Do you ever feel like you’re struggling towards the end of a semester, even though you left university years ago? I do.
I came across this fantastic analogy a few weeks ago, listening to a podcast I love while on the train to work. The premise is simple: a lot of people (women especially) have learnt that the only way to succeed is to almost kill themselves in the process. When we were at university, this worked fine: “I have a lot of exams coming up so I’m going to keep working until midnight and sleep four hours before going back to the library, but it’s OK because the semester ends soon and I can have a break.”
Except that, in the ‘real world’, it doesn’t work like that. There’s no break coming up. You just have another project once you’ve finished your current project, and there is no end in sight. You’re starting to feel run-down all the time. You’re not sleeping as much. You’re constantly stressed and you’re worried that the ‘b’ word will rear its ugly head. (‘B’ is for ‘burnout’, if you didn’t get that.)
Since I realised this about myself, I’ve started thinking about the ways in which I can put my wellbeing first. I’ve spoken to my psychologist about this at length, and I’ve started doing things I never thought I would: reading wellness blogs, trying meditation, and actually enjoying yoga classes.
To help you climb off the road to burnout, here are a few things I’ve learnt on my journey so far.
It’s OK to leave the office on time.
My first real boss had a lot of flaws (to the point that I left the company and the continent), but the one thing she was spot on about was this: the work will still be there in the morning.
It’s tempting to stay in the office later and later when there are tasks piling up around you and it feels like your To Do list is never ending, but there comes a point when it’s just not possible to be productive anymore.
Leave the office well before you reach that point.
Learn to say “no”.
Especially at the start of your career, it’s easy to get so hung up on the idea of coming across as a model employee that you can get loaded with tasks that you shouldn’t be doing. These tasks will, in turn, become the things keeping you in the office past 8 in the evening and leading to burnout.
Maybe saying “no” straight up is too hard? Start simple, by managing expectations and helping people to understand the nature of your workload. If you can’t meet a deadline because you’re swamped, try telling the person who set the deadline – they’ll almost certainly understand.
Schedule personal commitments like you would schedule meetings.
I don’t remember where exactly I came across this piece of advice, but I love it. My Outlook calendar is my life, and if a meeting is in the calendar then it’s bloody well happening.
I’ve started to use my Outlook calendar to schedule in dates with my partner, movies I’m going to see, my yoga classes, and the evenings I volunteer as a mentor. Not only does this help me feel like I have my life a little more under control, but it means that my colleagues can see that I have a life outside of the office – and stops them scheduling meetings when I would really rather be at a restaurant.
Rediscover ‘pointless’ hobbies.
Until the last few months, I didn’t really have any hobbies. I became an Editor for an online magazine aged fourteen and founded a non-profit at seventeen. My teenage years were spent building a portfolio, and my university years were spent chasing scholarships and ’employable skills’.
I don’t say this to brag: I say this in shame. I literally can’t remember a hobby I’ve ever had that wasn’t building towards a job prospect. I apply for opportunities almost compulsively (just this afternoon I had to tell myself off for almost applying to join a non-profit board “because you’re 24 and wasting your life”).
These days, I’m trying to find things I can love doing that don’t relate to work: things that allow me to enjoy myself and be truly happy – and also to switch off from the daily grind and ignore my emails. I’m getting into comic books (#nerdpower) and I’m starting to love yoga… and that is awesome.
Get your health under control.
Burnout can really get under your skin, in a very literal way. It can get you stuck in a cycle of exhaustion -> wanting to eat comfort food or take-out -> becoming more exhausted -> having less desire to look after yourself. This can all compound your stress levels and stop you sleeping, which is a recipe for disaster in the long-term.
I’ve always created weekly meal plans to try to stop myself from defaulting to the local Indian when I’m feeling lazy, but these days I’m tailoring them: simple, delicious things that can be cooked in under 30 minutes. Bonus points if they accrue leftovers which can be frozen for when I really can’t be arsed to cook.
If you live in a country where the healthcare system is a fan of blood tests (like I do), I’d also strongly recommend getting a Vitamin panel done. My exhaustion was compounded by low levels of Vitamin B12 and Iron (I’m vegetarian), and so no matter how much I slept, I was never rested or energetic. Disaster.
And finally, ignore the guilt.
When I first started on my mission to put wellbeing first (which really began months before my podcast incident – that was just the final straw), I failed drastically because I felt guilty all the time.
“Everyone else is still in the office!” I’d think to myself. “They’re going to think you’re lazy and a quitter! They’re going to think you don’t care about your job and that you’re too self-centered!”
I thought this about a lot of things, and a lot of the time I still do. I’ve realised, though, that being healthy and sane is going to make me more productive and happy in the long run, and that any short-term drop in productivity will be worth it.
So, I try. I fight the feelings of guilt as much as I can. I promise myself that this is important. And 80% of the time, I win.
I hope that you will, too.
Have you got any tips on how to prioritise your wellbeing and get over work stress? Share them in the comments below!
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