by Melanie Padgett Powers
Alan Heymann, founder of the coaching company Peaceful Direction, spoke to freelance writer and editor Melanie Padgett Powers on her Deliberate Freelancer podcast earlier this summer about how you can recognize burnout in yourselves, how you can work to prevent it and what you can do when you’re starting to feel burnout.
These are the podcast episode’s show notes from that conversation, which can be heard here.
Burnout happens to the best of us in our lives and careers, but we are particularly susceptible right now during the pandemic and economic crisis because of all the changes, uncertainty and stressors on us right now. It’s more of an issue nowadays than before the pandemic because you have uncertainty layered on top of uncertainty layered on top of uncertainty, Heymann explained.
Burnout is also showing up in different ways in people. It’s important to recognize that stress and burnout are different. Stress is more temporary, when we have too much to do with not enough time to do it. Burnout is when the usual things you do in the normal course of your work and life are less possible for you, Heymann said. And it’s happening for longer than just a few minutes or just a few hours.
Burnout can feel like you’re running in mud. You have trouble getting anything accomplished. Or, the tasks that normally take 15 minutes take several hours. You have trouble focusing. Any of that sound familiar?
Heymann realized this summer that few of his clients were taking vacations or time off because of the pandemic. Many people who are still working are actually busier because of the pandemic, as companies are forced to readjust and are sending out more communications. People don’t feel like they can take vacations when they are already at home and when the pandemic restrictions don’t really allow regular types of travel.
As Heymann explained, you cannot run the engine—which is you!—24/7 and not expect breakdowns to happen.
Heymann saw signs of burnout in himself and realized he needed to schedule a staycation since his family’s summer vacation plans were scrapped. He had also fell into a common new freelancer trap: not taking any significant time off. He admitted it’s flattering that the demand for his services was strong. Also, because we’re now in a time of economic uncertainty, it’s common to think you have to work when the work is available. And, of course, if you don’t work, you don’t make money.
But, it’s critical to protect the asset: you.
Here are a few symptoms of burnout to look out for: sleeplessness and waking up in the middle of the night, as well as going to extremes physically—either exercising a lot or stopping all exercise and activity entirely. You may notice that what you are reading is not being absorbed, that you can’t concentrate on reading (for work or pleasure).
If burnout goes unidentified and is not addressed it will affect the value you provide to your work over time. You will not be as effective. Burnout also can be hard to identify in yourself. Do a self-observation—are tasks taking longer? Are you having trouble making decisions?
You may also get signals from loved ones, who recognize your stress, grumpiness or difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning. Encourage those around you to speak up when they notice these burnout signs in you.
Heymann also recommends we embrace “the power of pause.” Take breaks throughout your workday—go outside, take time for deep breathing, step away from work. Set a timer to remind you to take these breaks 3–4 times a day. Some type of inner practice can be important—journaling, prayer, meditation, running, walking around the block.
A longer pause is also important. You need to disrupt the flow, so consider taking a staycation. A break also allows new ideas, new ways of thinking to take hold.
Identity also plays into burnout: How do you see yourself? If you see yourself as a “doer,” it is difficult to stop doing. If you see yourself as a successful entrepreneur or employee, it’s difficult to stop working. If your personal identity is linked strongly to what you do professionally, it can be hard to detach from that when you’re not working. Heymann suggested asking yourself: Is my identity serving the work or is the work serving my identity?
Setting or resetting boundaries is also critical. Know your limits—how many hours you can work effectively in a day, how long your attention span is right now.
Melanie Padgett Powers is a freelance writer and editor, and owner of MelEdits. Check out her excellent podcast at DeliberateFreelancer.com.