Being a burnout seems like a drug-fueled good time in high school, but once you enter the workforce, having burnout is a bottle of piss of a different color. But interestingly, there’s a finer line between the two terms than you’d think.
Burnout was originally coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, who experienced the condition after leading the Free Clinic Movement in Haight-Ashbury in 1967. These were no-cost clinics meant to treat “infections, bad drug trips, venereal diseases, abscesses and general medical problems,” he wrote in 1971. By 1973, there were an estimated 300 clinics with a workforce of upwards of 3,000 people.
They also very much burned him out. He described his own symptoms as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Basically, it’s the feeling of exhaustion combined with a decreased sense of purpose about what you’re doing and increased negativity — that underlying sense of, no matter what you do, it’s not enough and will never get any easier.
It sounds depression-adjacent, but burnout isn’t technically a psychological condition per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is used by clinicians in the U.S. However, the World Health Organization does list burnout under the International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon,” suggesting that Americans are unsurprisingly behind in accepting burnout as a legitimate mental-health problem.
There’s plenty of evidence, too, that it’s only getting worse. One survey of more than 600 HR managers and directors found that 95 percent believed that burnout is sabotaging their workforce. Meanwhile, a review of 4,430 abstracts about burnout only found 14 studies that looked at the efficacy of potential burnout solutions.
What we do know is that there isn’t an ayahuasca trip, lavish vacation or any other catchall cure for burnout. Instead, it requires small, sustainable changes, clinical psychologist Carla Manly explains, that you have to stick with forever. “It takes practice and patience to rewire the brain to embrace these strategies as go-to skills, but the upside is reduced burnout and far less stress,” she says.
It might seem like a lot of work for a slower burn(out), but it’s better than flaming out. Here are some practical, concrete places to start…
Redefine Work-Life Balance
People often mistake the idea of work-life balance as an even split, but trying to achieve that every day can just add to stress. And so, it might be better to think of it more as a big-picture balance, says life and health coach Joel Evan. Sometimes work demands more, sometimes your own personal needs demand more. But if you zoom out and look at your cumulative score, it evens out. That’s the goal, at least.
“We’re always seeking some level of balance,” explains Evan, who has interviewed a number of experts about burnout on his podcast The Hacked Life. “Because when our body is in a state of balance, we typically thrive.” But this idea of balance is more complex and contains more buckets than merely work and life. As such, Evan recommends that every week you take the time to separate your life into more specific categories like health, mental and emotional needs, partnerships and love, family, friends, values, spirituality, finances and learning. “It’s a great way to measure how you’re doing and see what bucket needs more attention so that you can prevent burnout,” he tells me.
Physical Activity Over Physically Exhausting Exercise
Exercise is great for managing stress, but for some people, working out is a struggle and forcing that may add to further burnout. In such instances, redefine exercise as light physical activity that doesn’t necessarily have to last very long.
Along those lines, in the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, co-authors (and sisters) Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski recommend separating our stressors (something we can’t control) from the stress (something we can control). Essentially, stress is what’s happening in our body in response to external circumstances. So by doing jumping jacks for a few minutes, walking around the block or just clenching all of your muscles and relaxing them, you complete the stress cycle more efficiently and decrease the wear and tear on your mind and body.
Unplugging Instead of Vacationing
Taking time off, getting out of town and changing up your routine are all effective ways to curb burnout because they give you the “opportunity to get off autopilot mode,” Manly says (which research backs up).
The problem is, when the only way to do this is via an expensive vacation, it can cause financial stress that dilutes many of the benefits from your time away (financial security and mental health are closely linked). Thus, Manly suggests more affordable ways to change things up and unplug — e.g., a staycation or visiting friends and family overnight. The main thing is to “truly take time off, unplug and leave work at the office where it belongs.”
Find Better Words for Boundaries and Self-Care
Now ubiquitous terms like “self-care” and “boundaries” might be helpful to some, but they’ve become so overused that a lot of us have more or less completely tuned them out. I mean…
But rather than getting caught up in the obnoxiousness of the language, life coach Lindsay Dunlap recommends thinking of self-care as simply making time for things you enjoy, or making time to figure out what these things might be. Likewise, boundaries can be seen as the willingness to have conversations about the expectations people have of you. One way to try doing this is by asking clarifying questions to people you’re more comfortable with. “Instead of starting with your boss, who it may have a big impact on, practice with a more casual relationship,” Dunalp says.
Evaluate Your Support System
We need people in our lives who are going to tell us we’re doing too much — even if it pisses us off when they tell us to slow down. Most of the time, though, we only think of friends, family and romantic partners as a part of this support system, when our colleagues and bosses are as well (for better or worse). “Such support tends to be a bit different,” Rippeon admits, but it’s important to communicate burnout to them, particularly with bosses. “[They can] help problem solve if necessary, offer assistance in other ways or generally be more aware of what’s happening with staff,” she says.
In cases of severe burnout, talk to HR about utilizing the Employee Assistance Program for short-term counseling.
Feel Your Uncomfortable Feelings
Working less is an obvious (and idealistic) cure for burnout, and even if that were an option for everyone, there’d still be one area we’d need to work harder on: feeling our emotions. Because when we’re constantly pushing our emotions aside to be productive, we can “become stuck in them, and our stress and anxiety tend to increase,” warns Manly, who wrote about this avoidance in her recent book Joy From Fear.
As uncomfortable as it might be, allowing yourself to fully experience all the feels makes it possible to avoid complete mental exhaustion. Manly recommends journaling and other similar creative activities as a good place to start. They can help you zero in on what you can control (and what you can’t) in order to fend off future stress.
Remember: You’re Still Going to Die
When in doubt, Evan suggests the saying “memento mori,” Latin for “remember that you have to die.” A less bleak way of looking at the inevitability of death is that because our time on earth is limited, it’s all the more important to get our priorities in order, or what therapists like Rippeon refer to as “values.” It’s admittedly understudied, but living in a way that’s consistent with your values is correlated with overall mental wellness.
It’s equally crucial to recognize the difference between your values and goals. While your goals are part of what burns you out, your values are what cool you down — “what matters most to you, when do you feel your best, what is it that you’re doing, what kinds of things are you saying and how are you treating yourself and others,” Rippeon explains.
By identifying and staying conscious of those priorities, you can start to determine what’s working in your life and what’s not, keeping everything at a nice simmer in the process.