump the brakes -- your professional and personal life will thank you.