- This guide isn't about doing burnouts, but work burnout, which is an increasingly common thing in modern work life.
- Work is important for young men, but there's a fine line between 'killing it' at work and 'being killed'. Your perspective and health can take a beating.
- If you're often feeling burnt out, you need to take steps to regain perspective, create distance between work and life and if required, or take more serious forms of action at work.
Overworked and underpaid!
Burnout is a broad term that is best summed up as the endpoint as a long period of sustained effort at work, combined with consistently-elevated stress levels.
It is a state of emotional exhaustion and a disconnection from non-work life. People who are burnt out also report feeling ineffective in their jobs, and the desire to sleep for long periods on weekends. You might feel like the best things in life (free time, friends, family) are being sacrificed for money.
Who gets burnt out?
Some industries have more brutal work hours than others, with white-collar jobs (lawyers, advertising and engineering) and hospitality roles (chefs, bartenders) reporting the longest work weeks.
That said, burnout can and will affect everyone, and it's not just long hours that are to blame.
The extra stress of having a bastard of a boss, being bullied on in the workplace and working night shift / double shifts will also increase the chances of feeling burnt out.
It's now officially a thing
The World Health Organisation upgrade from a 'state of exhaustion' to an actual 'syndrome'. That move hasn't impressed everyone, with critics labelling it another example of 'over-diagnosis', making everyday experiences mental health conditions.
At Pilot, we're of the view that stress can be good for your personal development – that nothing good ever came easy. At the same time, too much of a good thing can cause problems, so it's important to be aware of your workload and risk of burnout.
The signs of burnout
- Inability to get to sleep after a day's work (can't switch off)
- Long sleep-ins on weekends / days off
- Taking work problems home or being distracted in non-work conversation
- Being in a bad mood at home
- Use of alcohol in large binges, or increasingly after work
Can stress be a good thing?
Before you go off and feel sorry for yourself about your state of being overworked and underpaid, remember that struggle and sacrifice is often reported by successful people as a precursor for their success.
It is a popular opinion to believe all stress should be avoided, and that stress reduces productivity and threatens your health.
Change your stress mindset
In her book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal challenges this popular opinion, concluding that "people who see stress positively view stressful situations as a challenge, not an overwhelming problem". They are less likely to suffer the negative physical consequences of stress.
She suggests that simply changing your 'mindset' AKA your internal viewpoint on whether stress is a good thing or a bad thing can have massive effects. There are now studies that back this up. Lots of people might consider this a bit iffy, given it is essentially the power of positive thinking. It's worth remembering that bending your mind to your will is closely related to the placebo-effect, which is proven by science.
What are your personal values around work?
There is no such thing as 'normal', as one person's work day is someone else's version of slacking off. It all depends on how much you value your work, how much of a 'future-orientated' person you are and how work factors into your own hierarchy of needs.
For more info about how purpose layers into your work / life balance, read our Guide to Purpose and Motivation.
Some people deal with it better than others
Finally, it's worth realising that some people are better equipped to deal with rigid work structures and long periods of labour. It's nothing to do with you, just the lottery of life, and again, relates to our values and future desires.
Physical effects of working heaps
When you work long hours, you are likely to be spending long periods of time sitting, especially in service industries AKA white-collar jobs.
The main effects of this is on health and fitness levels - i.e. not expending enough energy in the day and putting on weight. Your posture is going to suffer, as well as your eyes. But you knew that.
There are also the long-term health issues specifically associated with chronic stress, like high blood pressure and diabetes. Again, you know about this. Be mindful of letting things get out of hand if you're working hard.
When you are burnt out, you have often lost the perspective of:
- what is important in life
- where work end and home life begins
Sure, work might be important to you. But it is easy to slip slowly into a trap of habit where work becomes the central focus of your day. You may see late-night work emails and problems at work as matters of inflated importance, where really, the sun will rise and the world will keep spinning.
Try a work quarantine
Seperate your work and free-time (and do it properly – no checking emails in bed) for a period of 3 weeks. That means deleting email from your phone, too.
This will help create a 'quarantine' so you can properly see what's causing the burnout. This will also test the assumption that not being ready and willing for your bosses will get you fired.
That's an assumption thing you're going to need to test, sooner or later, because that's an unhealthy workplace, regardless.
The worst case scenario game
One of the best tricks for putting things in perspective is an exercise of mapping out the worst possible thing that can go wrong in a situation.
Here's an example – let's suppose that you're working long hours at the office and on email to keep a valuable (but painful) client happy. You're bending over backwards to accomodate their every demand, sending late emails and working some night until 12am to meet deadline
What's the worst thing that happens if you stop being pushed around?
If the worst possible thing is that you get fired for losing the client, was that really the end of the world? You still have your health, and you've just walked away from 1) a terrible client and 2) a company that is willing to be OK with ridiculous hours AND a shitty client.
And then, realise that your worst possible scenario is unlikely to happen, because risk perception is hampered in stressful situations.
While not great for your physical health (with a chocolate OAK, a sausage roll and a ciggie), the great Australian tradition of 'smoko' is great for your mental health.
It forces you up from your desk or office, gets you moving, and enforces a break where you can be mindful for a few minutes and take your mind off work. If you're in an office, try and eat your lunch away from your desk.
Sure, it might feel like productivity is lost, but think of it like a rest between sets in the gym.
Be present in the moment
The disconnect that people feel when they are burnt out can be reversed by being mindful and practising mindfulness and meditation.
That means going for a walk at lunch, sitting in the park and spending 10 minutes focussing on your breathing, and the sounds and sensations of being there. This is something easily glossed-over with a hectic work schedule!
For more on the seriously meaty subject that is Mindfulness and Meditation, check out our Pilot guide.
If you're working hard, it's best to balance it with some hard fitness or social fun so you don't completely loss sight of the best parts of life.
Shock the system
A big gym session, a swim in the ocean or a long run is a great way to add a stack of 'life credits' to your day, so you don't feel like a FOMO-suffering sad sack at the end of it. The harder the better, to get the endorphins flowing.
If you can knock over some fitness in the morning, before you hit the office, you've gone a long way to ensuring you don't feel like you're wasting your life, and you can work late to your heart's content.
Your social life can take a battering in the midst of a work pitch or a tender on a job. It's important you make time for your friends, on the weekend or during the week. Give them and the family a ring at lunch so you can maintain contact, even when you're snowed under.
Be careful of going off the rails
When you're working hard, training hard and partying hard... that's where things can get out of control. Just ask any rugby league player.
It's feel-good hormones mixed with exhausting work mixed with alcohol and drugs, and often it's a recipe for disaster. Know that you can't do it all and be prepared for the big binge that comes at the end of a really tough work week.
Remember, the buck stops with you
No one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to go to work. Nup.
At the end of the day, your employment in your role and the culture of that company is a decision made by you. It is also a decision that can be reversed.
Work smarter, not harder
An effective day's work has its limit, so be mindful of maximising your day to get everything done so you can get out of there. There is nothing productive about sacrificing your mental health and most precious resource (time) for idle hours in the middle of the day. As the ancient tradies on job sites love to say – 'work smarter, not harder'.
Email notifications and Slack channels are the new standard for a workforce that is always connected by the internet. It is a choice, however, to use these tools outside the office in most jobs.
If you're worried about what your bosses will think, it's up to you to set the tone and test those assumptions. You have a right to be paid for the time you work (of course, this is flexible – and even theoretical – in many industries) and you shouldn't put up with being coaxed into inefficient work.
Turn them off and see what happens.
Compare notes with mates
How much are you working, and is it normal?
There is no one except yourself that can look at your workload, understand the effect it is having on your mental state and take action, except for you.
BUT, something really useful to do is to talk to friends and get a sense of how their work is going and what their balance is like. If they have the same personality type and similar job or pack bracket, you can get a sense if you're getting fleeced or if where you're at is normal.
Quit your job
When you're getting smashed by work and it's not at your choosing – you've got a tough boss, or a ruthless company culture, you have the power to make the big call... which is to hang up the boots.
This might not be the worst strategy – there is often a silver lining to jumping ship, and it's discussed aplenty in our Unemployment guide.