All those late nights blending into early mornings, day after day, leading up to feelings of exhaustion and disengagement.

It's not just you. And it's a thing. Actually, now, it's officially a medical thing. The World Health Organization published its latest International Classification of Diseases on Saturday and labeled burnout a medical diagnosis (albeit, one that's only applicable to the workplace). The guidelines say that burnout is characterized by three dimensions:

1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.

2. Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job.

3. Reduced professional efficacy.

If you just tried to diagnose yourself, don't. The guidelines warn physicians not to overlook stress, anxiety, and mood-related disorders first.

But I'm betting we can all admit to feeling some of these symptoms at least occasionally. You don't want to end up with an official diagnosis for burnout, so I'll offer some advice on how to avoid it.

I skipped all the obvious things like get more sleep, exercise, and "don't let it get to you." After all, I want to inform, not insult. Here are the three most powerful tactics I've personally used to avoid burnout:

1. Go back to the role you want work to play in your life.

My days in the corporate world taught me that it was easy to feel all the symptoms of burnout: the exhaustion, the mental distancing from the job, and all that comes with it. The times I felt the most burned out were when I was losing the plot. I forgot what role work should have been playing in my life--that my work didn't define me, I define it.

In those times, I had a trick. I'd pull out a piece of paper and label two columns, "Why I work" and "How I get worked over." Starting with the first column I'd list things like "to learn and grow" and to "make meaningful contributions." I'd then ask myself if I was accomplishing that, and if I wasn't, how to return to doing so.

When you're feeling burned out, you get pulled away and distracted from the things about work that bring you joy. That's where the second column comes in. I've found it helpful and even cathartic to write down things that were working me over at work, like "I'm chasing a sense of approval from my boss" or "I've been afraid to fail."

Try it. I hope you'll be surprised how re-orienting it is.

2. Imbue your work with meaning.

You don't come to work to deliver a 20 percent return on assets or to achieve the No. 1 market share position. Not really. You come to work to get meaning from your life.

You start to feel burned out when you feel that your work has become meaningless--that it doesn't contribute to anything that personally matters to you or connects to an important company goal. It's in moments like this that you can commit to bringing meaning back into your work.

Define the legacy you want to leave at work and keep it in front of you. Remember the values you hold dear and live them through your work each day to ingrain your work with a sense of purpose. Commit to learning and growth, ask for more autonomy, and take risks to increase your sense of competency and self-esteem. For certain, all of this is easier said than done, but step one on this path is to admit that meaning is lacking and that you'll be intentional about bringing it back. Most people assume work is what it is -- but that's not the case. Your work can be reworked. 

Meaning is the greatest motivator of our times. It's the arch-enemy of burnout, as long as doing meaningful work is balanced with living a meaningful life.

3. Give a different "yes" to requests.

Burnout expands as your workload does. Often, it happens when you say "yes" too often to requests for more work. Believe me, I get it--I'm a recovering people-pleaser.

You can still say "yes" in spirit while saying "no" out loud. When you find yourself in this situation, show that you understand the work request, display empathy for the situation, and offer an alternate solution.

You can also come from a place of accountability, showing that if you take on the new work, other important pieces of work will suffer. You can even show it visibly on a work plan. Finally, you can also work off three dimensions: time, resources, and scope. Get more time to complete the work request, reduce its scope, or get more resources to help you.

Burnout is now serious enough to be coded a legitimate medical diagnosis. Taking one of the above prescriptions a day just might keep the doctor away.

Published on: May 28, 2019
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