Work SOS – Are You At Risk Of Burnout?

Work SOS – Are You At Risk Of Burnout?

What did you think when Oprah admitted she was on the verge of a breakdown last year?  I say kudos to Oprah for showing us that even the most successful and powerful women can suffer burnout.  I applaud Oprah’s willingness to show her vulnerability.  By doing so, she’s made it okay for the rest of us to admit when we’ve had enough.

As women, we often expect too much – of ourselves and of others.  We have a hard time saying “no” and many of us are not very good at setting boundaries.  The result?  Burnout – we’re overworked, over-stressed and spread too thin.  We often overlook or don’t see the warning signs until it’s too late.

We all handle work stress differently. The key is to learn to recognize your warning signs before you reach full burnout.  For me, there are three distinct signs.  When these surface, I know I’m at my breaking point.


Compromising can take many forms.  At least, it’s when you’re not being authentic at work or not doing your best.  At worst, it’s when what you’re doing at work is incongruent with your values or your integrity is challenged.  I always know when I’m starting to compromise because I feel as if I’m leading a double life – I’m one person at work and someone completely different at home.


There’s a difference in being tired due to a heavy workload and being totally and utterly exhausted.  There was a time when I experienced total exhaustion because of a job.  I’m talking complete physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion.  I would get home from work and literally could not move off the couch. It was as if I was paralyzed.


I think we all have a natural instinct to avoid difficult or stressful situations.  But, there have been times in my career when I took avoidance to a whole new level.  In one instance, I was working for a small firm.  The work was enjoyable and I was learning a lot, but the hours were crazy and my boss was even crazier.  One day I realized I had started parking in the very last space at the far end of the parking lot just to avoid having to park anywhere near my boss.

If you don’t know your triggers or think you may be hitting the wall, try the Burnout Self-Test by Mind Tools.  It’s a great tool to help you find out if you’re at risk of burnout.  If you are on the verge of burnout or experiencing extra pressure at work, here are 5 sure-fire ways to come off the brink and reclaim your sanity.

Stay out of the office politics

It’s helpful to be politically savvy within an organization – knowing the informal leaders and influencers, navigating through bureaucracy, having political capital, establishing positive, product networks, etc.  Unfortunately, many people confuse political savvy with destructive office politics – gossip, back-stabbing, the meeting after the meeting, throwing others under the bus, workplace bullying, etc.  In many ways “mean girl” behavior, often served up with a hefty dose of passive aggression.

Separate yourself from your work

Your work is what you do, not who you are.  I learned early on that a job is just a job.  Don’t get me wrong, I take pride in what I do and my career has been very important to me.  But, I also know myself and know that I’m much more than my job.  It’s important to have enough confidence in yourself to know that you are a valuable person with many wonderful gifts and talents, regardless of what job you have.  Once you can separate yourself from your job, things that happen aren’t ‘personal’ any longer.  It gives you a whole new perspective and reduces stress.  It also gives you the ability to view things more objectively.  Take my word for it, it’s very liberating.

Re-establish your boundaries

If your workload is killing you, chances are your boundaries have been encroached, or you haven’t established clear boundaries.  Don’t lose heart, it’s not too late.  Take stock of your situation, identify the primary sources of stress or workload, figure out what would help alleviate your stress, then go talk to your boss and ask for what you need.  And remember, “No” is a complete sentence.

Take a time out

We put our kids in time out to give them a chance to calm down and think about what they’ve done wrong or can do better.  When the pressures of work are closing in on us, taking a time out may be just the thing we need – an opportunity to step back, catch our breath, relax and re-evaluate our situation.

If taking time away from the office isn’t possible, then build time for yourself into your daily schedule – go for walk, do some stretching or relaxation exercises, find a quiet spot for a short meditation, unplug from all your technology for 30 minutes, go out for lunch instead of eating at your desk.  Find some way to take your mind off your work and relieve your stress, even several deep breaths can help when you’re overwhelmed.

Know when you’ve had enough

Let’s face it not every job is worth it.  If nothing you do seems to make a difference in your workload or stress level and you’re health, psyche, family, friends or self-esteem are at risk, it’s time for a change.

There may be alternatives at your existing company that you haven’t considered – a job in your current company in a different department, restructuring your current job, a flexible schedule or other alternative work arrangement.  One of the dentists at my dental office recently started a job sharing arrangement with another dentist.  It’s worked out extremely well for both of them.

When you hit the burnout stage, the only option may be walking away – finding another job at another company, changing careers, or even going back to school.

It takes courage to make a big change, especially when you’re in a stressful situation.  But for most people, including me, it ends up being the best thing that ever happened.  Even though starting OWN contributed to the stress of Oprah’s near breakdown, she’s shown us that you can have a setback, deal with it and come back stronger than ever.

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Passionate advocate for the advancement and empowerment of women. Prior HR exec and co-founder of Ask Ajna - helping women find their voice in the workplace.

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