When you’re overwhelmed at work, it’s easy to feel as though things are out of control. It’s a normal response that we’ve all experienced at some point. We take a look at managing overwhelm & burnout at work.

Manage Your Energy

Managing your energy is crucial. It’s the first step to feeling more able to take control back. Prioritise the one thing that you can do, right now, today that will make a difference. We’re not always great at recognising when we’re burning out so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that over 90% of us experience burnout at work. The situation is so severe that WHO have recognised Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon” in the International Classification of Diseases. Forget time management, prioritising your energy will transform your productivity and help you to focus on what you can control, building momentum for further changes. Consider your energy in terms of three domains.

Resilience & energy domains
Resilience & energy domains

Domains are all about working to achieve a positive balance – even under pressure. When we achieve balance across all three domains, our wellbeing, performance, productivity and happiness are optimised. It’s the ability to maintain an energy equilibrium that develops resilience, helping us to bounce back when there are bumps in the road. Ask yourself:

  • Do I invest time in myself?
  • Is there space for rest & renewal?
  • Do my nutritional habits help or hinder my energy?
  • What is my sleep hygiene like?   
  • Where is my downtime?
  • How could I create micro actions to create renewal in domain 1?  e.g. take a lunch break, eat breakfast, walk part of my journey to work.

Cultivate Curiosity Around Overwhelm & Burnout

Stay Curious. Research by Francesca Gino, Behavioural Scientist at Harvard Business School discovered that when our curiosity is triggered we’re more creative when we face difficult situations. We’re also much less likely to be tripped up by confirmation bias – seeking out information to support what we believe rather than looking for evidence to suggest we are wrong. When we’re overwhelmed it’s easy to believe that there’s no way out, but there are always incremental changes that you can make to your day that will increase your control without feeling like yet another drain on your resources.

Ask Good Overwhelm & Burnout Questions

Bob Langer at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research encourages the practice of asking ‘good questions’ as the way forward when faced with challenging situations. Ask yourself where you can make changes in your day, research any innovative working practices in your profession, who is doing things differently? How?Examine ways of working differently and see if it’s possible to incorporate them into your day, your team or your department.

Don’t Buy Into The Multi Tasking Myth

Systemic processes and professional cultures often push us into multi-tasking. What we believe is a paradigm of efficiency in reality is reducing our efficacy and resulting in overwhelm and burnout. Switch-tasking, jumping from one task to another, is bad for your focus and bad for your brain. Researchers have  found that multi tasking adds to your cognitive load resulting in multiple errors along with increased stress, overwhelm & burnout.

Rather than making us more efficient, switch-tasking makes us less accurate and slows us down. When we pile on the pressure with multiple tasks, we’re feeding into the feeling that there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it in. We can change that by looking at how we work.

1.Compartmentalise tasks. Place tasks together into low focus, medium focus and high focus categories. Put aside periods of time in the day for high focus tasks of at least 60 minutes. For high focus tasks, create a space where there is less chance that you will be interrupted.

2. Go digital detox. Dial down the tech to minimise distractions. Have periods in your day when you turn off your alerts and unplug. To monotask and achieve flow you’ll need to minimise distractions and fully focus.

3. Resilience Architecture. Plan your day before you start. Prioritise and organise your time so that you’re working with your energy levels, building in time for renewal so that your day isn’t all about sacrifice and burnout.

4. Ditch Switchtasking. Where you can re-train your brain. When it’s possible to focus and get into flow minus interruptions do it – even if it means saying no (see below).

Want to know more about monotasking? Take a look at our free Mindfulness at Work Toolkit or any of our free tools in the resources section.

Learn to say ‘No’ to Overwhelm & Burnout

Practice saying ‘No’. When you’re saying yes to something it usually means that you’re saying ‘No’ to something else – and that’s typically you or something that’s important to you. We all need downtime or activities that renew us. These are usually the first things we let go of when we’re stressed and burning out but that’s a mistake leading to a phenomenon known as sacrifice syndrome. It’s an easily recognisable corrosive pattern of workplace behaviours; working late, skipping lunch, catching up on weekends or working well after you should have finished. Here are some saying no strategies to get you started.

Strategies for Saying No to Overwhelm & Burnout

  • Focus on your feelings. If you’re used to dampening down your emotions it will take time to identify what you’re really feeling. Focus. Notice what’s going on for you when you feel the temptation to automatically say ‘yes’. Take a breath. Create some space to breath deeply and identify your true feelings. What’s here? Anger? Resentment? Passive acceptance? Fear? Notice what emerges without judging it as good or bad it’s all information. Once you’ve identified how you’re feeling, you can begin to articulate it calmly and confidently.
  • Monitor your inner critic. It’s possible that you’ll begin to hear your old self trying to pull you back into the habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything. Let’s call that voice the ‘Yes Monster’. You’ll probably feel resistance the first few times you say no. There’ll be guilt and a nagging voice warning you about how your new found assertiveness will be perceived. Recognise that those thoughts aren’t facts. They’re just thoughts and you can master them by changing your self talk to a more positive script “It’s ok to say no” “Not everyone has to like me” “It’s important I say what I think.”. 
  • Re-train yourself to say ‘No.’ Build your assertiveness muscles with small things that aren’t emotionally loaded. Yes, it might feel uncomfortable the first few times, but you’ll get over the discomfort the more you practice. You may notice the fear of rejection and confrontation creeping in again. It’s important that you speak your truth and you can do that in a compassionate, kind way whilst still respecting others.
  • Still, wondering if you’re the one being unreasonable? Flip the situation. If your roles were reversed, would you expect your own needs to be met at their expense? Probably not. Flipping the scene can unveil some truly ugly truths.

This article was first published in The Resilient Doctor

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Koru Development are experts in managing overwhelm and burnout at work. We provide online resilience courses to develop resilience, master stress management and sustain high performance. We also provide internal support to organisations, consultancy and leadership coaching. Our clients include the NHS, Fortune 100 companies, elite sporting bodies and international start ups. Contact us to find out how we can work with you.