How to Avoid Professional Burnout

how to avoid professional burnout

Burnout is practically an epidemic right now. You see social media full of posts with people talking about how they work 14-hour days and 6-day weeks as if it’s admirable (or even the norm). And as someone who has been a chronic over-worker, I get it. As a freelancer, the more I work, the more I make.

That sounded like a dream until I was booked solid and working every day of the week and for most of the day. Burnout hit me hard, even though I’d never been impacted before. I knew I had to make changes to my mental and physical health, and so I did. I started setting boundaries, and I ended some of my contracts the next month.

Burnout is more than just being a little tired or a little over it. It can cause irritability, restlessness, muddled thinking, poor concentration, and agitation. It can cause physical side effects like muscle aches, headaches, weight change, and nausea. It also may make you depressed or anxious.

So how can you avoid professional burnout? Let’s go over the nine best ways to stop burnout in its tracks. 

1. Know Your Limits

Many professionals today get burned out because they don’t quite know their limits, particularly regarding both time and mental energy.

Working an extra day a week, or an extra hour per day doesn’t sound all that bad until it’s constant. That extra hour may mean you no longer have time to unwind when you get home before making dinner, or you miss the gym, or an hour with your kids.

You also don’t want to accidentally say yes to a big project or a new account just because you dislike saying no to your boss.

burnout example

This has become big as gig work has become prevalent; people are either overbooking (which I was guilty of in 2021) for their main gigs, or they’re taking on too many side gigs in addition to their main job.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to know your limits and to keep them. Think about how much time your current workload takes, and what you have extra capacity to handle.

Don’t have time for another project? Let your boss know that you can only take that assignment if they take another one off your plate.

This can feel incredibly hard to do, especially for overachievers who like to say yes (me again), but it’s essential. If you carry too much, you’ll end up dropping something.

2. Protect Your Sleep

Once you start losing sleep, it’s all over.

Struggling to get enough sleep is like tossing the lit match of burnout into a jug of propane.

Sleep impacts memory, emotional regulation, cognitive functioning, focus, and productivity. Once you struggle in any of those departments, work becomes more difficult at every turn. Burnout becomes very likely.

sleep habits

Practice good sleep habits, even when initial burnout may be making it more difficult to fall asleep. These practices include:

  • Avoiding phones and screens for a “quiet time” before bed; this is particularly important to avoid work calls or emails that may stress you out
  • Don’t work in bed at home, as it can train your brain to associate the bedroom with work instead of sleep
  • Have a nightly routine if possible to help you unwind
  • Use a sound machine if needed to help you stay asleep

3. Account for The Unaccountable

When it comes to setting up your own schedule for the day or week, there’s one mistake I’ve seen friends and colleagues talk about over and over again that majorly contributes to burnout, and that’s forgetting to account for things that you just can’t account for.

My husband is a lead software engineer, so for him, the extra tasks might be a surprise phone call or an unexpected bug that surfaces.

For me, it’s often a batch of edits being requested with tight turnaround times from clients.

And for my friend who works in retail management, it could be everything from missing items that need to be accounted for to major repairs needing to happen to a storefront.

Everyone has something. Try to leave a little wiggle room in your day or week if possible so that when there’s a small bump on the road it doesn’t send you spiraling. You won’t feel rushed or stressed, and you also won’t be working overtime.

4. Strengthen Bonds with Coworkers

Community can go a long way to preventing burnout. Feeling strong social bonds with your coworkers and colleagues is important.

Not only can you rely on your community when you’re getting overwhelmed and ask for help, but there’s also solidarity.

Feelings of disconnect are bad news for burnout. They can negatively impact your mental well-being and increase workplace frustration, especially if poor social bonds start to lead to an impersonal or even “us against them” environment.

coworkers bond

Take time to build relationships with your colleagues, whether it’s going out to lunch or setting up happy hour, or even just sending a few messages on Slack. You won’t feel alone, and you’re more likely to feel like you’re working with people instead of potentially working against them.

And pro tip here: Even if you’re working alone, you can find “colleagues.” There are plenty of groups online where freelancers can meet with each other for support, advice, and venting. Check on Facebook and see what you can find.

5. Switch Between Task Difficulty Levels

We all have some tasks that are draining and difficult and some that are easy. Even if your only easy task for the day is “check email,” that still counts!

Science shows that in order to prevent burnout, it’s best to switch between complicated and easy tasks when possible. Don’t go straight from one soul-draining task to the next, because it can feel defeating and drain your mental energy.

There’s some debate about what to start with.

Some people like to start with the most difficult task of the day. Plenty of advice indicates that starting with a short, easier task for a quick mental win is a good way to start before you move on to the bigger and harder task.

One thing is clear though: Don’t leave that big, stressful project for last. It’ll hover over you all day. Knock an easy task out of the way first, and then tackle it head-on. The rest of the day won’t feel so bad afterward.

6. Take Breaks

We can’t possibly stress this one enough.

Everyone needs breaks, so take them. They can significantly improve your productivity and help prevent burnout simultaneously.

Don’t eat lunch sitting at your computer reviewing data. Even if you’re just in the breakroom (or a different chair at your dining room table), walk away and disengage from work. You can even read a book or text a friend, but try not to check your work email or messages.

Short breaks throughout the day are important, too. Ten to fifteen minutes of stretching, tossing a ball for your pup, getting some water, or going for a quick walk can do wonders to prevent burnout and keep you feeling good. It’s also good for your physical health, which is so important.

7. Get Exercise

Burnout is directly tied to stress and overwork. It can eventually lead to poor mental health and even trouble sleeping.

Exercise can help tackle burnout, mental health concerns, and trouble sleeping all in one. It can release stress and improve your physical health. Working out regularly may also improve posture, reducing some of those “desk job” injuries that happen over time, like a bad back.

exercise example

Pick exercises that work for you. This might be a fifteen-minute walk, weight lifting, or a dance class. And of course, if you have any concerns about where to get started, talk to your doctor and ask for their advice!

8. Work Smarter, Not Harder

Easier said than done, we know, but whenever possible, finding more effective ways to work can be a game changer.

This will look different for everyone, and it may involve using new tools, processes, or approaches to get your tasks accomplished.

I realized, for example, that editing was pointless if I was reading something immediately after writing it. I needed to walk away for at least an hour, and using editing software like Grammarly made my job easier.

If you’re struggling to keep up with your tasks, check out project management software like Asana. And if you need to create social media images at scale, look into a drag-and-drop design tool like Snappa.

If you’re able to automate anything, do it. (There’s even automation software like Zapier to make this easier.) The less time you spend on busy work, the more time you have to get your job done without extra stress.

9. Know When It’s Time to Move On

No one likes calling it quits, but sometimes that’s exactly what needs to happen.

If you’ve set clear boundaries surrounding your limits and put all the other tips discussed so far in place and you’re still crashing from burnout, it’s time to consider a change. No job is worth the mental and physical toll that burnout can take on your body over a long period of time.

So if the burnout is sticking and you know your job is to blame, it’s time to make a change. If the specific job role is too stressful, look for a lateral move. You may find the problem is entirely in the employer or your specific manager, and a shift to a new company with a better work/life balance can make a world of difference.

Final Thoughts

Professional burnout is a major issue right now, whether you’re working a 9-5 or in the gig economy, or something in-between. It’s so important to take care of yourself, both now and in the long term.

Take these nine tips to avoid professional burnout to heart. And if they’re not working—and if you’re experiencing mental health conditions—it can always be a good idea to talk to a licensed therapist about stress management techniques.

What do you think? How are you avoiding professional burnout? Share your thoughts and let us know!