Kicking Anxiety & Exhaustion to the Curb: How to Avoid, Overcome & Recover from Burnout

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“It’s a marathon, not a sprint!” Although you may have heard this phrase or something similar from your manager or mentor, the real and perceived demands of our fast-paced lives often leave us with a different impression of how we are expected to balance and use our time. This is evidenced by the fact that America is known as one of the most over-worked nations in the world.

Notoriously, the U.S. is the only country in the Americas without national paid parental leave, a maximum workweek length, federally mandated paid sick leave, or legally mandated annual leave. When paid leave is given, it often goes unused. In 2018 alone, 55% of Americans did not use all of their paid vacation time, leaving 768 million days of paid time off unused, up 9% from 2017.

Unfortunately, this behavior takes a physical and mental toll on American workers. Our work-around-the-clock mentality and 24/7 work habits lead to emotional, physical and mental exhaustion; prolonged periods of stress; feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, inadequacy, cynicism and depression; and declining mental and physical health.

The good news is that “burnout” is not a medical diagnosis or life-long sentence. Rather, it is a condition over which you can take control. To do so, consider the following facts and correlating strategies you can implement in your life today to immediately effect positive change.

Recognize That Work Can Be An Addiction

Work, just like drugs, alcohol and other vices, can be an addiction. In fact, “workaholic,” “a person who works compulsively,” originates from “alcoholic.” Similar to other addicts, a workaholic engages in their vice, work, at the cost of their physical and mental health, sleep, time with family and friends, and enjoyment of other aspects of life, regardless of whether they like their job.

Despite the downside of spending too many hours focused on your job and other tasks, how many of us are conditioned to do so by societal pressures with which we are conditioned from a young age? Personally, both of my hands are raised in response to this question. In fact, it feels like an oxymoron that this article is being drafted in the middle of the night when everyone else in my household is sleeping. Such is the plight of many working parents, me included. The good news, though, is that by learning about workaholism, it can be combatted by prioritizing self-care and limiting the number of hours worked.

Do Not Treat “Workaholic” As A Coveted Title

I first learned that work can be an addiction about five years ago during a conversation with a girlfriend who had decided to sell her business. I was stunned – at the time, the girlfriend’s company was in high-growth mode, much like those in the telecom industry, servicing an A-list of clients and winning awards and accolades at every turn. Although the timing of the decision seemed surprising, my girlfriend explained that the time required by the company’s growing success exceeded her desired work-life balance. Selling would realign her time, allowing her to pursue alternative endeavors that were professionally fulfilling while being less time-consuming.

Post-sale, my girlfriend shared that it took more than six weeks to watch a 30-minute TV show without feeling guilty about relaxing instead of working. Hearing that, it dawned on me for the first time that *I* was a workaholic. Like my friend, at that time, watching a 30-minute program certainly would have triggered guilt and anxiety. Looking back, there is not a sign in Forbes’ 7 Signs You May Be a Workaholic that I did not knock out of the park. It is sad to me reflecting on the number of times my husband came home from yet another social event he attended without me only for me to quiz him, “Well, did you tell them I had to work?”

Ultimately, the addiction took its toll on my physical and mental health. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease with a TSH level so high it had not previously been seen by the many doctors with whom I worked. I was also frequently nauseous, crippled by periodic migraines, occasionally unable to talk due to excruciating TMJ, episodically sidelined by various other health issues, worried about spiking blood pressure, and generally depressed, anxious and unhappy, a significant deviation from my more balanced “me.”    

The good news is that knowing the perils of working too much gave me the courage necessary to improve my quality of life. More than two years ago, I traded in serving as an Equity Shareholder and Office Managing Partner at my then-law firm for an Of Counsel attorney role that lets me serve my legal clients well while working fewer hours and pursuing passions like Spread Your Sunshine. Like my girlfriend, the decision to resign from roles that others considered “prestigious” was easy. It had become obvious to me that the cost of my “coveted” job far outweighed its reward.

These days, I frequently reflect on how blessed I am to now be a recovering workaholic. Firstly, the hard work invested at the beginning of my career paid off, as it serves as the foundation for my present opportunities. This said, I am incredibly grateful that in my 30’s, while there are still hopefully many years ahead, my career trajectory was recalibrated to better balance my time both inside, and outside, the office. No professional achievement can replace the gift of now having additional time to spend with my loved ones and on projects through which I can make my greatest impact on the world.

You Are Worthy of Rest

Regardless of the number of items on your to-do list, you are worthy of rest. While, occasionally, you may have an important project that takes a considerable amount of your time, on the whole, three time management principals have helped me find time for *me* even when there is still work to do. There always will be.

First, oftentimes, we use the amount of time we have, whether it is 6 hours or 16. For example, if today, your boss told you that you had to complete a significant project by 5 PM or be fired, you would submit a project by 5 PM. It may not be perfect, but something would be submitted despite that it otherwise would have taken you much longer to create a submission that you considered “final.” The same principle is true with most projects on your plate. If you allow yourself to work until midnight every night, most days, your work will not be complete until midnight. If, however, you decide that every day you will wrap-up by 6 PM, miraculously, you will find a way to complete your work by 6 PM. So, set the deadline, work hard during the hours you allot, and then transition to other things that are important to you. You will be thankful you did.

Next consider when “good” is good enough. Too many times we work to make things perfect when the significance, or lack thereof, of the project is not worthy of perfection. Analyze the tasks on your list that truly need for every “i” to be dotted and “t” to be crossed. Spend the extra time making those projects perfect. For the rest, do an adequate job and then move on. Again, you will be grateful for the “extra” time and thankful you joined me as a “recovering perfectionist.”

Lastly, consider “dropping the ball,” a concept about which I learned from Tiffany Dufu. If the project is not mission-critical, so be it if it is not completed. Someone else can do it or it will not get done. That is okay. In the end, you will treasure the extra hours you spent reading to your child or training for a bucket list marathon, not the hours you spent making a party more Pinterest-worthy.

Prioritize & Invest in Your Well-Being and Happiness

Your well-being and happiness are areas of your life that should be prioritized and in which you should make a significant investment. Without your health, you are not your best you and you cannot serve others at your highest level. So, go to the doctor’s appointment, attend the yoga class, and make the healthy dinner, you will be glad you invested in *you*.

Analyze Your Goals & Priorities to Determine What is “Mission Critical”

Previously, when new opportunities were presented to me, I struggled with whether to accept them. After forming Spread Your Sunshine, however, such decisions were much easier. I analyzed whether the project was related to mentoring, building confidence in others, or another core Spread Your Sunshine belief. If it was, the project was further vetted to determine if it was something I could pursue at that time. If not, however, the project was politely declined.

You, too, can use this tool to best manage your time by identifying your top goals and priorities. Then, use them as guideposts to determine when to accept new opportunities and when to say, “no!” (it’s not a bad word, use it!). You will not regret the projects you turn down, as if you give all of your time away, you will never have the chance to make your goals and dreams a reality.

Schedule Breaks & Intentional Transitions

Regardless of how much you are juggling, it is critical that you break every 45-90 minutes throughout the day. Although you may be tempted to work straight through a project, stopping to stretch, take a quick walk, or do something else to clear your mind will help your body recharge, allowing you to work more productively for longer periods of time.

Likewise, intentionally transitioning between tasks relieves stress and anxiety and helps you focus on being your best *you* in the present moment. For example, when you first arrive to work in the morning, before rushing into your first meeting or project, take a deep breath and envision the day ahead of you. What will you accomplish? What experience will you create for your Team when they interact with you? How will you address challenges that arise? Intentionally focusing on what is ahead instead of mindlessly rushing between appointments will improve the experiences you have and that you create for everyone around you.

National Plan for Vacation Day

With our fresh commitment to a better-balanced life, moving forward, we should aim to decrease the American’s number of unused paid days off. To do so, annually mark your calendar for National Plan for Vacation Day. Celebrated on the last Tuesday of January, it’s a real thing. How awesome is that?!

And, is there anything additional YOU want to learn about to help the SYS community shine its brightest?! We’re sure you do, so please share your requests by emailing or by sending Spread Your Sunshine a message via FacebookInstagramLinkedIn or Twitter. We love hearing from you, as together, we are our strongest.

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