I Lived Through Burnout. Here’s What I’ve Learned About Managing Stress So You Don’t Have to Reach That Point During These Uncertain Times.

Seven essential strategies for burnout prevention and reducing work-related stress.

Illustration by Julia Yoon for Thrive Global
Illustration by Julia Yoon for Thrive Global

We’ve all heard the modern-day health advice to “avoid stress.” But that’s just not realistic, especially right now, as COVID-19 disrupts nearly every aspect of our work, family, and social lives. Under normal circumstances, some stress can be a helpful part of life — something we can use to grow, learn, and stretch beyond our comfort zones. But as psychologists have noted, the inability to control a situation, especially when we’ve had control or think we should have control, can greatly add to our stress levels. We all react to stress differently and it’s important not to ignore it. Because so many of us experience chronic stress, we risk a greater potential for burnout, an occupational phenomenon defined by the World Health Organization as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The tricky thing about chronic stress and burnout, in my experience, is that it can sneak up on you. In our overly connected world, with tech embedded into every aspect of our lives, we’re so used to always being “on” that it’s easy to miss the signs that we need to switch off. Our attitude toward work is that we constantly need to upscale and rescale, faster than we ever have before. And with so many of us suddenly working from home for the foreseeable future, it can be difficult to know how to regularly declare an end to the workday.  

So how can you develop new ways of living and working to prevent burnout? It all starts with changing your mindset, and even helping others see when they’re on a slippery slope. For instance, when you ask someone how they’re doing and they say, “I’m so slammed,” instead of responding with, “I know what you mean, that’s just the way things are,” take a step back and remind them — and yourself — that a constant state of busy doesn’t have to be our default.

There was a time when I reached burnout — and I couldn’t even get out of bed. To help others avoid a state of chronic stress that ultimately leads to burnout, I’m sharing some of the strategies that have helped me. I believe these can be particularly relevant right now.

Take baby steps — or Microsteps

For me, the first step back from burnout was prioritizing rest. Setting an alarm for bed is a simple action, but a really powerful one. Getting adequate sleep meant I had a clearer mind. So, I had a reckoning with myself and I asked, “What’s OK with me, and what’s not OK? What are my boundaries and non-negotiables? How do I create a life that allows me to have a meaningful career?” I figured out those things, then I stood firm and had to become comfortable with the fact that some people might not like my boundaries — and that had to be OK.

Recognize what’s in your control

One of the most important first steps is to focus on those things you CAN control. Gather just the key facts to remain safe and avoid ruminating on information that is out of your control. Even if it’s simply limiting how much time you spend watching the news — for me personally, I try to balance the need-to-know information with uplifting content, too.

Set tech boundaries

Tech has enabled a lot of workplace flexibility — and that’s important. In a survey of 1,000 U.S. professionals conducted by Deloitte, 94% of respondents said they would benefit from work flexibility, with 43% saying the main perk is less stress and better mental health. As remote work becomes more prominent, it’s important to set boundaries for ourselves — especially around how we use tech so that it’s beneficial and doesn’t detract from our well-being.

Be a role model

When it comes to preventing stress and burnout, role modeling and communication is huge, especially among leaders. If a manager is consistently working late at night and sending messages to their team, employees will feel an expectation to do the same (or at least feel a pressure to respond). I urge everyone to rethink the strategy of sending emails late at night. And if working at 10 p.m. happens to be your personal work style, explain to your team that you take time off in the afternoons to do whatever it is that recharges you, and you get back online at night. And if you’re not taking those breaks, re-evaluate why you are sending emails so late. Are any of us really at our best at midnight? Think of this way: I know I wouldn’t want a surgeon to operate on me at that hour.

Know your stress signs

It’s important to recognize what it looks like when you’re stressed out. Are you more reactive, less logical, or generally grumpy? For me, those are the signs; the things that don’t normally affect me get me worked up. And when I spot these signals, it’s a cue that even if I don’t immediately know what’s stressing me out, something is — and I have to figure it out.

Yesterday, for example, I was not my best self. A look at my calendar should have been my first indicator: I had 12 back-to-back calls. No breaks. I’m usually good at looking at my calendar ahead of time, and moving things around to avoid such a packed day. But yesterday I didn’t — and if you were the last person I spoke with after my full day, I owe you an apology. It’s important to remember that everyone gets stressed out and loses their cool sometimes. Reactions like that are human and they’re normal. That’s what stress does to us. Instead of judging yourself, think of your behavior as data: Your brain and body are telling you that something is going on and you need to take a step back.

Be flexible with the idea of flexibility

Workplace flexibility has tremendous potential to reduce stress for workers. In our Deloitte survey, one in three people said flexible work options would increase their job satisfaction and morale, and almost 30% said it would boost their overall productivity and efficiency at work. Simply put, there is a huge advantage to both workers and companies to find flexible solutions that work. As current events have made all too clear, it’s true that some jobs simply don’t lend themselves to remote work, but flexibility can mean different things for different people. One person might shift their working hours from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., another might work remotely part or all of the time, and others might benefit from a condensed work week — where they work four days instead of five.

It’s important to remember that we hire people to do a job — and whether they are doing it flexibly or not shouldn’t be the question. Instead, leaders should ask, “Are they performing? Are they doing the job we want them to do?” That should be the focus, rather than when and where they’re doing it.

Be OK with making difficult choices

As much as we may joke about stretching the day into 36 instead of 24 hours, that’s not possible. And accepting the limits of time means we literally cannot do everything and be everything to everyone. Once you accept that, the next step is to figure out what you reasonably can do. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, be courageous and say no to your leader: “I don’t have the bandwidth; this is what I have on my plate, can you help me prioritize?”

In the workplace and in your personal life, be clear on your goals, who you are, and what kind of leader or colleague or friend or spouse you want to be. Then, when you’re in those moments of high stress and don’t feel like you have enough time to go for a walk or take a nap or get something to eat, use that as a sign to pause. Go do something for yourself immediately, because if you stay in that moment, at that intense level of stress, you’ll hit a plateau where you no longer perform well and you’re no longer the person you want to be. I do not compromise my sleep or exercise. I also block time on my calendar at least a few times a week for focused work, creativity, reflection — whatever I need that day. My team knows that I protect this time, even at the risk of turning down other appointments or meetings.

The underpinning of all of this is communication. Tell people what’s going on, that you need to reschedule — whether it’s a conference call or video call with friends — and ask for permission or even forgiveness when necessary. Most people will respect your boundaries and priorities because it’ll give them permission to show up for themselves in the same way, too.

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