When I left my last corporate job and became my own boss, I spent months channeling my old college self: I slept till noon. I was burnt. And not just at the edges. I was a crispy fritter all over and upside-down. When Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Health, I’d heard experts extol a phrase that, at the time, seemed like New Age mumbo-jumbo: Listen to your body. In an incredibly privileged spot to be able to do just that, I finally got it.
Over two decades of laboring in corporate America, it had been literally since college that I’d had a break longer than a week. Then came the pandemic, where so many of us spent more than eight hours a day in back-to-back Zoom meetings, leaving the evening hours to do “actual work.”
Unfortunately, this dynamic doesn’t seem to have changed much. The burnout we’re collectively feeling has, in fact, significantly increased from where it was at COVID’s peak. According to a just-released report conducted by Kantar, 57% of all American workers—and 75% of women workers—feel burnout.
It’s not a good state for executives or their employers. Studies link burnout to mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. Data also shows that burnout is bad for business: Each year, $500 billion is lost due to workplace stress, and the more burnt-out a worker is, the higher the chances they’re going to take a sick day or leave a job.
But it doesn’t have to be so crummy. There are ways to take down the char and set yourself up for emotional success—without sacrificing the bottom line.
#1: Don’t blame yourself.
As with so many emotional issues, people tend to self-flagellate for feeling burnout, as if it’s their “fault.” Of course, it’s possible you might be doing certain things that add to the exhaustion (i.e., taking on stuff that’s not your responsibility). But generally, burnout is caused by a tornado of systemic issues.
“There’s research that shows burnout is not just about workload. We can work really hard and get burnt out, or work not so hard and still get burnt,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, a former political consultant-turned-advocate who advises organizations about mental health issues in the workplace (her clients include Google, MIT, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). “Burnout is exacerbated by chronic stress, difficult management, unrealistic expectations, racism, all the things. I think it’s incumbent on the people who try to help workers feel less burnt out to be honest about everything that’s behind burnout.”
In essence, blaming yourself doesn’t help. It just adds shame on top of fatigue. Simply acknowledging that there are outside factors at play lets you give yourself some grace, which itself takes off some of the pressure.
#2: Make sure your goals come with objectives.
How long is your list of 2024 work goals? Whatever the number, prune it to three to five that are actually achievable. “If you know a goal is never going to get done, you’re talking about a sense of futility, and that will lead to a feeling of inefficacy, which is part of what causes burnout,” says Joan Freedman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and executive coach (who, by the by, spent her first-ever summer internship at Revlon).
Equally important is putting in place methods to track success. “There are goals, and then there are objectives,” says Dr. Freedman. “Objectives you can measure. They all roll up to support the goal.”
Here’s an example: If the goal is to grow sales by 20 percent, what’s going to get you there? With measurable steps you can tick off, there’s a sense of achievement along the way and a focus on progress.
#3: Be “fiercely protective” of your time.
It’s a phrase Dr. Freedman repeats to her clients. “Treat your time like you treat your money: Invest it wisely,” she says. “Unlike money or energy, you can’t get time back. It’s such an essential asset.”
What does this mean in the workplace? Setting boundaries and learning how to say no. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should,” notes Dr. Freedman. “This can be especially tough for people as they move from individual contributor to manager, or from manager to leader.”
If you’re struggling with your inner people-pleaser, Dr. Freedman suggests this reframe: You’re not being selfish. You’re being self-protective. Write that on a sticky note and put it on your laptop. Glance often!
As for conferences and events, make sure there’s a compelling ROI to attend. “If I’m investing my time here, what am I getting in return?” asks Dr. Freedman. Really try to quantify it. Are you meeting with X number of contacts? Will being at this event contribute to one of your top goals?
“I think a lot of what leads to chronic burnout is being overwhelmed,” says Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever, who herself has an anxiety disorder. “If I feel overwhelmed and that makes me feel burnt out, is going to more conferences really what I need?”
Another way to protect your time is to make sure you spend it doing things that fill, not drain, your metaphorical gas tank. “I like to ask, How can you strategically do less of what you don’t like and more of what you do?” says Aarons-Mele.
Of course, most of us have non-loveable tasks we can’t avoid. But it’s important to think about what you can delegate or trade with people. “Often, we feel like we don’t have the right to ask,” Aarons-Mele says. “But we do, certainly by the time we’re executives. Like, I’m great at launching new products, but not so great at Excel and end-of-year projections. Where’s my time better spent—what’s the value for the company?”
#4: Create micro rest breaks.
In 2024, nonstop meetings are as popular as body serums and balletcore blush—but far less appealing. Dr. Freedman compares this to tennis balls being thrown at you by a machine. “Think of yourself as a corporate athlete,” says Dr. Freedman. “Like any athlete, you need to build in periods of rest and recovery.”
Moving from one task to the other without a second to stand up from your chair, much less think, is a key burnout ingredient. Dr. Freedman recommends taking a page from therapists, whose 45- or 50-minute sessions allow time to take notes or just chill in between clients.
If you’re wondering whether five to 10 minutes really matter, a little neuroscience: When you’re under stress, your fight-or-flight mode kicks in and shifts you out of your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that controls your executive functioning skills, explains Dr. Freedman. Those skills include impulse control, planning, and decision-making.
“When you get triggered, that prefrontal cortex goes offline. So now you’re trying to do important thought work, but it’s all about survival. And you can’t think from that part of your brain,” she continues. With even a few minutes to reset, “you get your good executive functioning brain back online. You’re putting energy back into yourself.”
Dr. Freedman recenters herself between clients with five rounds of box breathing. (For four seconds each, inhale, hold your breath, exhale, then hold your breath again.) You could also brew a cup of tea, walk around the block, chat with your kids, pet your cat, stretch—anything.
#5: ID exactly what’s making you meh.
It’s a classic therapy skill: identifying triggers so you can figure out how to deal better. “It’s easy to say eat healthy, do yoga, breathe—and that’s all important,” says Aarons-Mele. “But what I’ve learned from studying people is that different things drive us up the wall.”
For example, she explains, introverts need alone time. If that’s you, and there are people in your face all day long, can you build in some alone time? On the other hand, “if you’re a high-moving kinetic person forced to sit in back-to-back meetings all day, can you build in movement? Or if you’re in a lot of high-pressure, high-stakes meetings that make you feel overwhelmed, can you have a day without them?” suggests Aarons-Mele. “I’m a big believer in pinpointing which pieces of my work are driving this.”
#5: Apply mindfulness to work.
Mindfulness is such an eye-roll-inducing buzzword…except that it works. With burnout, you tend to care less about the work, but finding ways to be more present can change this course.
“So much of the executive coaching I do is building awareness,” Dr. Freedman says. “As a leader, when you are really present in your day-to-day—as opposed to feeling like you’re on autopilot—it truly helps you connect, be it with people or tasks or thought.”
Two ways to get out of autopilot: First, try not to multitask when you’re in a meeting. Don’t check your email or Slack. Instead, really listen to people.
Second, schedule what Dr. Freedman calls “thought time.” As she explains: “You block out your calendar Wednesday at noon as ‘thought time with Amy,’ so you do not get put into a meeting. That is time where you just get to think. What’s the big hairy thing you haven’t been able to think about because you’re so busy transacting throughout the day?”
Building your mindfulness muscle at work helps you get more intentional with what you’re looking to accomplish from meetings and tasks. And when a skirmish arises, it also helps you respond rather than react.
#6: Re-find the meaning in your job.
When you feel as crispy as shrimp tempura, it’s easy to get negative, even cynical. Those are classic burnout symptoms.
The antidote (in life and in work)? Purpose. Dr. Freedman suggests asking these questions:
- Where can you find meaning in your role?
- How can you connect to a sense of purpose at work?
- When was the last time you felt engaged and inspired at work?
- What would you need to get back to that place?
“Study after study shows that what keeps people engaged at work is a sense that they matter and play a role,” says Aarons-Mele. “There are even studies that show that people would prefer autonomy over a raise of a certain amount.” Once you figure out what it is that would boost your sense of meaning, you can take action to make it happen.
#7: Learn how to soothe your boss.
Speaking of autonomy… If you feel like a cog just carrying out the boss’s orders, it’s no wonder you’re burnt. In this case, says Aarons-Mele, manage your boss. “I like people to think about, Is my boss being a nightmare because they’re anxious, and how can I help make them less anxious?” she explains.
You might also actually—gasp!—consider talking to your manager about the burnout. There’s a right and a wrong way to do this. “As in all things with your boss, come with solutions, not complaints, and ask them how they’re experiencing things. Certainly, if you’re at an executive level, this is appropriate,” says Aarons-Mele.
“We sometimes forget that our managers are people, too,” she continues. “I think it’s very effective and reduces defensiveness when you can engage your boss in a solution that might help them. We know from data that managers and leaders are feeling more stressed,” she explains, citing a Headspace survey that found 59 percent of CEOs felt dread every week.
It’s a help-me-help-you situation. By figuring out how to destress them a bit at work, a less-irritating atmosphere might just appear for you.
#8: Consider compartmentalizing.
“If you go to work every day and bang your head against the wall, your brain will say,
We don’t like doing this. Your brain manifests you sitting at your desk, zoning out into space, feeling like you just can’t,” explains Aarons-Mele. “Inefficacy is a key sign of burnout, and a key sign of depression. If you feel like you’re being shamed all day or your voice isn’t being heard, all these contribute to a sense of futility. Of course that leads to burnout.”
When people tell Aarons-Mele that it’s their toxic workplace causing the burnout, she asks two questions: Do you want to stay, and do you have to stay? “If the answer is yes, then you have to accept the things you cannot change. I can’t change my boss. I can’t change my culture. I can’t change the fact there’s a global pandemic. You have to, at some level, make peace with that and compartmentalize and focus on what you do have agency over,” she explains.
“It can be so painful. I’ve been through it myself, where I just cared too much and I was never going to be able to make a difference and it felt depressing and annoying,” she continues. You have to figure out a way to be ok, for as long as you have to be at that job. “A lot of the time, the people who make it in large systems are amazing compartmentalizers—people who can say, This is my lane,” Aarons-Mele says.
Amy Keller Laird is CEW’s mental health correspondent and the founder of Mental, the first digital media destination for women that blends mental health and lifestyle. Amy is the former Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Health and Beauty Director of Allure. She has OCD, and has been named a Friend of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) for her journalism work around mental health.