So, I’m currently preparing for a full weeklong vacation to Disney World with my boyfriend and his two teenage daughters. As you might expect, I’m unbelievably excited. I feel like a kid myself as I struggle to fall asleep at night in anticipation.
Only, as an adult, pre-vacation sleep problems are a little more serious. It’s not just excitement keeping me up. It’s also guilt: Should I really be taking a full week away from my work obligations? And it’s fear: What kind of mess will I return to? Will that completely negate the good of a vacation? And it’s stress: There’s so much to do before I go! How will I ever manage??
I’m guessing this sounds familiar. Any professional man or woman who has dared to take so much time off work—for FUN, personal reasons—has likely felt a similar mix of emotions.
And yet, I am dedicated to the mission. I will not give in to my workaholic nature. Every piece of me is screaming, “Let’s postpone this! I can’t leave work for so long…not right now!” But I will silence that horrible saboteur voice, because deep down, I know this vacation is needed.
I think self-care is a wildly underrated component of long-term career success. We often focus on the importance of dedication, hard work, and discipline. But we fail to acknowledge the importance of rest, relaxation and fun. These things might not have such a clear or immediate return-on-investment, but they are essential nonetheless.
The consequences of ignoring self-care are tremendous. I’ve experienced many of them myself, including the ultimate consequence: Burnout.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a common term used to refer to an experience that can vary from person to person. It doesn’t look the exact same for everyone, but there are some shared components for the majority of people.
Basically, you’re experiencing burnout when work becomes mentally, physically, or emotionally painful. You’re exhausted. You’re unmotivated. You’re having a difficult time concentrating. You’re unable to manage stress or deal with basic daily frustrations. Maybe you’re experiencing anxiety or excessive worry. Maybe you’re having trouble sleeping or eating or digesting. You’re irritable, temperamental or depressed.
In short, your health and wellbeing are suffering due to your work obligations.
Working too much overtime can lead to burnout, for example. Other people experience it after working a prolong period of time in one organization or within one role. They simply reach a tipping point. Others find that it hits after completing some kind of high-pressure project—or worse, right in the middle of it!
Burnout can strike at any time. If you want to avoid it, you have to be proactive. Don’t wait for the telltale signs to pop up. Instead, practice diligent self-care.
How to Avoid Burnout with Self-Care
Work is demanding, there’s no way around it. But it shouldn’t feel like a prison sentence. You have the right (and obligation) to take care of yourself both at work and away from it. Here are some things you can do.
Take extended vacations
Look, I know I’m struggling with this right now. But please follow my lead. Even if it’s hard to do, plan and take a full weeklong vacation at least once a year. Don’t take work calls and don’t check your email. Just step away FULLY.
It feels impossible, I know. But there’s simply no replacement for an extended period of time spent away from the work environment. We have people and resources to help manage this for a reason. Rely on your team to fill in the gaps while you’re gone. Use voicemail and out-of-office autoresponders to inform others that you’re away and who to contact in the meantime.
Yes, it takes some work on the front end and there will be stress along the way, but do it. Every time I’ve done this in the past, I always come back feeling renewed and re-energized. It’s worth it.
Take “mental health” days as needed
This is one I advocate for whole-heartedly. There are times when we just have to take a breather and step away from work for a day to reflect, recenter, and realign ourselves. For me, that means I turn off the alarm clock, sleep as long as I can, then do something that helps me process whatever is going on.
The last time I took a mental health day, I met my boyfriend for lunch, got a pedicure, took a walk with my dog, then cooked a nice dinner for myself that night while watching Netflix. To an outsider, it surely would look like a wasted day. To me, it was time well spent. I returned to work the next day with a much better attitude regarding the challenges I was facing.
Take breaks during the day
Admittedly, it’s not always easy (or possible) to take full days off of work to focus on self-care. That’s okay! You can still take care of yourself while at work—and by doing so, you’ll probably find you require fewer mental health days in the future.
Take breaks regularly during the workday. I know this is a novel concept for some people! But working straight through lunch with little more than a trip to the restroom to break things up is not healthy.
Stash walking shoes under your desk and get outside at least once a day. Take your ipod and listen to some uplifting tunes. Personally, I prefer to do this kind of thing alone, without any colleagues. But if you want to include a close work friend, go for it. Just agree to not talk about work! The point of this exercise is to mentally, physically and emotionally disconnect.
If that sounds like too much, start with something smaller. Sit in the breakroom for 15 minutes with a mug of coffee and a good book. If you’re afraid of getting interrupted, hide out in a conference room or outside under a tree. Or go to an off-site coffeehouse or deli to grab a bite.
You are not chained to your desk! Don’t trick yourself into believing that such minimal self-care activities are luxuries. They are not. They are requirements for maintaining long-term wellbeing. I know from personal experience that people who fail to do this are much more likely to hit burnout.
Leave on time (and leave work at work)
Overtime isn’t always something you can control. But do everything in your power to minimize it. Realize too that “overtime” can happen outside of the office! If you take work home with you and find yourself dealing with it (mentally, physically or emotionally) outside of regular work hours, you’re on overtime!
I’ve spoken about this in the past so if you want some helpful tips, check out this TV interview: How to Leave Work at Work
Protect your emotional space
Finally, it’s worthwhile noting that burnout is typically a very emotional thing. In my experience, it often happens to people who view work as an important part of their lives. It helps provide meaning and purpose. But something happens and their feelings change. It no longer feels like a positive contribution; it starts to feel like a burden—something that is detracting from life rather than adding to it.
In terms of self-care, you can prevent this by protecting your emotional space when it comes to work. Recognize that work is, indeed, an important part of life. But it’s not the only thing that gives life meaning. When things aren’t going well at work, it doesn’t have to ripple out and negatively impact every other area of your life.
Approach work with a realistic perspective. Everyone has “off” days. Sometimes, those days turn into weeks or even months. If it goes too long, you need to do something about it. But give yourself time to find your rhythm again. Focus on other areas of life that are really thriving. If you don’t have any, put some effort in and make it happen.
I am a firm believer in self-care. As someone who has experienced burnout in the past, I’m not willing to let a little hesitation stop me from doing what I know I need to do to support my long-term wellbeing. Long-term career success relies on it.