Two in three workers today feel burned out, and it's not hard to see why. Not only do Americans work the most hours among their peers in industrialized nations, they also feel the pressure to continually take on more projects and responsibilities. There's a common belief that if we stop, even for a moment, we'll fall behind.

Add those factors together, and it's no wonder workplace burnout has reached epidemic proportions. Unfortunately, employees can't rely on their employers for change; it's up to individuals to protect themselves from the stresses of work. 

I've written about this topic recently, yet I still hear questions and concerns on sustaining a healthy relationship with work and avoiding burnout. I've burned out before, and it impacted my health. I want to share more ways to remedy burnout. 

One great way to do that is to invest in self-care. That can seem difficult when work is crazy or demanding, but that's exactly when we need it most. Self-care is a significant part of preventing, and healing from, burnout. 

Here's a look at how you can use self-care to avoid burnout and build a sustainable level of performance, sanity, and success.

1. Make time to think

Bill Gates is famous for plenty of innovations, but one of his lesser-known ideas is the "think week." Twice a year, Gates spends a week in the remote Washington wilderness to read and sort out the big issues facing him, his company, and the world. Some of his most valuable ideas, both technologically and philanthropically speaking, have come from these self-imposed thought retreats. 

Think weeks aren't just for the Bill Gateses of the world--and those who can't get a whole week away should invest in a think day. In a guide inspired by Bill Gates and his "think week," Reservations.com reports that individuals who disconnect from technology and immerse themselves in nature boost their problem-solving abilities by 50 percent. 

Though vacations are often seen as strictly relaxation time, they're also ideal opportunities for critical reflection. Making your next vacation a think week--or your next day off a think day--can help you come back rejuvenated, reoriented toward your goals, and connected to creativity.

2. Eliminate interruptions

An underrated way I've learned to reduce burnout is by maintaining a productive work environment that doesn't produce stress. One culprit behind lacking productivity is frequent interruptions, and these distractions affect all of us. 

In the health care sector, 82 percent of clinicians and IT professionals say tech-driven interruptions like texts and push notifications contribute to burnout. But as much as they'd like to, workers in health care and elsewhere can't simply choose not to use technology.

Instead, behavioral psychologist Nir Eyal suggests using visual cues to reduce interruptions. In his latest book, Indistractable, Eyal notes that nurses who wore colored vests to signal they shouldn't be interrupted when dispensing medication reduced their error rate by nearly half. Other professionals, he suggests, can achieve the same effect simply by placing "stoplight" cards near their desks to signal when they're available (or not). 

Now that I've learned the power of preventing interruptions, I have visual cues for people and I turn off notifications on my phone for certain parts of the day. This time is intended as productive, meditative, or self-care time. 

3. Meditate

Many of the most successful people cite meditation as a source of their success, yet so few people make time to do it. It's a habit that most admit they need, yet they don't do it. If you want to avoid burnout, that needs to change.

Studies show meditation can reduce anxiety, alleviate feelings of depression, and calm the nervous system. Meditation is beneficial, no matter how much or how often you do it. A 10-minute meditation is a powerful way to start your day, and a quick two-minute meditation between meetings can also help. 

If you have a hard time meditating, apps like Calm and Headspace come with built-in meditation routines designed to help you get the most out of your experience, whether you have five minutes or an hour to spare. 

4. Care for your body

Treating yourself well is a central part of self-care, and that involves the more common things that people correlate with self-care. One option is to schedule a massage when your body aches from holding a typing position all day. Another option is to simply take a bath with Epsom salt and essential oils. This is about giving your body the healing it needs to recover and re-energize.

5. Honor your needs (especially the small ones)

You--and your body, mind, and spirit--have needs that occur throughout the day and shouldn't build up until your monthly massage. Self-care is about honoring all the small moments that need your awareness. By taking care of the small things, you prevent them from compounding into big things.

Here are a number of small moments and needs that you can address to sustain a healthier baseline:

  1. Don't skip meals because you're busy. Make time to eat a meal, and make it a healthy one. It'll help you and your brain work better.
  2. Stretch throughout the day. Our bodies become tense and immobile by holding the same position all day. Take five minutes to stretch. I do this while I'm on the phone. 
  3. Breathe. If you really paid attention, you'd be surprised by how little you likely breathe or how incomplete your breaths are. Take a moment to take some deep breaths.
  4. Laugh! I've started watching five to 10 minutes of funny clips on YouTube to make sure I'm getting my laughs in every day. Laughter can reduce stress, yet we don't get enough of it.

6. Set healthy boundaries

Americans work more nights and weekends than their peers in developed countries. Although answering the occasional email after work isn't likely to destroy your work-life balance, beware: Sending after-hours messages here and there can quickly become an unsustainable habit and can build unreasonable expectations. 

Organize your calendar so you have a set number of hours when you'll be working--and a set number when you won't. Color-code it and make it public so others know when you're off-limits. Letting work seep into your off-hours not only takes away from time you should be spending on yourself, it can also reduce the quality of work you're doing. If you want to be happier and more productive, set boundaries and stick to them.

The Final Word

No matter how much you love your career, your success will depend on your health and wellness. Take a step back, and honor what you need. Prioritize sustainability over sprints, and make time for the things that keep you healthy, inspired, and joyful. You'll be a better worker, but more importantly, you'll also be a happier and healthier person. Self-care isn't weak; it keeps you going strong.

Published on: Aug 13, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.