We seem to hear the word “burnout” a lot these days, don’t we?
I think there’s a good reason for that. Given the general state of *gestures wildly around at the entire world,* the ongoing pandemic, health fears, mass job loss, and business struggles, there’s no wonder that medical professionals have dubbed the mental health fallout of the COVID-19 era “the second pandemic.”
So how do you know if you’re suffering from burnout? And if you are, how do you treat it? Read on to learn how to diagnose and fix burnout.
I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer
I can’t tell you definitively what burnout will look like for you, because it’s different for everyone. In a nutshell, burnout is a state of extreme exhaustion (physical, mental, emotional, or a combination) caused by prolonged periods of high stress.
Here are some of the symptoms you may need to look out for: feeling tired all the time, even after a night’s sleep; feeling depressed or anxious; feeling numb; loss of interest in things that used to bring you joy; feeling like you’re constantly fighting an uphill battle; lowered immunity or frequently getting sick; feeling trapped or helpless; tense relationships with others.
It’s not just “a bad day”
Burnout isn’t just a bad day or even a bad week. It’s a psychological and sometimes physiological reaction to unsustainable levels of stress.
If you feel better and ready to take on the world after a good night’s sleep or a day off, you are probably not suffering from burnout. But if you experience any of the symptoms I described above for more than a few days at a time, you may well be.
If you’re burned out or feel like you’re approaching your burnout point, what can you do about it to take care of yourself without tanking your business?
First: don’t panic
The vast majority of professionals will experience burnout at some point in their working life, and it’s even more common amongst business owners. So don’t panic, freak out, or feel like there’s something wrong with you.
You’re not weak and you’re not failing. You’re having a normal reaction to abnormal and deeply stressful – even traumatising – circumstances.
Take time off
That might seem easier said than done right now, of course. But the best cure for burnout is to take some time completely away from work. An afternoon or a day won’t cut it, either. Ideally, you want to unplug entirely for a week or two.
Put anything you can on hold, ask for extensions from clients where you need to, and outsource and automate as much as you possibly can. If completely taking time off is impossible, try to bring in some temporary support who can take on some of the work. An experienced freelancer or virtual assistant is ideal here.
Leave work at work
Business owners, freelancers, and people who work from home are notorious for never leaving work at work (I myself got called out yesterday by a friend for admitting that I read and reply to work emails in bed at midnight!) It can be hard to get that separation, especially if your office is also your home and your business is also your passion.
You need to consciously decide to unplug when you’re not working. Take your work emails off your personal phone, switch your laptop off and don’t open it again until the following morning, and let out-of-hours calls go to voicemail. I promise that very little is such a dire emergency that it can’t wait a few hours or overnight.
Don’t try to work at 100% of capacity
If you’re working at 100% of your capacity – that is, cramming in as much as you possibly can – you’re inviting additional stress when something inevitably goes wrong. If you instead try to work at 75% or 80% of your maximum, you’ll have time to sort out those last minute client demands, take care of a sick child, or take the car in for a service without having to work until 2am to make up the time. Emergencies and unforseen circumstances happen, so don’t pack every second of your schedule so full that there’s no wiggle-room.
Reach out to others for support
You’re not alone. More people than you might think have been through exactly what you’re going through now. Talk to your partner, family, friends, and fellow business owners for support. Sometimes just getting it off your chest and sharing the burden can make you feel less overwhelmed. A (appropriately socially distanced) coffee or beer and chat with a friend can be surprisingly healing.
Don’t be afraid of seeking professional support, too. Seeing a therapist – either in person or through a virtual service like Online Therapy – or talking to your doctor about your mental health isn’t anything to be ashamed of. We all need a bit of extra help occasionally, and professionals are best equipped to give it.
Take care of your physical health
You can’t be at your best if you’re not taking care of yourself. It’s easy to neglect our physical health when our mental health is suffering, but the two are so closely intertwined. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep every night. Eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. Drink plenty of water. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. If you’ve been feeling under the weather for a while, go and see your doctor. Your mood and energy levels will thank you for taking care of your body.
Be honest with your clients
Believe it or not, your clients really do understand that you’re a human being, not a machine! So if you’re struggling to get things done as a result of burnout, be honest. You don’t have to go into details if you don’t want to, but you can just say you’re dealing with a health issue and (are taking a week off/will need some additional time/are going to leave them in the capable hands of your associate/delete as appropriate.)
No-one who is worth your time will hold it against you, and being honest is much better than turning in substandard work or disappearing and making your clients think you’ve ghosted them!
This too shall pass
These bizarre and unsettling times aren’t going to last forever, and neither will your burnout. You can get through this with your sanity and your business intact, and you’ll come out stronger on the other side.
Hang in there!