A survey by the American Psychological Association reveals that approximately seven in 10 Americans experience physical or non-physical symptoms of stress. These include irritability or anger, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and changes in sleeping habits. Prolonged stress can lead to burnout. Burnout is defined as an emotional condition marked by physical and emotional exhaustion, loss of interest, cynicism or frustration that interfere with job performance. Burnout leads to feelings of failure and thoughts of "giving up."
Beyond the usual advice of healthy eating, exercise and adequate sleep, what are some things that you can do to prevent burnout? Here are 10 tips:
1. Know what can trigger burnout. A Scientific American article describes the 12 phases that lead individuals to experience burnout. The first one is a compulsion to prove oneself—an excessive ambition to show colleagues, and themselves, that they excel at what they do in every way. The higher expectations lead to working excessive hours, doing it all themselves, in an obsessive desire to prove that they are irreplaceable. They end up neglecting other life priorities, such as their health. The article points out that "once important things such as friends and hobbies are completely dismissed. Their only standard for evaluation for their self-esteem is their jobs. They become increasingly emotionally blunted." Leisure time becomes dead time. Know the symptoms of burnout so you don't let this happen to you. This is an important area where self-awareness can help you manage your life effectively.
2. Practice the relaxation response on a regular basis. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response. Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School pioneered an effective method to elicit the relaxation response. The important thing to remember is that this needs to be practiced on a regular basis.
Suspend your skepticism about meditation. Meditation is no longer something that is reserved for Tibetan monks. Many businesspeople today practice meditation as a way of restoring their energy. Scientific studies reported in This Emotional Life, a PBS program, that meditation helps us cultivate the capacity to restrain our impulsive emotional reactions. A habit of meditating strengthens our ability to remain cool under fire. If practiced regularly, it quiets the emotional noise in our lives, strengthens our self-control and can drop anxiety by 50 percent. A quick way to practice meditation is to use an online meditation program to guide you along. Give it a try.
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3. Pay attention to what is fragile in your life. Work-life balance is not easily achievable in a highly competitive environment. Nonetheless, think about some small changes you can make to tip the scale. Find the right equilibrium between tension and relaxation. If you need inspiration, consider what Bryan G. Dyson, CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, said to his staff: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them—work, family, health, friends, and spirit—and you are keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls—family, health, friends, and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”
Are there any glass balls in your life that are not being handled with care? A woman who worked for years in palliative care wrote a touching list of the five top regrets people express on their deathbed. One of them is "I wished I didn't work so hard."
4. Take a good look in the mirror. Some causes of burnout could be related to a subconscious need to feel important. This could lead to taking on more than we know we can handle, because we equate being very busy with being successful. Wanting to feel important is common to human beings. We all need to feel special in the eyes of others.
However, for some people the adrenaline rush from being busy—and being seen as busy—can get out of hand. They end up forgetting how to relax. If this describes you, genuinely come to terms with this by facing it head on. Ask yourself if you feel important when you are very busy. Does the need to feel important cause you to have an unhealthy lifestyle, working very long hours, eating on the run and not getting enough sleep? Acknowledging what may be a contributing factor to your hectic lifestyle is the first step to making meaningful changes.
5. Honor and cultivate the things that make you happy. Stress triggers vary from person to person. Triggers can occur when our specific needs are neglected on a regular basis. For some, it might be the need to have some solitary time to recharge and enjoy silent pursuits, such as thinking, envisioning, strategizing or simply escaping. For others, it might be the need to be creative. These needs are a part of life's enjoyment.
As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said: "When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices."
6. Improve your communication pattern. One of the causes of burnout is unproductive work behavior. An example of this is our habitual style of communication; for example, sending long emails instead of picking up the phone or simply getting up and going to someone's office or cubicle, rambling on in meetings instead of paring down your message. When there is conflict with a colleague or employee, maybe you use the Sherman Tank approach—confronting them head-on without considering the time-consuming, stressful consequences.
Think about how you come across. Are you hasty, noisy, distracted? Do you raise your voice often? In addition to your to-do list, create a communication list: For example, write down the points you want to discuss before you phone someone. Briefly consider what succinct message you can leave if you need to leave a voicemail. Every small step you can take to turn down the intensity volume in the way you communicate can bring more calm into your day.
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7. Find out your resentment triggers. Most driven people can work long hours, and manage heavy workloads and multiple demands without feeling the stress. They even thrive on it. There may be some situations, however, that can trigger a feeling of resentment. When these situations prevail for a long time, the resentment grows and leads to negativity and stress.
In "How to Avoid Burnout", Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, addresses this issue: "I have a theory," she says, "that burnout is about resentment. And you beat it by knowing what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful." She gives an example of noticing early signs of burnout in one of her employees. For him, resentment started when he repeatedly had to miss out on his traditional Tuesday night dinners with friends. For another hard-working employee, it was arriving late to her kid's recitals. What is the one thing that causes you to feel resentment? Deal with it honestly and directly to avoid festering resentment.
8. Set up a morning ritual. What happens first thing in the morning has a way of influencing how the rest of the day goes. Establish a morning ritual that pleases you and sets you up for a successful day. For some people, it might be brewing a perfect cup of coffee and spending 20 minutes on Twitter. For others, it might be walking the dog to the park in the early hours, or spending 15 minutes reading non-work related material. Square CEO Jack Dorsey wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to meditate and go for a six-mile jog. Every morning is a fresh try in life.
9. Manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal. Many leaders and entrepreneurs find themselves in a vicious cycle of stress and sacrifice for their organizations. They have very little recovery time built in. In Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion, the authors state that leaders must consciously manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal by stepping out of destructive patterns and renewing themselves physically, mentally and emotionally.
One way to do this is with mindfulness. Mindfulness means being consciously aware of our whole self, other people and the context in which we live and work. It involves taking care of our bodies, harnessing the power of positive emotions such as hope and compassion, and cultivating some spirituality in our lives. As businesspeople, we have been trained to focus on the rational mind and the mechanics of business, and we are advised to leave the soft stuff at the door. But ignoring the body, heart and spirit means bringing only parts of ourselves to work. This creates an emptiness—we can end up being disconnected from ourselves, our customers and even friends and family. Don't let this happen to you.
10. Take a test to determine your risk of burnout. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is the most commonly used tool to self-assess whether you're at risk for burnout. To determine the risk, the MBI measures three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, feelings of competence and achievement, and cynicism or loss of empathy. This is useful information to help you assess your situation so you can make some changes before you, in fact, burn out.
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Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.