With holidays around the corner, there's a fair chance you are telling yourself some version of this: "If I can just get to the holidays, everything will be alright. I'll escape burnout and come out from under all this stress." If not, then you've probably said something similar in the run-up to a vacation or another dedicated period of time off.
Unfortunately, solving burnout is not that simple. Burnout is defined as a "syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It stems from chronic or ongoing conditions, and chronic conditions can't be solved by acute or temporary fixes. Hoping a vacation or holiday will solve your burnout problem is like believing a weeklong fast will keep you at a healthy weight for the rest of your life. The time off, just like the fast, can help, but it won't solve the problem.
To solve burnout, you must change the chronic conditions causing it. This leaves two types of solutions:
- Change your environment
- Change your behaviors
While you can't do either of these during your time off, you can use your holidays to achieve temporary recovery, assess your risk of burnout, and develop a burnout recovery or prevention plan that will guide your efforts when you return to work.
Experience real recovery.
Time "off" from work doesn't guarantee recovery. Many return just as exhausted as when they left. To achieve true recovery, consider three elements. The first is psychological detachment. To recover, you need to take a break from thinking about work. You may need to intentionally engage yourself in other stimulating activities or plan other topics to discuss with friends and family.
Next, spend some time assessing the sources of stress in your workday. You'll want to do your best to avoid these during the holidays. If people are wearing you down, find time to be alone. If deadlines are stressing you out, try to avoid scheduling things during your time off.
In addition to emotional exhaustion, burnout is characterized by cynicism and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. If you're feeling cynical, try reflecting on your job and career by asking questions like: Why did I start this career? What did I love about it when I first got started? Also, consider how far you've come, what you've learned, and how you've developed. These reflective questions stir motivation and gratitude to counteract cynicism.
If you're not feeling particularly confident in your ability, look for a mastery experience where you can demonstrate your ability to control your world. This may be completing a 2,000-piece puzzle or skiing down a triple black diamond slope. These recovery experiences will help you refuel so you return to work full of energy, attention, and motivation.
Assess your risk of burnout.
To develop a plan for your return, you need to know just how bad a case of burnout you have. The most rigorous and scientifically valid way to assess your degree of burnout is to go through the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The MBI will show your overall burnout risk as well as your score on the three dimensions of burnout. You can also find abbreviated, free versions online.
Once you have a sense of your current risk of burnout, consider how your risk level has evolved over the last one to two years. Look for trends (e.g., your risk has significantly increased over the last six months) and season or cyclical patterns (e.g., you're always burnt out during Q4 or you're always at high risk when you start a new project). Identifying patterns and trends enables you to determine what is really causing your case of burnout, which will inform the development of your plan.
Develop a burnout recovery or prevention plan.
To develop your plan, review the six factors that cause burnout: workload, control, fairness, values, rewards, and community. For which of these six does your experience not meet your expectations?
Address those areas in your plan by first asking yourself what you can change about your own behaviors that will improve conditions. Then ask yourself what you can change about your work environment. Finally, consider what changes you may request or petition your company or leadership to make.
The severity of your burnout determines which you do first. If your burnout is very severe, take an action that will create an immediate, sizable change. If your risk level is low, you could probably address the changes that will have a significant effect but be harder to achieve.
All together these three steps don't need to take more than half a dozen hours or so over the course of your week off. Yet, if you don't intentionally make time for them, you'll be inclined to either lounge around, returning to work in nearly the same position you left it or to fly through the busyness of the holidays without ever pausing to ensure next year will be different than the last one. Schedule yourself just a few hours this holidays to go through these steps and maybe they'll live up to your initial desire for them.