Here’s the truth: I am writing this laying on my back, on a heating pad, in my bed, with the words of my friend Laurie — a therapist who works primarily with women — ringing in my head. “Sick is the new vacation for women,” she said. “We keep going until we break.”
Yikes. She’s right. We ignore the signs. We don’t stop until something stops us. We don’t stop until we burn out or worse.
Burnout is a real thing with symptoms closely aligned to depression: exhaustion, lethargy, malaise and a loss of joy from the things that usually make you happy. Not surprisingly, a recent study from Montreal University concluded that women are more likely to suffer from burnout than men. And a study reported in Frontiers of Psychology last year has confirmed that we can add parenting to the list of things that can lead to clinical burnout.
I’m not a mental health specialist and don’t purport to have the answers to combat burnout. But I do have nine tactics that have worked for me and that might work for you. Yup, some are contradictory and some seem counterintuitive. Not all will work all the time.
1. Take a break
Seems obvious, sure, but when you are in the midst of burnout, walking away and taking a break can be the hardest thing in the world. Force yourself: Experience shows that even a 24-48 hour break can work wonders. I know, I know, you are way too busy to take a day or two away. But this is the reality. If you woke up tomorrow morning with the flu, you would find a way to take four days off. You’d have no choice. 24 hours? Trust me, you can shut down your computer, leave your phone in a bottom drawer and walk away for 24 hours.
2. Get help
Burnout often makes you feel like you are in it alone and have the weight of the world on your shoulders. And the stereotype persists: women often fail to ask for help for fear of looking weak, unskilled or ineffectual. Play the long game: if you are burning out, ask a colleague for help on a project, ask a neighbor to pick your daughter up from field hockey practice and ask your sister-in-law to host Easter this year.
3. Take a hike
Literally. Get outside. Get some exercise. Change the scenery. Go get those endorphins. Nope, you don’t have to run a 5k. A 20-minute walk often works wonders.
4. Work harder
Counterintuitive, I know. But burnout is often characterized by that sense of malaise that makes real productivity impossible. So you find yourself spending lots of hours accomplishing little. Identify the most productive time of day for you, put an imaginary fence around three hours and work as hard as you can, without distraction, for those three hours. Then get up and walk away.
5. Do Something for Someone Else.
A raft of research has left no doubt that doing something for someone else is the very best way to make yourself feel better. Next time you feel burnout descending, find a cause you believe in, or someone who could use a hand, pick up the phone and say “how can I help?” Spend a Sunday afternoon at a food pantry, a Monday evening reading at a local senior center or a Friday morning walking dogs at the local animal rescue.
6. Get Back to Basics.
If you’ve ever built a house, a website, an app or a business, you have likely experienced “scope creep.” It often sounds something like this: “what if we added a feature that enabled our users to also do X?” Or, “we’re tearing out that bathroom anyway, so why not redo the closet while we’re at it?” Take a good look at your to-do list. How much of it is non-essential scope creep? If you are wrestling with burn out, pare that list back to the most essential.
7. Go to Bed.
I’m always shocked when I learn how many women sacrifice sleep for, well, everything. Exhaustion leads to lower productivity, which leads to more time spent “working” which leads to less time resting and recharging. Make getting the rest you need a priority.
8. Say No.
I know, it is a total cliché, but learn to say no to things that will not fuel your spirit, give you joy or get you where you want to go and strive to develop the discipline to say no to things that don’t align with your top priorities, no matter how enticing they sound. Sure, we have family and professional obligations, so often we must do things for others. But at least once a week, there will be a chance to say “no.” Take it.
9. Laugh more.
Whatever makes you laugh, seek it out. Laughter is truly one of the all-time great burnout busters. We all have that friend with whom we laugh until we cry, movies that tickle our funny bone and comedians that manage to shine a spotlight on the absurdity of our lives. Time spent laughing is time spent beating burnout.
Most importantly, if these tactics don’t help or if that sense of malaise and sadness persists for more than a couple of weeks, do not hesitate to seek professional help. The direct number to suicide prevention is 1.800.273.8255.