On Burnout: How to Work Hard While Respecting Your Mind and Body’s Limits

When I was 24 years old, I spent six months working in a study abroad program in South America. I was tasked with living among a group of 12 college students in a communal home, where I wore many hats — RA, campus minister, house mom, handy-woman, unofficial therapist, resident bug killer, chef… the list went on and on. 

Midway through the semester, I began losing interest in the work. I frequently felt sick and exhausted, and started to take everything that happened personally. Even gentle feedback from supervisors would send me into an insecurity spiral. The more preoccupied I became with what others thought of me and the less energy I had to do the work. Then I started to recognize my symptoms for what they were: burnout. By the time I recognized what was happening, it was too late to recover. I left my job after a semester as a form of self-preservation.

RELATED: How to Cope with a Serious Case of Burnout

Since that time, I’ve become more aware of some of the warning signs for burnout, especially since I currently work in social services, a field where this phenomenon is extremely common. Catching red flags before it gets worse can be a good first step towards healing and moving forward.

Losing interest in your work and things outside of it

In my study abroad position, I found that I wasn’t invested in the work I was there to do, and I saw that bleed over into my life outside of work. I wasn’t enjoying the things I usually did, like yoga, reading, or art; I was unmotivated; and I felt cynical and detached. If your normal hobbies and passions don’t nourish your spirit like they used to, that could be a sign that something is not right.

Action step: If work is making you feel worn out, then perhaps it’s time to consider a new role within your organization. Are there any responsibilities that you can relinquish or tasks that will help you feel more fulfilled? Talking to a supervisor can also be helpful in restructuring the work to wear you out a bit less.

Physical and emotional changes

I’m the type of person who rarely gets sick, but while I was in this challenging role, I felt like I was constantly under the weather. I was losing weight in a country that is known for its diet of mostly carbs; I was either always hungry or could barely eat. I had a hard time sleeping and therefore had no energy. 

When physical changes happen in a relatively rapid time frame, it’s important to get them checked out. Being abroad, I was unable to address this during my job, but I made a point to visit my doctors upon return to talk specifically how burnout was affecting my body.

Action step: Taking care of your body is key. Finding a way to offload stress through exercise, yoga, meditation, or other practices can help keep your body functioning the best it can.

RELATED: How to Deal With Being a Part of the Burnout Generation

Taking everything personally

I can usually tell that once I start becoming increasingly insecure, irritable, and sensitive, that burnout is just around the corner. Working in roles with a heavy emphasis on interpersonal relationships, like social work, teaching, or counseling, take a lot out of us emotionally. 

When students weren’t invested in the program in ways I hoped they would be, I started to see it as my fault for not getting them excited enough about activities and the structure. I took it upon myself to try and change them and poured so much energy into their growth and development that I neglected my own feelings in the process. If I’m not putting on my own “oxygen mask” first, my sense of self and security can suffer. In multiple roles, I have noticed that the more emotionally exhausted I get, the pettier I become and start to take any criticism as a personal attack. 

Action step: I have found counseling to be very helpful, as well as intentional conversations with good friends who remind me that I’m more than the work I do. I also refuel by taking the time to write in a journal as a way to sift through some of these feelings.

While burnout works differently for everyone, it can be helpful to figure out the ways it particularly affects you so that you can be conscious of the warning signs as they pop up. Take a deep breath, light a candle, grab your journal, and take a little time to check in with yourself so that you can be better prepared to take on the world going forward.

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Alex Gaynor

Alex Gaynor works in social services in New York as a case manager. In order to cope with the intensity of her work she also writes, travels, does yoga, makes art, tends to plants, and explores. She graduated college with a degree in Philosophy and International Studies and is passionate about travel, social justice, and cultivating community.