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How to spot burnout and beat it

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by Startacus Admin


Tips and advice on identifying and overcoming burnout by the team at Spill, the startup which provides all-in-one mental health support to startups through Slack

1. Understand what burnout is

pexels-photo-52608 Burnout is the combination of three emotions: exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness. Its root cause is psychological, centring on our goals and our expectations.

Whilst many people think the main cause of burnout is a heavy workload, it's more about how that workload is managed. This is also the case with depression and tiredness and whilst the symptoms do overlap, burnout is actually different.

Psychoanalyst Josh Cohen explains the difference in that "the exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety which cannot be silenced." Put simply, when you’re burned out, everything feels unwinnable.

2. Catch burnout early

Identifying the symptoms of burnout at the earliest possible stage is important, not least because prolonged burnout can easily turn into depression.

The order in which burnout symptoms — exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness — manifest will differ from person to person. However, negativity can often be the easiest to identify at an early stage. 

The following exercise will help you identify warning signs in yourself or a colleague. Ask yourself:

  • Do you feel more irritable?

  • Do you tend to see the worst in everything that happens or is suggested? 

  • Are you quicker to shoot down other people's ideas?

  • Does each piece of work you get just feel like a burden?

pexels-photo-4429102If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, it’s worth doing a more thorough stock-take of the other symptoms of burnout. If you think you might be experiencing burnout and you want a more comprehensive health check, try taking Spill's one-minute burnout symptoms test.

3. Burnout first aid: take time off

The first step in the burnout recovery process is to take some time away from work. Think of this as first aid for burnout. We’ll talk about the longer term recovery next. 

To make this time off as restorative as possible, it’s worth being mindful of how you use it. 

Spending time with those closest to you is a great place to start. Exercising outdoors is also recommended - lots of studies have shown that this has a big positive impact on mental health. Try to engage in activities where you find a state of flow. That could be playing games, making music or learning something new. You might also want to try meditation or mindfulness activities.

Taking time off is often easier said than done. If you manage someone who is burned out, try to dispel anxiety around taking time off by setting a good example and taking your own allotted leave. To ease potential FOMO, make sure that work progress and socials are shared on Slack in their absence, and offer to check in on them on WhatsApp during their time off. 

4. Make changes to your work life

pexels-photo-1311518 Once you’re back at your desk, it’s time to work out what caused you to burn out in the first place.

So why might your work feel ‘unwinnable’’? Below are some common psychological reasons:

  • Your goals and targets feel genuinely unachievable

  • Your goalposts for success keep moving

  • You don’t have enough autonomy

  • You don't feel like they’re mastering new skills

  • Rewards, recognition and workload feel unevenly distributed

  • The work culture feels competitive or unsupportive

  • Your job requirements don't fit with your personality and strengths

  • Your job requirements don't fit with your values and dreams

Once you have identified the key issues affecting your work life, it’s time for your manager and you to put steps in place to prevent future burnout with this burnout recovery plan

5. Burnout-proof your workplace

To prevent burnout, it’s important for employees to feel like they’re making meaningful progress towards valued goals. 

pexels-photo-927022 The key here is to adopt small, fixed habits. When consistently applied throughout the company, these habits will generate happier, more productive workplaces. 

Let’s take just one of the causes of burnout – the problem of unachievable targets. To counter this, companies can adopt the following habits:

  • Make it okay to flag when people feel overstretched

  • Praise under-promising and over-delivering

  • Encourage people to be clearer about their boundaries

  • Build holiday time into execution plans

  • Protect your team’s time - for example, let them periodically turn off Slack notifications or try ‘Deep Work Wednesdays’

There are small but meaningful changes your company can make today to prevent each of the causes of burnout, and create a highly engaged working culture. To learn more about how to burnout-proof your workplace, check out Spill's guide to preventing burnout.

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Published on: 21st December 2020

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