Burnout at work can have many underlying causes, including mental, emotional and cognitive. For National Work Life Week 2022, we are exploring a few of them.
‘Aim to maintain a work-life balance — it’s crucial to your mental and physical health’.
It is what we’re often told and for most of us, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense. It’s just that sometimes, it can also be a whole lot easier said than done. This is because not having healthy boundaries with a job can sometimes be a more deep-seated issue than it appears. In other words, you might have to dig a little to get to the real reasons.
Yet the importance of a work-life balance is crucial and shouldn’t be ignored. For instance, a WHO study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that long working hours is one of the biggest occupational health hazards, resulting in an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, fatigue, anxiety, stress, depression and sleep issues.
Being overwhelmed by your working life can also have an impact on your relationships, social life, hobbies, sense of self and ability to simply unwind. Plus if your circumstances change — for instance, becoming a parent or carer — then this could challenge your current approach to work, as you might suddenly find yourself stretched too thin and unable to put in as much overtime as before.
But what are the practicalities to creating a work-life balance? Where do you actually start?
One of the best ways is to get to the actual root of the problem — in other words, exploring why your job might be dominating your time, thoughts and energy. It’s important to acknowledge that for some, the reasons might be down to economic pressures and unreasonable demands from an employer. However, for others they might be more personal or a mixture of the two.
Here are five key psychological reasons why you might be at risk of burnout:
1. You need to create better boundaries with your job
In the habit of reading work emails in the evening? Checking in with the office while on holiday? Working weekends? Or maybe it’s your boss, colleagues or clients who are the ones contacting you?
In any job, overtime can sometimes be essential, especially if there is a crisis. But if letting your job leak into your personal time has become a regular habit, then maybe it’s time to make changes. Whilst many people are talking about ‘quiet quitting’ — ie only performing your job as contracted without taking on unpaid overtime or extra duties not in your job description — it’s useful to consider the tone in which you set these boundaries, ensuring you do this assertively rather than passive-aggressively.
Or why not disconnect your access to work emails on your mobile? Make it clear to colleagues that you won’t be checking messages while on holiday? Or aim to make weekends a work-free zone? Of course, claiming back personal time can be a process that doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. And sometimes, it can mean learning to set better boundaries with your boss, colleagues or clients.
If boundaries are tricky for you, then give yourself time. Plus it’s also worth reflecting on why this might be. Were your boundaries — needs, wants, limits, preferences and ability to say ‘no’ — not respected as a child? What do you fear will happen if you do set boundaries? How can you both challenge and soothe these deep-seated anxieties? Finally, are your lack of workplace boundaries serving you in any way — for instance, do they make you feel needed and indispensable?
If the idea of setting limits with your job feels daunting, then why not start with just one change? For instance, ‘I won’t be checking work emails past 5.30pm’. Then you will be giving yourself the breathing space you need to create better balance in your life.
Finally, bear in mind that your attachment style can be an underlying reason for lacking boundaries with your job. For instance, if you have an avoidant attachment style, then working long hours can be a way of sidestepping conflict, difficulty and intimacy in personal relationships. Or if you have an anxious attachment style, then you might find yourself drawn to jobs where you have to help or rescue people, including care or crisis work. While this is admirable, it could cause you to sometimes bring work home with you or get over involved.
2. You can’t switch off from work
A work-life balance is about a whole lot more than the amount of time spent at work — it’s also about the amount of mental and emotional energy you give to your job while away from it. This can include dwelling on your job, constantly checking messages or working on projects from home.
Of course, ‘switching off’ is easier said than done. In fact, it’s probably something that you’ll have to be intentional about — at least at first. This can include blocking off periods to unwind, filling your free time with enriching activities and learning how to shift modes. It takes strategies and it takes practice.
Fan of calendars and planning? Then make a point of scheduling in blocks of relaxation time for your evenings and weekends. It might feel silly at first, but it’s a way of reminding yourself that rest is important too.
Meditation, breathing exercises and journalling as soon as you get home from work can also be a way to switch mode from work time to personal time. Sometimes you have to train your body and brain to relax, especially if you’re used to always being ‘on’.
Also, if you work from home, then the lack of commute could make it difficult for you to create a clear dividing line between work life and home life. This is because commuting often punctuates the end of the working day, creating a transition from one way of being to another. So as an alternative, it might be helpful to schedule a walk or other form of exercise when you finish work, to help you make that transition. Also, aim to have a set time when you ‘clock off’ each day and try not to go beyond that.
However, if work is often on your mind when you get home, it can be tempting to say 'I'll just do X so that I can stop thinking about it'. Yet this strategy for managing anxiety can become a vicious cycle that results in doing more and more work. As an alternative, try asking yourself ‘Is this urgent right now?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then take a note of the task and return to it when you are next at work. Then try another method for managing your anxiety, which could be a mindfulness practice, hobby, debriefing with a friend, playing with a pet or relaxing in whatever way works best for you.
Finally, do you feel guilty when you try to switch off from work — as if you don’t have a ‘right’ or that it’s somehow lazy or self-indulgent? Then it might be worth reflecting on whether this is linked to issues from your past, including being a child with troubled parents or being forced to take on responsibilities too soon.
3. You need to change your working structure
Many people find themselves commuting for several hours a day, only to then face issues like noisy open-plan offices, workplace politics and frequent interruptions. All of these can cause stress, overwhelm and burnout, especially if you are prone to anxiety, have a history of trauma or are on the autistic spectrum.
However, the massive global shift to home-working during the pandemic has shown that remote jobs are more than possible. No longer can bosses or corporations say that it’s ‘just not feasible’ for their staff to work away from the office. Or if they do, then their arguments are now a whole lot weaker.
So why not consider a change in the way you work? For instance, remote or hybrid working, flexi hours or dropping to a four day a week schedule? Or if your contract is up for renewal, could you negotiate more holiday leave?
It’s true that many jobs might not allow for this and if so, you might want to reflect on whether you are in the right place. But if you think you can make a solid case for change then it’s always worth asking. It might be worth referencing the 2011 Stanford University study that showed working from home can result in a 13% increase in productivity. Plus a further 2022 study by University of Chicago, ITAM and MIT indicated that people were around 9% more productive doing remote work.
And don’t forget that there’s strength in numbers, so why not team up with like-minded colleagues to make a group request for flexi or remote work?
4. You have an underlying issue at work
We’ve looked at tips for how to switch off from work. But what if that feels impossible? What if you find yourself thinking constantly about your job while at home — about interactions with your boss, colleagues and clients? Mistakes you made? The pressures and demands of your workload? Whether you’ll meet your targets?
If you feel like you just can’t switch off, then this is a sign that there might be deeper issues at work. This can include issues such as workplace stress, bullying at work or imposter syndrome. It can also reflect unmet mental health needs, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (which can show up as repetitive or intrusive thoughts), depression, anger or trauma. Or there could be issues within your organisation itself that are creating a stressful or even toxic working environment.
Finally, it could simply be that your workload is too high. If this is the case then it’s really important that you talk to your manager about it and get the support you need. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but protecting your wellbeing is crucial. Our blog post on how to have difficult conversations at work might help, as well as our post on why tricky workplace conversations can feel so difficult.
5. You’re using work to compensate for another area of your life
If working very long hours is a pattern for you — or you find it hard to switch off when at home — it might be useful to reflect on any underlying reasons for this?
Throwing yourself into work can be a way of avoiding painful emotions, such as sadness or loneliness. It can also be a way of ‘off-setting’ an area of your life that isn't going as you'd hoped, such as relationships or family. In other words, if you're working all the time, then you're not spending time alone with your thoughts or dealing with issues like an unhappy marriage. A lack of work-life balance might also be a way of trying to escape past pain or traumas, such as bereavement.
In order to redress the balance, it might be necessary to face what is being avoided in other areas of your life and take a good look at your values. What is it that matters to you? What are your longer term hopes and dreams? How does your role at work fit in with other roles that you value, such as being a parent? By taking the time to ask yourself these questions, it’s less easy to bury your head in work and avoid thinking of the future (or even the present).
Another question to ask yourself is — do you get most of your self-worth from your job? Is your identity wrapped up in being a nurse, teacher, business executive, firefighter, graphic designer or computer programmer? If so, it might be worth exploring whether underlying self-esteem issues are at play.
Finally, if you have issues with addiction, then it might be good to ask yourself whether this is showing up in your career. For instance, if you feel empty or even experience withdrawal symptoms while away from work — or a compulsive need to check in with the office while on holiday — then this could be worth looking at. Likewise, if you feel that the pressures of your job give you a frequent adrenaline surge, then this can be another sign of an addictive relationship with work.
If any of these issues sound like they could be affecting you, then therapy could help. This can include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which can help you bring your values into greater focus and make decisions based on what matters most to you in your life. Alternatively, more traditional approaches like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you to challenge your thoughts and beliefs about work. Also, Mindfulness Therapy can aid you in developing techniques for getting more distance from difficult emotions and work-related thoughts that you might be stuck in. Therapies that uncover underlying patterns, such as psychodynamic therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) or Schema Therapy, can help get to the bottom of why work and life are out of balance and how to address this.
As we’ve seen, creating a work-life balance is different for everyone. For some it might involve taking practical steps, such as requesting a schedule change. For others it might involve exploring deeper issues related to guilt, addiction, trauma, avoidancy or self-esteem.
But one thing to remember is that striving for perfection shouldn’t be the goal — after all, you are bound to have weeks where you don’t get the balance right. Rather, it’s a journey that takes time and intention, but which can open up a whole new way of living in the process.
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