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How to Beat Burnout at Work

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If you want to understand just how bad burnout can get, consider the story of Melissa Sinclair, an employee at Time Out New York.

Melissa rose to internet fame in recent weeks after Time Out New York inadvertently posted an employment listing on the job-search site Indeed that detailed her current unmanageable workload. The post explains, “Currently, we have an agreed budget of $2,200 per issue for a freelance Photo Editor, 10 hours work at $22 p/h, which would normally be completely fine, however the issue is that Melissa physically cannot find good enough candidates to fill these freelance positions, and at the current rate of magazine production, she needs multiples people available to work on multiple cities, simultaneously. Because she can’t find people for these freelance positions, she’s been forced to do all of this work herself and is currently completely swamped and overwhelmed.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people reading the posting can probably relate. Fifty percent of Americans say they are constantly drained by work—a figure that’s nearly tripled since 1972, according to the 2016 General Social Survey, an annual sociological survey conducted each year by the research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. The costs of burnout are huge. Left unchecked, chronic stress contributes to depression, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.

If you’ve personally experienced burnout, you know first-hand how difficult it can be to recover. Sometimes no amount of time off (even if you take it) seems to help. That’s because we tend to over-simplify the problem and its cures. In my work as a coach for women and entrepreneurs, I’ve found that burnout isn’t just about being too busy; it’s about being demoralized for one of several reasons.

The three types of burnout

As a 2014 paper published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal PLOS One explains, there are three different subtypes of burnout—each with its own causes and coping strategies. The study was based on survey responses from 429 employees at the University of Zaragoza in Spain.

First, there’s overload burnout. This is the kind of burnout that most of us are familiar with. With overload burnout, people work harder and ever-more frantically in search of success. Roughly 15% of employees in the survey fell into this category. They were willing to risk their health and personal life in pursuit of their ambition, and tended to cope with their stress by venting to others.

The second kind of burnout involves being under-challenged. People in this category feel underappreciated and bored, and grow frustrated because their jobs lack learning opportunities and room for professional growth. Roughly 9% of employees in the survey felt this way. Because under-challenged people find no passion or enjoyment in their work, they cope by distancing themselves from their job. This indifference leads to cynicism, avoidance of responsibility, and overall disengagement with their work.

The final type of burnout, neglect, is the result of feeling helpless at work. The 21% of employees who fell into this category agreed with statements like, “When things at work don’t turn out as well as they should, I stop trying.” If you’re in this category, you may think of yourself as incompetent or feel like you’re unable to keep up with the demands of your job. Maybe you’ve tried to get ahead at work, faced barriers, and simply given up. Closely related to imposter syndrome, this condition tends to be characterized by passivity and lack of motivation.

Finding a fix

Because people don’t burn out in the exact same way, or for the exact same reasons, it’s important to identify the type of burnout that you or your employees may be facing. This makes it easier to find targeted solutions that can help.

There’s plenty of guidance already out there on how to address overload burnout, including taking breaks during the workday and taking up hobbies to pursue during off-hours. (While it can be tempting to veg out with Netflix after work, experts suggest this doesn’t wind up feeling energizing or restorative.) In addition, talk to your manager or another higher-up in your organization about how to take some work off your plate. It doesn’t benefit you or the company if your responsibilities are overwhelming and unsustainable.

If you’re under-challenged, the first problem you need to solve for is finding things to feel invested in. When you’re demoralized, it can be hard to care about much of anything, and finding your passion in life can seem daunting. Lower the stakes by simply exploring your curiosities. Making time for self-reflection can shine a light on new interests you want to explore.

Next, set a goal for yourself to learn a new skill in the next 30 days to kickstart your motivation. Making strides towards a goal, no matter how small, builds confidence and creates a flywheel of momentum that can lift you out of a funk.

In addition, you might try job-crafting (pdf) to turn the job you have into the one you want. Job-crafting involves redesigning your role and responsibilities so that you can find more meaning in your everyday tasks and make better use of your strengths. If you’re a marketing assistant at a nonprofit who enjoys writing, for example, you might ask if you could start a blog that shares updates about the people who benefit from the organization’s mission. In this way, you’ll feel more invested in your work—while helping your employer, too.

If your problem is neglect, your main task should be finding ways to regain a sense of agency over your role. Try creating a to-don’t list. What can you get off your plate by outsourcing, delegating, or delaying? Look for obligations you need to say “no” to all together. If you find yourself answering to a workaholic boss, learn to set better boundaries.

Most importantly, focus on what you can control. Structure is more important during times of stress, so create a morning routine you can stick to. Outside of office hours, be vigilant about self-care. When you feel helpless about changing tides at work, some semblance of predictability is essential.

The upshot

Recovering from burnout takes time. If you feel hopeless, try taking the perspective of a good mentor. What advice would you give to another burned-out person in your shoes? Whatever you do, don’t ignore the signs of stress. Your well-being is too important.

Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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