What is one of the most common desires most people have for their career? It’s having a rewarding job that they enjoy and finding their work meaningful and significant. And what is certain to block the achievement of this goal? The dreaded burnout. No one starts a job with the goal of getting burnt out, yet it happens quite often.
To prevent burnout, we first need to understand what burnout is and what it is not. These days the words “stress” and “burnout” are often misused as synonyms. The two words are different in very important ways. I like to describe stress as resistance. Resistance can be either positive or negative. The difference between a positive stress and a negative stress has everything to do with your perception of the resistance, your perception of yourself, and your resources. Burnout, on the other hand, only has one side, and that is negative. Burnout is an emotional, cognitive, and physical reaction to prolonged negative stress. Where stress might make you feel worried, burnout makes you feel defeated or depressed.
Burnout is often caused by a combination of factors. One of the most influential is a reaction that psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. This is the reaction you might have after putting in considerable effort to achieve a goal, only to see that no progress has been made; you feel as if you have ended up right back where you started, and your disappointment makes you believe that nothing you can do will change your situation. This belief then leads to discouragement and a feeling of helplessness. Learned helplessness can occur as a result of not understanding something about your current situation, having unrealistic expectations, meeting active resistance from others, or being told that certain things are just not possible. The result of learned helplessness is a feeling that you shouldn’t even bother trying anymore, that nothing will change, that you have no control over what happens. To prevent burnout before it starts, find ways that you can have a noticeable impact; set achievable goals and track your progress; fight procrastination daily; and get a different perspective.
People experiencing burnout commonly feel that their stressful job is depleting them and they have no other area in their life that they feel replenished by. Self-care is a term that describes daily life practices that replenish you. These are the habits that are good for you. They are life-giving, as opposed to life draining. The truth of the matter is this: If you cannot make changes to your current situation to integrate these life-giving activities, then it is unlikely that you will make these changes after a certain event has occurred. If you feel busy now, most likely there will be other things in your life to make you feel busy in the future, too.
Use Your Strengths and Know Your Values
Identifying your strengths will also add numerous opportunities to make an impact on your situation. Without clear goals and expectations, it is very easy to feel as if your energy is being spent but you’re not getting anything good in return. How do you know when your efforts have been successful if you don’t know what success looks like? To remedy this, identify what you do best, make a simple and clear goal, and attempt to make an impact in this area.
Create Healthy Boundaries
Finally, one of the biggest contributors to burnout is a lack of boundaries. The result of poor boundaries, of never saying “no,” is that tasks begin to build up and the pressure eventually becomes unbearable. For those who find setting boundaries difficult, I recommend starting with setting small boundaries in areas that are insignificant. For example, try saying “no” to someone asking for a small favor. Practice setting boundaries and saying “no.”
The more you invest in prevention now, the bigger the payoff will be later. Start today by taking small steps to address burnout, to take care of yourself, and to use your strengths and values to your advantage. Your future self will thank you.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of GPSolo magazine, volume 32, number 3, published by the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. Membership in the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division is now complimentary. Join now.