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How to improve your work-life balance and avoid burnout

Work can be one of the most important relationships in our lives, but ignoring boundaries can have serious consequences.

5 min read

In societies where hustle culture and financial status are glorified, the connection between a healthy work-life balance and mental health can be downplayed – but often at a great cost. When we give too much of ourselves to work or pursue an unsustainable career trajectory, we increase the risk of burning out. While having attainable goals and personal ambition can lead to personal growth and career advancement, neglecting your own needs, personal relationships, and downtime can come at great cost. Here’s how to improve your relationship with work and avoid pushing yourself into work-related exhaustion. 

What is burnout?

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” At its core, it is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged work-related stress. While many of burnout’s symptoms parallel those of depression, it is different as its root cause is exclusively work-related. 

Understanding the symptoms

Usually, in the early stages of burnout an individual will experience extreme and chronic exhaustion which seems insurmountable. Getting out of bed may seem near impossible, let alone getting all the way into the office. This state of exhaustion is followed by increasing levels of work-related pessimism which can result in total disinterest or a marked lack of motivation to complete any tasks. In the third stage of burnout, an individual may experience uncomfortable changes in physiology including headaches, digestive issues, aches and pains, and insomnia.

Additional common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Grinding teeth
  • A change in appetite
  • Panic attacks
  • Increased illnesses due to a weakened immune system
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Increased reliance on substances such as alcohol, nicotine, or drugs

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What causes burnout?

Burnout is caused by chronic work-related stress which, over time, has developed into a serious and debilitating condition. It is often not the result of a single isolated workplace stressor, though it can be, and is instead a reaction against multiple stressors. These include:  

  • A toxic workplace environment, fraught with dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • Having unrealistic or unclear goals and targets
  • An intense hustle culture environment where long hours and pressure to prioritize work about all else are the norm
  • Conflict with coworkers or managers
  • Feeling overworked and unable to effectively manage the workload 
  • A job that is comprised of dull, monotonous, and repetitive tasks which seem to make little overall impact
  • A top-down culture of judgment and mistrust amongst managers and coworkers
  • Job insecurity
  • Feeling unappreciated and underpaid

How to tackle burnout

The key to tackling burnout is to catch it early and to make some positive life changes to prevent it from taking over your life. However, many often don’t recognize the symptoms until they’re well on their way to a serious burnout episode. If that sounds familiar, treat yourself as compassionately as you can. In a culture where overworking and career status are glorified, it’s all too easy to ignore the warning signs while in pursuit of lofty, often unrealistic, professional goals.

However, whether you’re in the early or later stages of burning out, the solutions remain the same. Here’s what you can do to best support yourself during a burnout episode.

1. Get your basics covered

“Self-care” has become somewhat of a redundant phrase given how frequently it’s used in popular culture, but, at its core, it’s about attending to your basic needs. This means taking care of your nutrition, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and making sure you stay connected socially. Often, attending to each of these things can feel overwhelming, especially during burnout. So, take it slow. Focus on whichever of these areas is the easiest for you and slowly build yourself back into some good habits. This may take some time, but without getting your basics covered, it’s difficult to move forward and make healthier changes in other areas of your life.

2. Identify and communicate your boundaries

In a toxic workplace, it can be challenging to communicate your limits and your needs. However, learning to say no and communicating your capacity is not only a fantastic skill to cultivate, but it can significantly reduce your workload and by extension, your work-related stress. This will come with practice and can be difficult at first, but staying true to yourself can be a rewarding and empowering experience which can also positively affect other areas of your life. 

3. Create some post-work rituals

When the workday ends, it’s essential to try and reduce how much work continues to occupy your mind. By ruminating about work in your free time, your mind and your body stay in a stressed state, unable to fully relax. Creating a habitual ritual that marks the end of the working day can help to signify to your mind and body that the working day is over and you can now switch into relaxation mode. Doing some form of exercise is a particularly effective way of ending the working day as it can force you out of your head, but reading a book, talking to a friend, or playing with a pet can all be equally effective post-work rituals.

4. Find fulfillment beyond work

It can be all too easy to make work the focal point of our lives, often at the cost of nourishing existing or creating new relationships, or developing hobbies and passions adjacent to our career. However, by making more space for loved ones, leisure, and our interests we can swing the work-life balance back in our favor by evening the scales between work and life. By doing so, it’s much easier to cultivate a healthier relationship with work as it’s reduced to just one of many other important parts of our lives.

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