After yet another marathon day, you’re dejected, depleted and even a bit disoriented from a deluge of tasks. While these sensations sadly have become familiar companions, you start to notice a more insidious feeling following you home: despair and helplessness. This stew of stressors is known as burnout, and the toll it takes on your mind, body and spirit is profound. But there are ways to beat burnout.
“Long before COVID, burnout was an epidemic, and now, with so many disruptive changes in the world, it’s even more on the rise,” says Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD, author of The Burnout Fix (Buy on Amazon, $25). “Burnout has three components: exhaustion, or immense physical, emotional and mental fatigue; inefficacy, feeling incompetent or unproductive; and cynicism, feeling negative or annoyed.” Though 77 percent of women have experienced it in their jobs, it isn’t confined to the proverbial cubicle.
Not only do women , forced to juggle work and personal obligations, feel the heat more than men, they also experience its progression differently, adds Paula Davis, author of Beating Burnout at Work (Buy on Amazon, $22). “Men feel cynicism first, but the initial sign for women is emotional exhaustion.” Just knowing how it affects you is key to extinguishing burnout. Read on for ways to beat burnout and turn overwhelm into optimism.
Cue ‘coherent breathing’.
Your alarm clock goes off, and it feels like Groundhog Day: A wave of tiredness hits you like a ton of bricks, draining you physically, emotionally and mentally. Says Jiménez, “The exhaustion of burnout is stubborn— even after a good night’s sleep or time off, you don’t feel replenished.”
To boost your energy any time of day, just take a few deep breaths. “One of the best ways to instantly energize your mind and body is with coherent breathing, which consists of slowing down to five or six full breaths per minute, with equal-length inhalations and exhalations,” says Jiménez. We typically breathe in and out for only 2 to 3 seconds—but elongating our breaths to 6 seconds triggers a relaxation response that doesn’t just increase our energy, it also lifts our sense of can-do, something we desperately need when battling burnout.
“Studies show this specific method of breathing a few minutes per day is linked with increased cognitive performance as well as a significant decrease in stress and fatigue.”
Schedule your ‘20percent time.’
As soon as you finish one to-do, another pops up like a gremlin. Though you’re constantly going, you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. “Burnout doesn’t have an ‘on and off’ switch,” says Jiménez. “It’s sneakier, gradually gnawing at you until you feel ineffective.”
When you’re unproductive yet overburdened, focus on what inspires you. “Be as specific as possible, such as, ‘I feel best when helping a colleague,’” urges Davis. “Workers who spend 20 percent of their time doing something they feel most engaged in have half the rate of burnout as those who don’t.” If you have a 40-hour workweek, say, try devoting one and a half hours a day to something you’re passionate about. This principle applies to any area of your life. If you’re a caregiver at home, for example, consider committing part of your time to hobbies. In other words, one of the ways to beat burnout—specifically inefficacy— is doing just 20 percent more for you.
Turn roadblocks into resources.
Your computer throws a tantrum and you have to reboot—but instead of hitting “off,” you go off, feeling angry and annoyed. Why is this getting to me? You sigh. The biggest sign of burnout induced cynicism is irritability, says Davis. “That means every curveball suddenly feels like a huge crisis.”
Rather than getting lost in pessimism, discover joy by noting your resources, says Davis. “Look around for what’s energy-giving in your life.” That could be anything from trusted friends to supportive co-workers. Most important, allow yourself to do something that women struggling with burnout find challenging: Admit you need a hand. “Research shows one of the best ways leaders build trust is to acknowledge their limits by saying, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help.’” That’s crucial because whether you admit it or not, you are a leader in some area of your life. Also smart: Savor small wins. “Take three minutes at the end of the day to count little to-do’s you accomplished,” she says. Tapping this “progress principle” spurs motivation.
Direct 3 mental movies and compare.
As the months go on, your struggle to find energy and optimism has only left you feeling more negative. When all three core components of burnout—exhaustion, inefficacy, and cynicism—collide, they coalesce into a larger feeling of hopelessness.
Ignite idealism and inspiration by cueing your inner Spielberg. Play three mental movies, urges Davis. The first is the “horror film”: Ask yourself what you’re most afraid of, be it getting fired or not being able to overcome a challenge, and play it out in detail. Then imagine your “Disney movie”—for example, your boss is so happy with you, she buys you an island. The third film is the documentary: Picture a more realistic balance between the horror movie and fairy tale. You likely won’t get fired or move to an island, but you might update your résumé.
Imagining extreme examples first gives your brain parameters, allowing it to see the middle ground more easily and problem-solve. “From soldiers to teachers to healthcare workers, this is one of the most requested skills I teach,” says Davis. After all, you are the director of your life and have the power to cut burnout from the script in favor of your happy ending.
These ways to beat burnout are simple, but so effective. Fight back against despair and start living a more fulfilling life!
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.