No matter what you might have heard, you can feel overwhelmed no matter how much is in your bank account or what title you have. It's just that the responsibilities that bear down on your shoulders are different. How do newbies, ladder climbers and seasoned executives alike keep themselves from burning out as it all piles up?

Emotional intelligence gives a safety net

In their article for Harvard Business Review, Kandi Wiens and Annie McKee explore the idea that emotional intelligence is the best weapon you can yield to keep burnout at bay. They base the assertion on Wiens' study of 35 chief medical officers. That study found that, despite the fact that more than two thirds (69 percent) of the CMOs interviewed identified stress levels as severe, very severe or worst possible, most didn't qualify as burned out according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

The CMOs regularly pointed to elements of emotional intelligence regarding what kept their stress under control. These include points such as

Emotional self-awareness--how well you recognize what you are feeling and what the sources of those feelings are

Self-management--how well you can respond to what you feel and appropriately control impulses

Conflict management--how well you can take what you're feeling and channel in toward viable solutions

Empathy--how well you understand and care about others in ways that give you both influence and trust

In essence, all the different pieces of emotional intelligence allow individuals to see that they're in trouble, sort out why, come up with a game plan and seek the help that they need to manage their stress better.

How to activate your own emotional intelligence to keep stress under control

Wiens and McKee make some good EI-based recommendations for warding off burnout, including

  • Recognizing your own limitations
  • Refusing to be the source of your own stress
  • Focusing on deep breathing and related mindfulness practices when you feel anxious
  • Rethinking the way you're viewing your situation or circumstances
  • Putting yourself in someone else's shoes to prevent or deescalate conflicts

To those recommendations, I would add the following:

1. Ask yourself questions. What sensations do you feel in your body? What are you observing around you? How do others seem to be reacting? When did you start feeling a particular feeling? How do you behave when you feel specific emotions? Does the way others perceive you seem to match how you see yourself? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

2. Identify your advocates. They could be friends, coworkers, therapists, mentors or even the friendly grandma next door who sometimes babysits for you. Who do you have around you who can step in to support you, let you vent or get you answers? What do they do well that you could learn from? Feeling isolated or misunderstood through stress can make it worse, so turn to these people often!

3. Figure out your "outs". These are basic things you can do in the moment to calm yourself down. For example, you might find that your tension melts away if you listen to music or exercise, or that a quick trip to the water cooler gives you time to cool off during tense meetings.

4. Keep a journal. Regardless of whether you keep a digital or pen-and-paper one, a journal gives you a private place to reflect on your feelings, needs and what's happening to you. Simply getting everything off your chest can be soothing by itself, but the journal also can let you identify patterns in your behavior so you can make positive changes. It's also a great place to clarify both goals and the steps you're going to take to reach them.

5. Spend time with new people or doing new activities. New friendships and activities can break reinforced concepts and broaden your perspective. And when your perspective changes, you might feel less threatened or anxious by what you're dealing with.

6. Create a good self-care framework/schedule. Basic self-care, such as eating well and getting enough sleep, drastically impacts not only your emotional regulation, but your ability to think through information and make good decisions.

You might not be able to remove all the stressors in your life. But you can choose how to react to them, and emotional intelligence isn't static. You just have to commit and make the choice to keep learning.

Published on: Mar 29, 2018