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How to recognize the signs of burnout from stress

And five ways to better take care of yourself.

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Burnout, for most people, is progressive, says psychiatrist Shekhar Saxena, a professor in the department of global health and population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. If left unchecked it can lead to sleeplessness, changes in appetite, generalized anxiety, and, in some cases, depression. But there are plenty of signs if you’re heading that way: emotional and physical exhaustion, the inability to recharge when you’re off duty, a decreased pleasure in doing what you’re doing, and a feeling of lack of personal efficacy — that what you’re doing doesn’t really matter. “Does it feel like it takes more time to do the same job? Are you so stressed at work you can’t be ‘there’?” asks Saxena. Here are five ways to slow down the flameout.

1. Stick to a routine. This is especially important if you’re working from home. “Be very disciplined about your start time, your end time, meal times, when you’re going to do specific work tasks, when you’re going to exercise, et cetera,” says Tsedal Neeley, a professor in the organizational behavior unit at Harvard Business School. Lack of structure can easily lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, as well as “decision fatigue,” if you’re left to make choices and self prioritize all day long.


2. Make lists of what you’ve achieved — big and small. “Each evening, make a list of everything you got done that day, even if it’s small, and aim to feel proud of doing those things,” Saxena says. “Don’t look at the big picture. Instead, look at the small pictures.”

3. Before you call a Zoom meeting, ask yourself: Is it really necessary? “We are over-reliant on digital technologies, and it’s depleting,” Neeley says. “Some people think having to connect with 10 colleagues means having to have 10 Zoom calls.” Instead, e-mail or text when you can.


4. Ask your boss for specific feedback and direction about your performance. Quality, constructive feedback is validating and inclusive, Saxena says; it will help you know what you are appreciated for and what you are not appreciated for. This information will, in turn, help you prioritize your work while fretting less about how that work is being received. “Giving constructive and positive feedback is something many employers might consider as a policy,” Saxena says. “Articulating what they need from people and helping form medium- and long-term plans, rather than living from day to day, will help reduce uncertainty and is comforting all around.”

5. Take care of yourself. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and doing mental as well as physical exercise — especially if you’re sitting all day long — is critical, Saxena says. “The mental exercise can be whatever you find pleasure in,” he continues. “Some people read, some people listen to or make music, some people turn to religion.” Even just a minute or two of disengaging from your work and focusing instead on something more pleasurable can be a good energizer. “It’s called rapid relaxation,” Saxena says. “And it can have a big impact.”


Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com