Avoiding burnout as a recent grad

Burnout is a serious mental health issue affecting millions. Learn how to avoid burnout in its early stages by proactively changing your thoughts and behaviors.
Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer

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In recent years, "burnout" has entered the public vernacular as the worst kind of work-life issue.  Burnout is a state of constant exhaustion, detachment, and discouragement caused by feeling overwhelmed by one's work. With the stressors of rising inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic, we all would like to know how to avoid burnout at work.

While a mental health professional offers the best help to anyone experiencing burnout, other kinds of help can come from within. If you think you are experiencing burnout you can take simple steps that may stop this problem in its tracks!

Read on to learn about how you can change your thoughts and behavior to help prevent burnout.

What is burnout? 

A 2011 study from the German Medical Association defines burnout as a psychological phenomenon involving extreme exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced performance. Some common symptoms include:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Decreased motivation
  • Lower cognitive performance
  • Feelings of purposelessness

Burnout is a serious psychological problem that may lead to depression and other health issues. Fortunately, because it progresses gradually, it is possible to address it early — as long as you can recognize the signs before it becomes problematic.

People experience burnout in all jobs, but particularly those involving many external stressors. For instance, over the pandemic, 84% of cybersecurity professionals have reported experiencing burnout, compared to 80% of other workers. Other professions at higher risk of burnout include:

  • Doctors and nurses
  • Social workers and therapists 
  • Teachers

What causes burnout?

Burnout is brought about by factors that originate either internally or externally. Because the causes of burnout vary by person, they are not always straightforward to understand.

Internal factors

Internal factors leading to burnout might be attributed to aspects of your personality. Some common personality traits that can put you at risk for burnout include:

  • Being a people-pleaser
  • Perfectionism
  • Unwillingness to delegate tasks
  • Craving recognition

External factors 

External factors contributing to burnout relate to your environment. Some examples of these problematic external factors include:

  • Negative social atmosphere/bullying
  • High levels of stress and responsibility
  • Low autonomy
  • Tight deadlines

7 ways to prevent burnout

While it remains difficult to diagnose and treat, early-stage burnout can be mitigated by changing your thoughts and behavior. Consider the seven steps below as strategies for how to avoid burnout. 

1. Set realistic expectations and goals for yourself. 

While it's good to be ambitious, pressuring yourself to achieve unrealistic salary and advancement goals can cause you to crash. 

Remember that your expectations may not match with reality, and that's okay. Keep your expectations grounded by researching salary and professional achievement expectations for your position.

For instance, you probably shouldn't expect a starting salary of over $60,000 at an entry-level human resources job.

2. Don't ignore early warning signs.

You can prevent burnout by vigilantly looking out for the early signs. Early-stage burnout can manifest as:

  • Sleep issues
  • Difficulty finishing tasks
  • Feelings of tiredness or boredom
  • Increased anxiety and stress levels

If you notice any of these warning signs, it is time to act. The warning signs of burnout can escalate to the more serious symptoms listed earlier on this page, such as despair and feelings of purposelessness.

3. Learn to say "No." 

Being a people-pleaser can cause you to make so many promises you can't fulfill them all. It is okay to turn down opportunities and tell people "No" when your plate is already full! Learning to set boundaries makes it easier to look out for your mental health.

4. Identify what you need — and ask for it. 

You can work towards reducing stressors by first identifying them, then asking for the things you to help offset them. Assertiveness goes a long way when it comes to asking directly for help or understanding.

Consider the following situations where vocalizing your needs could avoid external factors compounding or worsening:

  • Stressor: A coworker openly picks on you, creating tension. Strategy: Go to HR for help resolving the conflict.

  • Stressor: You feel you can't make a deadline on an important project. Strategy: Explain to your boss that you feel their deadline is not achievable and try negotiating a new one.

5. Take care of yourself physically — and leave unhealthy habits behind.

Maintaining good physical health helps prevent burnout. Looking after your physical needs for rest, activity, and fresh air will provide a proper foundation for your mental health. Consider making the following activities into habits:

  • Meditation or relaxation 
  • Going for regular walks
  • Taking naps
  • Joining a gym

Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is also essential. If you regularly pulled all-nighters in school, realize that you will not have the capacity to in your career.

6. Talk about it. 

Take the time to reach out to friends and family if you start feeling burned out. They can help you feel less alone and perhaps even offer insight into your situation.

If you are able to access one, consider seeing a therapist. Mental health professionals have the skills to help you create an action plan and identify useful coping mechanisms. There are low-cost options online, such as Open Path Collective.

7. Recognize when it's time to leave. 

Sometimes you need to leave a job that consistently leaves you drained or unable to cope. Don't be too hard on yourself. Leaving a toxic job is not a failure but the first step towards better opportunities.

Use the downtime between jobs to recuperate and create an action plan for the next opportunity. Identify your burnout triggers and plan how to avoid them in the future. For example:

  • If your old job had unclear performance expectations, your future job needs to communicate expectations clearly.
  • If your old job gave you little autonomy, your future job needs a more collaborative workplace culture.

Not ready to leave yet, or just need a brief break? Make sure you're using your vacation time. You've earned it!

In conclusion 

Though even professionals struggle with treating burnout, there are still practical, everyday ways to catch it early and reverse it. Remember that we can all be our own worst critics, or end up in unhelpful situations. Moving forward is key.

This article was reviewed by Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D. 

Headshot of Megan Pietrucha, a blonde white woman wearing business clothes.

Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical and sport psychologist in private practice in Illinois. She holds a PsyPact credential, enabling her to practice teletherapy with clients in 20+ states. She completed her bachelor's in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and her master's and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. 

Her areas of interest and specialization relate to the treatment of eating and body image concerns, college student and student-athlete mental health, mood disorders, life transitions, stress management and procrastination, health and wellness, mindfulness, and sport and performance psychology. Dr. Pietrucha also provides assessment services, supervision, and clinical consultation.

In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Pietrucha has served as the training director for an APA-accredited internship program. She's also taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology. She works with high school and college athletes and teams, recreational fitness programs, artists, business leaders, and people who are motivated to optimize their potential in work and life.

Megan Pietrucha is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

Last reviewed March 24, 2022.

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