Quitting isn’t always the answer to burnout

Quitting isn’t always the answer to burnout
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Chances are, you’ve had a conversation with a friend or coworker recently about burnout. Or maybe you’ve played the conversation out in your head, afraid that you’ll sound like a Debbie Downer if you’re really honest about what you’re going through.

Burnout can feel lonely and isolating. A conversation with a friend or therapist can help.

This convo might start out with thoughts like:

“I’ve lost interest in my work and I’m having a hard time hitting my stride.”

“My mind jumps from task to task. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything of value.”

“When I’m at work, I want to be anywhere but at work.”

“I have a hard time caring about the issues the people I work with (or live with) bring to me.”

“I feel exhausted throughout the day despite getting enough sleep.”

“My body feels out of whack. I have headaches and my stomach feels uneasy a lot of the time.”

“The highlight of my day is my after-work glass of wine.”

Burnout is a common experience, and it’s not your fault you feel this way.

Increasing demands on workers throughout the pandemic have only intensified an already overwhelming situation, including:

  • Concerns about physical safety
  • Loss of a sense of community and sense of belonging
  • Increased micromanagement and surveillance
  • Physical isolation for remote workers
  • Inflation 
  • Childcare shortages
  • Increases in income disparities for women and people of color

The roots of burnout can be deep, and therapy can help you understand what you are going through.

As a social worker and therapist, I take the whole system into account and help clients develop a personalized plan to reduce the disturbing symptoms of burnout, explore its roots and decide what sort of action to take.

To help you rise with clarity from what you’re now experiencing as burnout, we’ll get curious about a number of possible roots.

This could sound like:

  • How were (or weren’t) work and finances talked about when you were growing up?
  • How do you define your goals and what it does means for you to achieve them (or not achieve them)?
  • How do dominant social and cultural messages affect your sense of worth?
  • How does your workplace affect your nervous system?
  • What early life experiences or early relationships shaped your approach to work?
  • How are you holding boundaries around your time and energy?

And a bonus set for all of you burned out in the helping professions (doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, etc!) – 

  • How did your helping tendencies get your through the early stages of your life?
  • In what ways is helping others still getting you through your days?
  • In what ways is it harming you?

Burnout can be cured, but the truth is that you have to be willing to pay attention to the less than pleasant parts of your experience.

With any emotional or physiological challenge, the most important step is to pay attention to your experience. As tempting as it may feel to tune out the burnout with your favorite distraction, here’s some truth: You have to get to know the discomfort you’re experiencing in order to notice the conditions in which it improves. This is the heart of mental health therapy, and a therapist can help you learn to do this in a safe and compassionate way.

Another truth: there’s no single 100% effective solution to cure burnout (or any mental health challenge).

A more realistic approach is to develop a back pocket set of 10% solutions that work well for you and to use several of them when you notice the signs of burnout showing up – and then notice what happens after that. These solutions should ideally target your entire system – your internal experience, external environment, and how you relate to others.

Some 10% solutions might include:

  • Set a timer on your phone for computer breaks and get up from the computer to drink water, take a round of slow, deep breaths, call a friend, walk outside
  • Remind yourself of your purpose at the beginning of each day (write it down) and pull it out when you start to feel untethered
  • Plan a weekend trip to visit a local nature destination (anticipation of something good for you can be just as powerful as the experience)
  • Practice setting boundaries by writing out the language you’ll use or saying it to yourself out loud in your car
  • Pack something nourishing for lunch (& leave yourself a little note)
  • Make a list of your personal values and compare it to the values of your workplace

Leaving your job isn’t always the answer to burnout.

It’s important to get to the root of what you expect out of your work in order to prevent the same pattern from repeating in your next job. When you start to feel clearer about what you want out of your work, you can begin to decide whether your current job does a good enough job of meeting those needs or whether you want to take steps toward making a job change.

Note – If your loss of interest, difficulty concentrating and exhaustion aren’t just related to work – if they stick around into your daily life even when circumstances change – let your therapist know. The roots of your present distress can be deeper than your current circumstances, and a trained therapist can help you heal.

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