Manage Burnout at Work with These Simple Strategies

You're juggling your professional and family life, taking up slack for absent colleagues, and worrying about your job security. It's a lot. But you've got this.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #595

You’ve always been someone your boss, colleagues, and clients have counted on. Your work has always been on point and on time. You’re the one others come to when they need advice, ideas, or encouragement. Today, amidst the pandemic, you may continue to hold yourself to the same expectations. How easy it is to forget that the world, and all the rules, changed on you virtually overnight.

You may never have worked remotely before, and now you need to figure out how to do absolutely everything virtually. You may be homeschooling your kids, working in a closet, worrying about the safety of your family, or feeling concerned about your job security.

The more we all normalize the idea that burnout happens, the more capable we'll be of supporting ourselves and each other.

Whatever your circumstance, you’re likely experiencing stress, the reaction your body and mind has to demands placed upon them. Stress can ultimately be a good thing for us. It signals the need for change, sometimes forcing us to prioritize. But if we don’t keep our stress in check, it can escalate into burnout. Burnout is no laughing matter.

Less than a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) named burnout an "occupational phenomenon" that costs $125 billion per year. And those numbers have only been increasing since the pandemic began.

Feeling on the edge of burnout is nothing to be ashamed of. The more we all normalize the idea that burnout happens, the more capable we'll be of supporting ourselves and each other.

You can’t afford to burn out right now. So let’s talk about some steps you can take to protect yourself, keep burnout at bay, and stay firmly on the path to success at work.

Recognize the signs of workplace burnout

Protecting yourself from burnout begins with knowing how to spot it. Start by checking in with yourself and paying attention to how you’re feeling. Be on the lookout for some of these signs. 

  • Sleep disruption or ongoing fatigue
  • Irritability, anger, restlessness
  • A sense of disengagement from your work or team
  • An uptick in careless mistakes or missed deadlines
  • The inability to focus and be productive

The signs may look different for each person, so know your baseline. Spend a few minutes each day checking in with yourself. The earlier you note a small change from your norm, the easier it will be to nip burnout in the bud.  

And if you note any of these burnout symptoms happening with a friend or colleague, find a gentle way to check in and ask if they’re doing okay. Sometimes it takes a brave friend to help us see what’s happening within ourselves.

Identify changes you can make

Recalling that burnout is the outcome of pervasive stress—and stress is a reminder that something's got to give—consider what changes you can make to your current reality that would bring you back into a healthy zone.

Changes at work

Maybe you’re feeling stressed because some of your colleagues have been laid off or furloughed and a share of their work has fallen on your shoulders. You’re feeling overwhelmed by the volume of what’s expected of you. Focus on changes that can help you establish more balance while also keeping you in the high-performance zone.

Some changes to consider:

  • List all of your projects and action items in order, then reprioritize
  • Deprioritize anything that isn't essential to succeeding right now
  • Ask colleagues in similar roles what strategies or best practices they’re using to be more efficient
  • Schedule a set number of short breaks to take throughout you work day
  • Establish a weekly check-in with your boss to ensure that you’re on track

Changes at home

Or maybe your stress is coming from trying to work in a space where your partner is also working, your kids are at home, your pet is restless, and chaos is everywhere.

You can't just pick up and go somewhere else, but you can make some small changes so your home environment works better for you.

  • Alert your workplace team that you’re in a home with kids and pets, so distractions may be out of your control
  • Create a shared schedule with your partner to ensure all essential tasks—work, child or elder care, personal health and hygiene—are covered and accounted for
  • Find creative ways to occupy younger children during important meetings
  • Make sure older children understand that you expect them not to interrupt when you're working
  • Stop following “superparents” on social media—those feeds are curated to capture only their most super moments

Note that there are different categories and types of changes on these lists. Some—like taking items off your do-do list or creating a shared schedule with your partner—change your actual circumstances. Others—like setting an expectation with your colleagues that dogs will bark and kids will fight—give you permission to experience less stress without changing the circumstance.

Think broadly about all the different ways change might look for you given your unique situation.

Tap all available resources

You know the expression “easier said than done?” Well, by listing the possible changes you could make, you’ve covered the “said” part. That part's easy. So now, how do you get things done?

Not all by yourself. It's time to explore the resources available to you, human and otherwise.

Support from friends, family, and colleagues

One of the great refrains of the not-so-great pandemic has been “we’re all in this together.” And in many ways, literally, we are. So, no one is expecting you to be solely responsible for your success during this moment. Where can you harness your network to support you?

If you have a partner, housemates, or roommates, consider what you can ask of them. Do you need your partner to help get the kids fed, schooled, and off to bed? Do you need your roommate to take the dog for a 30-minute walk so you can have absolute quiet during an important meeting? 

You might also turn to your boss for help and guidance. Do you need her to help you reprioritize or reduce your to-do list? To respect the boundaries you need to set in this moment? To take on some of your client work for a day or two while you get caught up?

Colleagues are another great source of support. Can you ask a colleague for help on a project?

Or maybe you need a friend to remind you of a happier time, a parent to tell you it’s all going to be okay, or a sibling to listen patiently without judging you.

This is not the time to go it alone. But to get the help you need, you have to be willing to ask for it. Ask for help or support wherever you can find it and trust that the other person's boundaries will allow them to say no if they really can't accommodate you. Be clear about what you need from someone and about what their support might look like—don't keep people guessing. And if you can be of service in exchange, offer your time.

Other sources of support

Beyond the human variety, there are other resources you can tap to help relieve stress. 

  • Check to see whether your company offers an employee assistance program that might include online counseling or even a brief leave of absence
  • Seek out tools to help you be more mindful such as a meditation app
  • Turn to relaxing music (or a favorite podcast!) during stressful moments to help you unwind
  •  Don't forget about nature, the original free resource—get outside and clear your head!

For parents, there are also countless free online resources available to help you keep your kids busy. The Mighty Mommy podcast has a fabulous list for you in episode 572.

I hope you'll test drive these strategies. Please remember that a burned out you can’t be of service or value to anyone else. So pay attention to how you’re feeling, focus on the changes you can make, and lean on the people, technology, and natural beauty around you.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.