Career

5 Ways You’re Burning Yourself Out (And How To Stop It Now)

You’re feeling tired, your appetite’s dipped and the Queer Eye episode you just watched has left you a little choked up. Nope, you’re not just dealing with normal life – you could be suffering from burnout, a state of chronic stress that affects up to half of young Australians.

But when we see burnout described as something akin to a breakdown, it’s all too easy for us to ignore the small, but important warning signs – thinking articles like this one aren’t talking about us.

Here are five surprising things putting you at risk of workplace burnout, and what you can do about it.

#1 Poorly defined boundaries

You’ve got a vague-sounding job title or a manager who just lets you do your own thing. Poorly defined boundaries at work give your high-achieving brain permission to go hard, which can cause over-work, stress and burnout.

But setting clear boundaries reduce ambiguity, making it more difficult to over-exert yourself.

Chloe Hamman, lead people scientist at employee analytics company Culture Amp, explains that the stark shift between pre-set study and self-managed work contributes to the problem.

But understanding your limits, setting your non-negotiables (and doing it early!), and asking a manager to help you clarify your responsibilities can help you avoid over-work and burnout.

“No one will do this for you, you have to do it yourself,” says Chloe. “Companies won’t be malicious, but if you’re good to keep doing they’ll keep giving you all they can. You need to be ruthless with your time and boundaries.”

#2 Making work everything

Work is important, but it’s not the only thing. A well-rounded life is insurance against stressful times and can avoid despair when work isn’t going well.

Chloe recalls working in a high-pressure job in London. She ate well and exercised frequently, and thought her life balanced. “But you’re still a workaholic, just a fit workaholic,” she jokes.

When you’re carving out a work reputation, every wrong step suddenly feels catastrophic.

Engineer Jason Yip, 30, can relate. He left a plum job at a global firm after suffering from severe burnout. After some time off, he’s realised how reliant he was on his work..

I probably committed too much energy to it and was left very disappointed when it wasn’t going well,” he says. “In a new job, I’d constantly tell myself that work is only one part of my life, and not the whole part.”

Understanding that a well-rounded life includes fun, work, health, hobbies, family, development and personal projects can help ease pressure on work to be everything, and provides a necessary cushion for when things go wrong.

#3 Trying for perfectionism

An obsession with producing perfect work can lead to over-work, stress, and a lack of satisfaction with whatever you manage to make. This goes double for people who push themselves: if you’re a hyper-critical person, you’re more inclined to fixate on perfect performance.

Jason remembers losing enthusiasm for his new approach to solving old problems at work. “I didn’t adjust my working style because I thought that if I produced high-quality work, the changes would eventually be accepted,” he says. “This didn’t happen.”

Chloe says that a culture of feedback can help you tackle perfectionism, and that sending work for feedback early and with lowered expectations can reduce the burden of perfectionism.

“Label is something like, ‘roughest draft version 1’, so you know it’s ok to be a bit scrappy,” she suggests.

#4 Being self-critical

Limited experience with making mistakes makes us averse to failure and scared of mucking up – but it doesn’t have to restrict us.

An awareness of what refuels us, and investment in the preventative tools that can be drawn on when needed, can help.

“In your twenties, you’re on quite a self-centric developmental path,” Chloe explains. “You’re fixing your identity and can be quite inward-looking.”

When you’re carving out a work reputation, every wrong step suddenly feels catastrophic. But no one’s judging us as much as we think, says Chloe, and a perspective shift can help bring clarity.

“One thing that can help with this is if people get more involved in social causes and volunteering,” says Chloe. “It can help with perspective and humble you, reminding you’re part of something, and you rely on others, and you don’t need to take yourself so seriously.”

#5 Ignoring your gut

If your appetite has changed a little, you’re feeling fatigued or weepy, or you’ve had a funny stomach recently, you could be feeling burnout red flags.

“When you read about burnout people talk about apathy, depression, constant exhaustion, insomnia, all of those kind of things, but it’s really important to recognise the early signs,” Chloe says. “If you’re losing your appetite, it’s probably a sign that your body’s in fight or flight mode too much. A feeling of not feeling like yourself – really pay attention to that.”

We’re generally not good at giving ourselves permission to slow down or rest, but Chloe says we can cause real, lasting damage from thinking like, “I just need to get through to my holiday, and then I’ll be ok”.

An awareness of what refuels us, and investment in the preventative tools that can be drawn on when needed, can help. But don’t leave it to the last minute.

“Assume you’re always at risk of burnout,” Chloe says. “Build the bank of things you can call on when you need them. Don’t say you’re going to do yoga and meditation when you’re stressed; when you need it it’s to late. You’re trying to learn how to swim when you’re wading into deep water.”

If you’re feeling under pressure or stress, or anxious at work or home, there may be more contributing factors to your mental wellbeing. Consider your mental health and what you can do to rebalance. Remember to talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling.

If you’d like to talk about any issues with your mental health and options getting long-term help, you can reach Lifeline on 13 11 14, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.


Sophie Raynor is a writer and list-maker from Perth living in tropical Timor-Leste. She loves ethical development communications and taking about sweating, and tweets at @raynorsophie.Main image: This Is Us / NBC