In 2007 I collapsed from exhaustion at an event that I was producing. It was the culmination of far too many hours working, the lifestyle choices I was making (and not making), and the always-present stress of trying to be “perfect” at my job.
My doctor said my body was in adrenal fatigue and that my career was killing me. His advice? Get a new job. I knew that wasn’t the “right” conversation—yet I didn’t know what was. I chose to stay on, but went deeper into my own mindfulness practice to try to understand what had happened.
Over the next year, I discovered that the right conversation sits in the knowledge there is a choice regarding the type of relationship you want to create with your work.
For those of you flirting with burnout, you are not alone. According to the American Institute of Stress, 80% of people feel stress at work. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 75% of all doctors’ visits are stress-related.
There is hope, however. And it comes down to being present to what’s happening in your life, and acting with mindful intention to make some changes.
Burnout is not so much about the specifics of your job. It’s mostly about the choices you make (and don’t make) about how you want to live. Being aware of these choices, and approaching the inherent stressors in any job with mindfulness and clear purpose can transform our relationship with stress—and put work in its place. To start, here are some actions you can take in this moment to start to redefine your relationship with work.
1) Define the core issues
Can you pinpoint what causes the overwhelm? Is it a capacity issue? Do you have more work than hours to complete? Is it a skill issue? Is there a gap in the skills you have versus what is required? Is it a communication issue? Are you able to share what’s causing stress? This is your first step: Collect all the relevant data so you know where to focus solutions.
2) One step at a time
You didn’t arrive at burnout overnight, and the process to undo some of the habits you created will take time. Pick one behavior right now that you can consciously begin to shift. For example, create clear start and end times for work each day. The flexibility that technology and remote working offer can be overwhelming and contribute to burnout if boundaries between work and non-work time are not well-established.
3) Befriend your body
How do you hold stress? Maybe you grind your teeth at night, experience a knot of tension in your neck, or have trouble staying asleep. Now think about what helps you to unwind. Taking a lunchtime walk outside, going for a post-work run, or getting a weekly massage, as examples. Regularly tune into your body so that you can recognize the earliest signs that stress is present, and take the preventive actions you’ve identified to work through it before it overwhelms.
4) Share what you need
Professional stress can be extremely isolating; we often withdraw in order to “deal with” work issues on our own. But letting the people in your life know what you need to feel supported is essential for putting things in perspective and managing stress. None of us can do it all alone. Your colleagues and loved ones won’t know how to help if you don’t tell them.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Mindful magazine.