Are you feeling like work is taking up all your headspace? Are you struggling to unwind? It can feel hard to leave work at work. In this article, we'll explore some practical techniques to manage stress and prevent burnout in demanding work environments (from someone who's been there!).
What’s the difference between stress and burnout?
The line between the two is blurry but, generally speaking, stress is more likely short-term. It comes and goes and you can usually work out the thing, person or situation that’s causing you stress. Stress is a normal part of life – we all face stressful situations at times. In small amounts, it helps us get things done by making us more alert and increasing our energy levels.
Work stress can be caused by long hours, a heavy workload, job insecurity, boring work, and tight deadlines. Excessive pressure and demands coupled with a lack of resources to meet these demands. Long-term stress can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, problems with sleep and even muscle pain from how you hold your body. It can impact your relationships too, as you may be more irritable.
When stress becomes chronic and is not managed, it can become burnout. We all have times of stress, and it’s not a bad thing, but when you feel stressed and overwhelmed most of the time with no reprieve, you may have burned out.
You experience total physical, mental and emotional exhaustion when you're burnt out. It’s hard to engage with the activities you used to enjoy and you may feel an increased sense of hopelessness - that you aren't really achieving anything despite the effort you're putting in.
It’s worth mentioning that stress and burnout can look different in different people. You may be increasingly stressed without realising it. You may be experiencing more physical effects such as pain and tension in your neck and shoulders, not sleeping well or waking up feeling tired still, clenching your jaw, headaches, and being more snappy with people.
How to look after yourself
Try not to see self-care as another task you need to do
What are the things you do that make you feel good? Getting outside, moving your body, anything that helps you feel yourself again, relaxed and rejuvenated. Find the activities that work best for you and make them a regular part of your routine.
Set boundaries at work
You don’t have to answer every email the instant you receive it and you don’t have to be the person who says ‘yes’ every time someone asks for a volunteer. Make a conscious effort to wait at least five minutes before responding – do you need to take more on? No one will think less of you; honestly!
Practice saying "I’d love to help out but I’m focusing on this at the moment, thanks for thinking of me though." You could also let them know when you are likely to be more available – "I should have some time next week/month, though." People truly don’t mind when you say ‘no’.
Prioritise your time
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, set a timer for 20 minutes or so to write out what you're working on. Being able to see it written out in front of you can help you work out how to prioritise. Break tasks down as much as possible; feeling like you need to get everything done all at once is overwhelming!
When you finish work, make sure you finish. If you work from home, you could even walk around the block when you finish as your ‘walk home’. Don’t check emails or messages after work. There’s always someone sending emails at 5am – this doesn’t mean that you should or that you should respond outside of your working hours – don’t fall into this!
Talk to work
They don’t want you burnt out and exhausted. If you have people you manage, encourage a supportive work environment, with open communication. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness – it’s the smart way to manage your workload and prevent burnout. It's usually when you look back, that you can see that the workload you were trying to manage was unsustainable.
Remember that everyone’s experience of stress and burnout may vary. This article will have given you some good starting points, but try to find the strategies that will work for you.
Perhaps most importantly, please don’t face it alone! Seek support from colleagues, friends, and family members or consider professional support, such as counselling to help you deal with work-related stress and burnout.
If this has resonated with you, why not check out my profile for more information? As well as ongoing counselling, I offer single-session therapy to help you get unstuck and start moving again. Please get in touch with me for more information.