Know the Signs of Burnout and How to Get Relief

By Paul Bergeron August 23, 2021
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Know the Signs of Burnout and How to Get Relief

​LAS VEGAS — The perils of workplace burnout are well-publicized and worrisome, but it's not always easy to recognize when burnout is happening to you.

Case in point: People become burned out when they are trapped in unhealthy mental, physical and emotional states where stress and anxiety rule their lives. They become unproductive employees and supervisors, not to mention unhappy in their home and social lives. But while they are in the midst of this turmoil, it can be hard to identify and stop what's triggering itespecially while dealing with the challenges of the pandemic and the new normal.

Speaker Michael Levitt, CEO of Breakfast Leadership, is one of the people who has experienced burnout. More than a decade ago while serving as an HR executive for a health care startup company, he was working from dawn to midnight, seven days a week, before having a heart attack.

His plight worsened soon after when he lost his job, his car was repossessed and his home went to foreclosure.

On Monday at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2021, taking place in Las Vegas and virtually, Levitt discussed the definition of burnout and its signs, how it occurs, and the importance of setting boundaries. He also delivered key tips to help HR professionals identify whether they themselves are burned out and how to address it.

Recognize Warning Signs

The World Health Organization defines burnout as emotional, physical and mental exhaustion brought on by excessive levels of stress. It leads to poor sleep, frequent mistakes, challenges in decision-making, lost motivation and increased irritability.

"It's important to look to others, co-workers, friends, and let them know if you recognize any of these characteristics," Levitt said during his session.

He noted that burnout does not occur overnight, but rather it builds over time as a result of working long hours; monitoring text, e-mail and phone messages night and day; and not separating home and work livesall habits that have become second nature while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. For employees with young children, remote work can mean working at home while simultaneously serving as a caregiver and teacher, in spaces that were once used for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Levitt added that "the fallout from the pandemic hasn't helped—such as the loss of routine breaks like visiting a coffee shop or lunch spot near the office, watching preferred vendor partners go out of business, and suffering supply-chain issues that prevent use of familiar products."

Quick Fixes

People going through burnout can get some fast relief. One of Levitt's "quick fixes" when it comes to burnout is eating healthier. He encouraged attendees to consider doing an intolerance test to eliminate foods that slow your performance. Identifying such foods helped him reduce gut bacteria, as well as decrease the amount of coffee he drank each day and discover other sources of energy.

A proper night's sleep can also help to reduce burnout. "Invest in the best mattress you can afford," he said. "Getting good sleep really offsets so many unhealthy things."

Levitt said to "do something you love" two or three times per week, and create a bucket list as a plan of action.

He instructed attendees to draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper and list the things they love to do on the left, and then write down the last time you did them on the right. "Hold yourself to it," he said. "You'd be amazed at how many of them cost less than $20 and can be done in less than an hour. There's no excuse not to."

[Want to learn more? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Set Boundaries to Prevent Burnout

In the long run, setting healthy, defined boundaries will help prevent burnout, Levitt said. Know your limits—and tell others about them, too.

One boundary he suggests is limiting the amount of news watched each day.

"No matter your political persuasion, and no matter what news source you choose, you're going to be inundated with negativity," he said. "That's not healthy. Find more neutral sources and look for commonality in others—not disagreement."

Maintain a safe distance from others, for social distancing purposes and to avoid unwanted contact or touching.

Focus on keeping your finances in order. Follow your budget and consider "de-cluttering" your home of unwanted things—but don't then go out and spend frivolously to replace them.

Levitt recommended having conversations with supervisors regarding your personal concerns about burnout. "Let them know you are aware of it, set boundaries, and ask them to help you stick to them," he said.

Additionally, he recommends setting an alarm that signals the end of the workday and turning off cellphone notifications (and then tracking "just how much less you are using your phone"). He advises against using the word "emergency" when it comes to work-related problems. "Priorities and urgent matters are fine, but only hospitals deal in emergencies," he said.

Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer in Herndon, Va.

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