How to avoid burnout

Recently, Business Day revealed why the former CEO of ArcelorMittal SA, Paul O’Flaherty, resigned last year. It wasn’t one of the usual go-to resignation reasons: “to pursue other interests” (read: the board back-stabbed him right out of the door and no amount of tie-dyeing in Knysna will ever make him forget that), “personal reasons” (read: her personality was the reason), or the perennial favourite, “to spend more time with his family” (who are not too thrilled about it).

O’Flaherty, according to the newspaper, was “burned out” due to a heavy workload. 

This admission is unusual, but burnout among managers certainly isn’t. According to a number of studies, burnout is on the rise as tough economic conditions and the always-on culture of digital communication contribute to stress and fatigue.

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, says Karen van Zyl, a consultant at The Anger and Stress Management Centre in Pretoria and Sandton. 

“Work-related burnout often includes doubts about your competence and the value of your work and sometimes yourself. People may experience lack of motivation, enthusiasm and enjoyment in life. Depression and anxiety may be present.”

From her experience, Van Zyl says, some people are more prone to burnout – particularly the so-called Type A personality: those who tend to be very goal-driven, and who are workaholics, competitive and anxiety-prone. 

But perfectionist overachievers aren’t the only ones at risk of burnout. Your job may also be slowly grinding you down, particularly if it’s a poor fit with where your real passion lies, and does not appeal to your interests or make use of your skills. 

Van Zyl lists other danger signs at work:

  • Your values and beliefs may not line up with those of your employer and you may not fully understand what is expected of you. 
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics with e.g. office bullies, micromanagers and “winder uppers” may increase your risk for burnout.
  • Feeling “unheard” or “unseen” at work and not being able to influence decisions that affect your job. 

Also, if you are constantly facing emergencies, both at work and at home, at some point something will have to give. Here are some ways to avoid being burnt out:

Try to take back some personal power and control over your situation. “It may require you to make some really tough decisions and choices – like ending a relationship or finding another job,” says Van Zyl. “It will be worth it in the long run. Be assertive and set some boundaries that will honour you. Learn to say no when you need to.” 

Take proper breaks. Sure, you can function on fumes for a while, but if you don’t have deep reserves of mental energy you won’t be able to perform at your best over the long term. Refuel by resting and taking breaks. This means proper holidays of more than two weeks at a time (preferably without cellphone reception), but also taking regular daily breaks away from your desk. A change of scenery will help you gain a fresh perspective on your work.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation will make you more sensitive to stress and impair your cognitive functions. A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology showed that insufficient sleep (usually defined as sleeping less than seven hours for several consecutive nights) and constantly thinking about work during your leisure time are much stronger predictors of clinical burnout than stressful work demands.

Daytime naps, if you can get away with them, will also make a world of difference. New research from the University of California, Berkeley shows that a nap can dramatically boost your brain power. According to the scientists, sleep is needed to clear the brain’s short-term memory storage and make room for new information.

Australian researchers say although an hour of extra sleep during the day will make the most difference, a 10-minute nap between 13:00 and 16:00 packs enough punch to leave you alert and ready to function at a higher level. (Google and other companies now have sleeping pods to accommodate power naps at work.) 

Schedule free time in your calendar, and don’t allow? work to bleed into these blocks of time. Watching reruns of Friends during your free time may seem tempting when you are worn out by work, but experts recommend “restorative experiences” instead. Do something pleasurable that focuses your mind on something else, learn a new skill or take up a challenge, preferably with friends. These experiences will invigorate you much more than vegging.

Limit your device use. Set yourself strict boundaries to not check your email (and social media) after a specific time of the day. 

Get more social support and speak up to ask for help. Van Zyl says strong social bonds will help strengthen your resilience in tough times. 

Focus on finding meaning in your work. A loss of passion for your job is closely linked to burnout. Find new ways of thinking about your work, linking it to larger goals and try to introduce new aspects and responsibilities that will energise and engage you.

Volunteer. Make time in your schedule to help other people. 

Draw up an escape plan. If you are feeling trapped by your situation at work or at home, take some time and write down as many ways as possible that you can change your circumstances. While you may choose not to pursue many of them, it will help change the thinking patterns that lead to negative feelings.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 28 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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