When your go-to burnout management strategies stop working

Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash

“Have you become cynical or critical at work?”

Well, my self-appointed nickname is Cynical Shawna.

“Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?”

No, I don’t have to spend 20 minutes psyching up to get to the computer and then another 20 minutes browsing the internet before thinking about getting to work, no, whatever do you mean?

“Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?”

Me? Irritable? Never! I’m a paragon of patience. I haven’t even yelled at an email yet this week. 

“Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive? Find it hard to concentrate? Feel disillusioned about your job?

Why are you coming at me Mayo Clinic burnout checklist?

Last week, my college seniors and I discussed emotions at work, covering topics like emotional labor and emotion management. As I read their homework questions, the vast majority focused on burnout and stress, specifically seeking advice for managing burnout. And while I trotted out my go-to strategies such as taking stock of all of the tasks to be accomplished so the work isn’t ambiguous and overwhelming, reframing reactions to the work and focusing on the (usually) limited time frame of stress, and asking for help, I felt like a total fraud.

Can a completely burned-out professor offer advice on how to manage burnout? Well, she did. And now she’s trying to help herself.

Defining burnout 
From psychologist Dr. Christina Maslach’s foundational research, burnout is a state of chronic stress comprised of emotional exhaustion, lack of personal accomplishment,  cynicism and detachment, and depersonalization (for those who work closely with people as part of their jobs). We might feel burned out when there is too much work to be done, when the work is too hard, when the work is too easy and tedious, when we don’t understand what to do or how to do it. We might start to feel jaded about the people we work for/with, even if we don’t mean to, or pessimistic about a job we used to love.

And burnout is exacerbated by toxic work environments, bullying bosses, lack of control over work, and blurring of work/life boundaries. Further, “life stressors” contribute to work burnout, such as the spillover effects of childcare, divorce, injury, or you know, living through a whole pandemic.

Burnout consequences
Burnout has serious consequences for workplaces and workers, not the least of which include depression, vulnerability to substance abuse, heart disease and high blood pressure over time. In fact, my mentor, Dr. Sarah J. Tracy, professor of communication at Arizona State University, built her career by initially studying the experiences of correctional workers, a population with notoriously high rates of burnout and some of the lowest life expectancies across occupations. The lesser consequences? Lower levels of work satisfaction, lowered commitment and workplace performance, cynicism, and turnover. Joy.

Coping Strategies
Social science research describes numerous coping strategies for managing burnout and stress, including:

  • Problem-focused coping (e.g., changing the  structures causing burnout)
  • Emotion-focused coping (e.g., managing how you feel about the circumstances)
  • Appraisal-focused coping (e.g., reframing how you think about stressors).

All of these coping mechanisms have benefits and constraints. Seeking out resources to change a problematic work structure could be great… except when there are no resources or fundamental changes to the work are not possible. Then you’re likely to feel helpless and more frustrated. Likewise, changing how you feel about work circumstances might work fine if you’re using healthy means of processing emotions like seeking social support or trying mindfulness techniques, not, like me, eating frozen cookie dough balls during faculty meetings. And my go-to appraisal-focused coping, which is to contextualize projects in relation to their deadlines—I tell myself this stress won’t last forever, the semester has a finite end date—works great, except in our current pandemic situation where very it’s hard to predict anything, boundaries are blurred, and stress doesn’t end when grades are done.

Part of the issue is that most coping mechanisms are oriented to individual workers and don’t address the systemic issues that cause burnout. Like during pandemic quarantines, when millions of workers and students were (cough, are) working from home, employers offered fairly useless solutions like zoom wellness sessions for “managing your stress” or tips for deep breathing, without meaningfully addressing the need for childcare, fair wages, sick leave, or adjustments to work expectations. I almost snorted coffee through my nose this semester when we got advice to “be creative” to manage the stress of coming back to campus.

So where does that leave me? Us?
As ever, I’m trying to focus on my sphere of influence. Can I control the pandemic? Nope. Do I have any influence on leadership decisions at work? Nope. Can I predict what’s likely to happen tomorrow, let alone next week? Nope. What can I influence? My work tasks and environment, such as what I assign to my students (and then have to grade, ahem). Writing goals I set for myself (or not, as the case may be). How I accomplish work (currently, at home and with as little Zoom as possible). How I treat my body (gently, most of the time, with an eye for moderation and a commitment to daily movement and gawd, vegetables). Connecting with friends and family. Projects in my environment that bring joy and satisfaction (fixing the little things and holiday trees!).

All of these ideas—from adjusting my expectations to playing with happy distractions to cultivating connections and setting firmer boundaries about commitments—use a variety of coping strategies that are constructive and healthy. I’m aiming to reduce the aspects of burnout that hurt me and my loved ones the most (cynicism, detachment, pessimism and irritability), and amplify psychological and emotional resources that can help get through these challenging circumstances.

Fingers crossed.

Cross-posted from www.bluestmuse.com 

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