Five Strategies to Help If You’re Experiencing Burnout

Our latest YMCA WorkWell Workplace Well-Being Report found that 72% of respondents have experienced burnout “sometimes” to “very often” in the last months. By its definition, burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, reduced ability to be effective in your role, and cynicism about work.

We want to be clear: Burnout is an organizational problem that arises from chronic work stress that is not successfully managed. If this is how you are feeling, please know that it is not your fault and you are not alone! 

You are not responsible for “fixing” your own burnout. But given the complexity of the causes of burnout (things like workload, perceived lack of control over work, lack of recognition and rewards, poor working relationships, lack of fairness, and values mismatch, according to burnout expert, Jennifer Moss), it is going to take our organizations a while to figure out how to reimagine work in order to address and prevent burnout at its sources. So, what are those who are already experiencing burnout to do in the meantime? 

Strategy #1: Focus on what you can control 

How much time do you spend worrying about things that are entirely outside of your control? My guess is that during the pandemic this has only gone up! It’s completely natural, but when we get into that worry vortex over the things we can’t really do anything about, it only harms us. 

Instead, turn your focus towards what you can control, or at least influence. I’ll give you an example: With the most recent round of school closures, I was quite concerned about sending my son back to school with COVID-19 case counts so high. But, of course, I have zero control over COVID case counts! The decisions I did have control over, however, were whether I would send my child to school in-person or keep him home to learn online for a longer period, and when he would receive his second COVID vaccination. So, that’s where I put my energy. I focused on those concrete steps I could take, and turned my thoughts away from the larger worries over which I had no control. 

What are you spending your time stressing about? Is it under your control? If so, what concrete steps can you take to make the situation better? If not, how can you shift your focus to what you can control? Make a plan and take action.   

This may sound like a trite non-solution to a big problem; it’s not so easy to just stop worrying about things beyond your control. However, the small things you have control over still matter. You might not be able to control the big things, but finding the little wins is still valuable. 

Strategy #2: Build a healthy brain 

Workload is the #1 cause of burnout, but team dynamics expert Liane Davey also calls out the detrimental effects of “thoughtload”, the amount of time and energy we expend in thinking about our workloads. Davey describes thoughtload as “the narrator in your head who’s worrying incessantly about the things you’re not doing – not to mention the things everybody else is or isn’t doing.” 

I believe that we need to start training our brains to be healthy in a similar way that we train our bodies. And this is where meditation comes in. Before I go any further, though, I want to clearly state that organizations that are trying to address burnout solely through wellness offerings like meditation apps are missing the big picture; far more needs to be done. However, at the individual level, meditation can still play an important role. 

There are many different types of meditation: breath focus, breath control, visualization, loving-kindness, concentration, mindfulness, and the list goes on. Meditation helps you shift out of your fight-or-flight response into your parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), where your heartbeat and breathing can slow, blood is sent to your vital organs and cognitive function increases. The field of contemplative neuroscience has shown that, over time, sustained mind training like meditation can positively change our brains structurally and functionally, and it can reduce symptoms of stress, pain, anxiety and depression. 

I began practicing meditation in 2021 in the hopes of learning how to calm my mind and improve sleep. The biggest benefits that I have found have been a greater acceptance of my thoughts and emotions and a greater ability to just let them go. This means that I’m better able to recognize I’m “spinning” or worrying about things that are out of my control, I have the tools to calm my mind and my body, and I move through emotions rather than hanging on to the negative ones. It has helped me a great deal in the midst of pandemic stress! 

Strategy #3: Prioritize and set healthy boundaries 

Speaking of thoughtload, there’s another reality we often face: There is always too much to do. As organizations, we need to get better at ruthlessly prioritizing. But it’s something that we need to improve personally, too. What is truly most important in my often-overwhelming to-do pile? How can I make sure those things get done? A couple of pieces of wisdom I’ve heard over the past few months are: 

  • The Rule of Six: Is this going to matter in six minutes? Six days? Six months? Six years? Focus on those things that are going to matter in the long run, and let the small stuff go. 
  • “No” is a complete sentence. We don’t have to provide reasons, and we don’t need to justify ourselves.  

Now, I recognize that we can’t always say no and that it is a privilege not everyone has in every situation. However, sometimes I think that we don’t say no when we really want to or when we know we should because we don’t want to cause conflict, let someone down, or for very many other reasons. Reflect and see whether you need to get better at saying no. I know that I do! 

That brings me to my next important point: Communication is key to setting healthy boundaries. It helps to have relationships where you can be authentic and honest. Can you talk to your boss about your workload? Can you work together to establish priorities? The same is true for your personal life. Talk with your family about what is most important, share the work, and support each other in maintaining time and space for self-care. 

Strategy #4: Ask for help 

Sometimes we get caught up in this idea that we have to be able to manage it all. We should be able to keep all the balls in the air, right? Sometimes we even believe that we have to do that all by ourselves! However, that is a recipe for burnout. Where can you get some help? I know it can be easier said than done, but think creatively about what that help could look like: Could you order groceries online instead of spending that 45 minutes in the store? Could a co-worker take the lead on a new project rather than you? Would it be helpful to talk to a professional to support your well-being right now? Think about your life holistically and identify where some extra support would really make a difference – and then reach out and ask for help. 

Strategy #5: Moving on? 

We all have periods of extreme busy-ness at work that can lead us to feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or even burnt out. But if this is just the normal day-to-day culture of your organization - and you’ve tried communicating, setting healthy boundaries, asking for help and nothing has changed - sometimes we need to ask the hard questions about whether this is the right place for us. Prioritize your own well-being and explore your options. Life is too short to spend so much of it working in a place that makes you unwell!  

I’ll say it again: Burnout is an organizational problem. And at YMCA WorkWell, we’re here to help. If you’re a leader who would like support in addressing burnout in your team or organization, contact us.   

Posted by

Kate Toth

Dr. Kate Toth, CHRL is YMCA WorkWell’s Director of Learning and Development. She loves to blog almost as much as she loves to develop and deliver training to help organizations enhance their culture and foster employee well-being. Her passion is to inspire others to think deeply and learn continuously. Kate has a PhD in Health Psychology and a MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. With a weakness for red wine and chocolate, Kate’s active lifestyle is a non-negotiable in her quest for balance.

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