Work Stress: 4 Ways to Beat Burnout

Last Updated Jun 10, 2011 9:55 AM EDT

Ever call in sick because you physically don't think you can make it to the office? That burned out feeling -- so humorously portrayed in movies like Office Space -- is no joke. In fact, workplace stress can lead to serious health issues, like obesity and cardiovascular disease. But preventing burnout, and treating it early, can help you stay both healthy and productive.

Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, a new book by psychologist Joan Borysenko, Ph.D, addresses this important issue. She dealt with her own burnout as a busy mom and Harvard Medical School instructor, when she was working with AIDS patients for 80 hours a week while also tending to her own small children.

Borysenko's first tip? Know that being fried is both natural and progressive: "It starts with sincere commitment to work that leads to overwork. Then self-care goes down the drain, your priorities shift away from family and friends to more work, you lose empathy for clients and co-workers, and you feel emotionally overwhelmed, physical health declines, and the quality of your work plummets." Women should be particularly alert for it, since we usually take on the majority of the "second shift" at home: "In spite of all the progress we've made in gender equality, the average working mother does two hours a day more housework than her mate," notes Borysenko.

Here are Borysenko's 4 best ways to beat burnout:

1. Burnout vs. Depression: Know the Difference Depression and burnout can look the same -- exhaustion, loss of interest and lowered productivity -- but they're not the same. "Burnout is work-related while depression affects your entire life," says Borysenko. "If you're burned out and you get a long enough vacation, you revive, whereas depressed people do not."

2. Redo Your 'To Do' List Ever feel like your 'To Do' list is like one of those birthday candles that never blows out, instead regenerating like (depressing) magic? Cut it down -- especially travel, if it takes you away from loved ones. "I now travel less than 15% of the time, and have learned to say yes to what gives me energy -- like being outdoors, listening to music, hanging out with friends, and researching ideas that I'm passionate about -- and no to requests from others that drain me," says Borysenko. For you, this might mean stopping work at a set time or making Sunday "family day." And if you can't cut back in your current role, you might need to find a new position, either within your company or elsewhere.

3. Unplug Before You Unravel
Being constantly logged on is a huge risk factor for burnout. "The influx of information via email and the imperative to respond ASAP, 24/7 is a prime cause of burnout," she says. "That's why a day a week of being unplugged can help save your sanity, your creativity, and your capacity to show up in a loving way in your relationships." If you can't log off for a whole day, at least try going offline for a few hours daily -- and no, when you're asleep doesn't count!

4. Don't Ignore It No matter which of these tricks you're trying -- or even if you're looking for a new position altogether -- just be sure you put a priority on getting better. "Untreated burnout leads to physical illness, compromised relationships, a deep feeling of emptiness, a good chance of using drugs or alcohol to reduce your pain, and a decided decrement in performance," says Borysenko. On an airplane they say to put your oxygen mask on before you help those around you. Treating burnout and keeping yourself healthy is like putting on that mask, giving you the energy you need to be productive at work and happy at home.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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