John-Paul Davies gives some advice on how to avoid burn-out and work-based stress and find some balance.
Doing work that you a) enjoy, b) are good at, c) are suitably paid for and d) makes some kind of difference to the wider world (the latter is often missed, by the way, to the detriment of wellbeing) will meet lots of your emotional needs and wants.
As well as taking care of your basic ‘safety’ needs of shelter, warmth and security, it’ll provide status, goals to achieve, as well as funding your fun and entertainment and meeting many ‘higher level’ needs like achieving things you’re proud of and giving you a real sense of community, meaning and purpose.
As we know, however, work can also potentially be detrimental to mental health, with prolonged workplace stress sometimes resulting in ‘burnout’, i.e., being unable to work, feeling distanced emotionally from the job and being physically and emotionally exhausted.
How do we try to ensure that work improves the quality of your life rather than impairing it?
Some things to bear in mind here include:
1. Holding in mind that the self-care that avoids burnout is primarily your responsibility. Of course, and rightly so, many organisations take some responsibility for employees’ mental health, but nobody knows you better than you do. Happy employees make for profitable firms, but where profit and deadlines conflict with your wellbeing, you’re going to need to try to come forward and take care of yourself.
2. Following on from taking care of your own wellbeing, try to be aware of your work ‘boundaries’. These might include the hours you’re prepared to work to ensure a healthy balance between work and your personal life, as well as what’s ‘enough’ in terms of income and status for you. If you don’t internally know what’s enough, you may be left being too reliant on external forces, expectations and demands that just won’t always have your best interests at heart.
3. Try to make sure you consistently know what you’re feeling. Many of us are led by our thinking part, particularly at work, where feelings almost always come second to intellectual concerns. But if you don’t know what you’re feeling from moment to moment, you may not even be conscious you’re distressed until you find yourself overwhelmed. Just as importantly, being unaware of what you’re feeling will also mean you won’t know when you’re doing something you actually enjoy and should therefore be doing more of.
4. As well as feelings, try to be aware of what you’re thinking. The source of a proportion of your stress is likely to be due to your own thinking patterns, like catastrophising, or a harsh inner critic.
5. Following on from points 3 and 4, you need to be able to tolerate the thoughts and feelings that you experience if you’re going to, for example, say ‘no’ to more work and the anxiety, guilt or regret your inner critic might then generate.
6. Be mindful of the fact that the status, money and power work can provide all give you short term highs, which can be addictive. Like all addictive behaviours, you may be compelled to engage in them more despite this causing you problems, in this case, taking on more work in the face of your emotions telling you that you have enough already.
7. So that you’re in an emotional state consistent with facilitating all of the above, you need to know how to both calm yourself and what helps you feel alive and then be able to balance these two. Deep breathing, sleep, laughing, spending time outdoors, singing, mindfulness and meditation, for example, will all help to sustain the balance between calmness and aliveness that will enable you to manage work stress and avoid burnout.