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How to Handle Being Burnt-Out at Work

Nearly every young person I’ve met entering the workforce is a little bit insane. Well, not insane, exactly, but driven, passionate, motivated — pick your word. When I started working, I was the same way. I’ve never considered myself particularly intellectually gifted, but I knew I was hardworking and tried to capitalize on that. I would be the first to arrive and the last to leave the office.

It should have been immediately clear to me that my Rihanna “work” mentality wasn’t sustainable – but it wasn’t. Before I knew it, I was burnt-out. I was tired, overworked and constantly stressed. And I had no clue how to handle it.

I bumbled my way through that experience as best I could. But, to make life easier for my fellow “oh god what have I gotten myself into” worker bees, here are some telltale tips to really tell whether you’re zooming towards the self-destruct button – and how to handle it.

1. You’re always tired

Contrary to what you might be telling yourself, five hours of sleep a night is not enough. If you wake up tired, go to work tired, sit at your desk tired, board the subway tired and go to sleep tired, you need to start getting some more rest. Constantly stressing about work can make you exhausted and even disrupt your sleep cycle in the long-term.

The solution?

Take a nap, dude. I know that might go against every grain in your just-one-more-email being, but do it. Or at least promise yourself that you’ll focus on something other than work before bed. Be realistic about how much sleep you can get, but strive for more until you reach eight hours a night. Multiple studies have shown that when you operate on less sleep, your brain can’t function on the same level. So I’ll tell you what I often tell relatives over Thanksgiving dinner: “Listen to science!” You’re not the exception to empirical evidence. Oh, and when you start getting enough sleep, life gets 10000% better. I promise.

2. Self-defeating thoughts have become your only thoughts.

This can happen in a few ways: (1) You’re always thinking about work, even when you’re out with friends, getting dinner with family or right before you fall asleep. (2) The thoughts you have about work are negative and self-defeating. (3) You’re crying — over little things, big things and everything in-between.

The solution?

This is a difficult one. You can start by unplugging from work, and technology in general, if that helps. I spiraled into thinking that work was the only thing that mattered; I learned that I needed to take a step back and cultivate a rich life outside of work. Make plans to see your friends and promise yourself that you won’t just go back to your apartment and “catch-up” on work right after. Take up a new hobby. You can do anything from kickboxing to knitting, just leave your job-mentality at the office.

3. You’re slipping up at work – even on the little things

I knew that I needed to scale back at work when article assignments started taking twice as long to write and were half as good. This can take shape in other ways too, like if you’re less eager to jump on a new task your boss gives you than you usually are. If you can’t force yourself to have enough energy to care about the outcome or to check your emails for spelling errors, you might be burnt-out.

The solution?

Keep focusing on life outside of work. Another good possible solution to this could also be to stay organized. What were you excited about when you started this job? What do you want to hone in on when you’re at work? Set realistic goals (keeping in mind that you’re dead-tired) for when you can complete everything you want to. After you organize yourself a bit, chances are good that you’ll feel more able to handle what’s next for you.

4. Your interpersonal relationships are suffering

This is one of the hardest ones to handle for a lot of people who are used to throwing themselves into their work when life goes awry. If you’re constantly cancelling on your friends, scaling back on commitments you once made or simply not being present during conversations, your relationship with that person will suffer. The killer? When your friend notices that you seem overworked. If your immediate reaction to their concern is yelling or crying, chances are good that you are very, very overworked.

The solution?

Ask for a hug! Or just a talk. Honestly, a good solution to this can be to just cry that sucker out. Never forget that your friends (if they’re good friends) want to be there for you when you need them. If you communicate that you need more support, chances are good that they’ll give it.

5. You’re not taking care of yourself.

Even though you claim you’re doing great, the empty scotch glass and crinkled junk food wrappers littering your apartment may tell a different story. Working through lunch or missing out on a good night’s sleep might not make or break you if you do it once, but if it’s a habit it can cause some serious problems. If your shoulders are always tense, if you have chronic headaches or need some sort of aid to get through the day, you could be really burnt-out.

The solution?

If you’ve been skipping meals to work, start being adamant about taking an hour for lunch. Take a hot shower before bed, spend some quality time with the people you care about or go out for a run. Get enough sleep; I cannot stress that one enough. Self care can take years to learn, so it’s okay if you’re not 100% there yet. But, keep trying to get there. Most importantly, don’t let work get in the way of how well you treat yourself.

The best piece of advice about work I’ve ever received is to make yourself indispensable. To try and make yourself the go-to for difficult projects (or the ones no one wants), to take every job and be happy about it. I still stand by that advice.

However, don’t mistake that advice (like I, and so many others, tend to) for an unsustainable work-till-your-hands-bleed mentality. At the end of the day, I had to learn that I wasn’t going to be my best worker-self if I wasn’t taking care of myself. It took time for me to be able to view a weekend without work as a luxury and to see it for what it is – necessary.

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