How to avoid burnout at work

Even before we all went through a pandemic together, burnout – chronic workplace stress that leaves you wiped out and unable to perform – was becoming the big mental health issue of the younger generations. A survey for the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of all adults reported having been so stressed they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, and high levels of stress were more common among young people.

Add to that the strains of the last 18 months, it’s no wonder that some of us feel we’re reached the end of our tether. If you’re feeling like you might be heading for burnout, what can you do? We gathered some ideas from the experts.

Prioritise sleep 

Not getting enough sleep is one of the main risk factors for developing burnout, says time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders. “Giving your body what it needs is the foundation of burnout prevention,” she says. “Improving sleep quality can help individuals with even a clinical burnout problem recover enough to return to work.” Most adults need between seven and nine hours sleep. Letting your workload cut short your sleep is a false economy: you won’t be able to perform as well and your tasks will end up taking much longer.

Make time for yourself

Employers are ultimately responsible for the conditions that cause burnout. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything individuals can do to tackle their stress. “Employees who cannot leave and are not getting support can still help themselves,” says Kira Schabram from the University of Washington, who studies ways to mitigate burnout. One study she published with a colleague suggested that just five minutes of daily meditation could reduce feelings of burnout. Schedule in some regular time for self-care and set reminders to make sure you don’t short-change yourself.

Identify what you can change

Cynicism and disengagement are defining features of burnout. You can fight them by changing your perspective. Draw up a list of the things that you can change about your work which would affect your stress levels. You may be able to reduce aspects of your workload or find ways of working that are less stressful. And even if you can’t change everything you’d like to, you might benefit from the exercise. “What aspects of your situation are truly fixed, and which can you change? Altering your perspective can buffer the negative impact of even the inflexible aspects,” says executive coach Monique Valcour.

Make connections 

“When you are overwhelmed or stressed there can be a natural tendency to disconnect from people and isolate yourself,” says Elizabeth Uviebinené, author of Slay in Your Lane, in the Financial Times. “Speaking to people you trust, and who care about you, can help you gain fresh perspective.” Once you’ve got support to get through the immediate crisis, building connections can help protect you from burnout. Coaches and mentors can help you develop and progress, while volunteering to advise others can help keep you out of a cycle of negativity.