Are You at Risk for Burnout? Ask Yourself These 4 Questions to Find Out.
I have been hesitating to write about work-life balance because it is one of the aspects of well-being that I have the hardest time implementing in my own life. As a happiness researcher and consultant, I really do try to practice what I preach. But work-life balance is something I often work at for short bursts before I end up backsliding into workaholism.
I know that I am not the only one with this difficulty. Work-life balance is really tough for many of you ambitious, entrepreneurial, hard-working folks who read my posts. So even though I am certainly not an expert on how to achieve balance, I think it’s time we start a conversation about balance, precisely because it is so hard for so many of us to find it, and it is so integral to enhancing well-being.
Below I provide 4 questions, based on my experiences, that can help you determine if you are at risk for poor work-life balance and eventual burnout.
1. Does your personality put you at risk for burnout?
I began to see people struggle a lot more with work-life balance when I entered graduate school, and I’ll tell you why. Universities select grad students who can persevere year after year to complete a PhD - a degree which averages 10 years to complete. So they pick students who, as a group, tend to be ambitious, focused, enthusiastic, and even obsessive about their work.
Although many people struggle with setting aside enough time to do work, grad students tend to be the types of people that struggle to set aside enough time not to do work. They may neglect to eat right, exercise, engage in hobbies, or even see their friends and family.
If you “live to work”, forget to schedule time for non-work activities, and see yourself as someone who is highly motivated and persistent, then you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do
If you're already a hyper-focused, motivated, planner type, then I know you can successfully apply your motivation skills to create better balance. Get out your calendar and schedule time to spend on your health and happiness. Build in systems to prevent backsliding. For example, by scheduling your health and happiness activities at a regular time each week, you can build healthy habits.
Scheduling regular “friend time” is also helpful. Recently, my workaholic friends and I have started pre-scheduling weekly fun activities that we do together. Now we don’t have to make the effort to schedule fun time each week - it just happens. Because we have agreed to meet each other and we hold each other accountable, we help each other succeed in creating balance. The more you can plan, automate, and increase accountability for your behavior, the easier it will be to improve your work-life balance.
2. Does social comparison put you at risk for burnout?
When you put a bunch of overly ambitious, workaholic, grad students together, there is bound to be social comparison. You hear things like, “Sally has 5 publications, but I only have 2. I need to write more.” or “John finished his qualifying exams in his 3rd year, but I won't do mine until my fourth year. I need to read more.” or “Mila gave such an amazing research talk. I should be spending more time honing my presenting skills.” And so on.
When top performers are all put together and all asked to do the same tasks, only one person can be the top performer. Everyone else, who used to be considered a rock-star back in undergrad, is now average - or worse. This type of environment leads everyone to work harder and harder to regain that sense of mastery, self-esteem, and respect. But when everyone works harder, no one gets any further ahead. Pretty soon work-life balance is completely gone and everyone still feels inferior.
If you are surrounded by people who are amazing at what you are supposed to be amazing at, you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do
It is human nature to compare ourselves to “similar others”. This isn’t always a bad thing; it helps us work harder and be better. But if you are wanting more balance, you may benefit from working in an environment where everyone is doing work that is very different from you. For example, let’s say you are a researcher and you work with a brilliant team of colleagues who are in marketing, sales, and engineering. When these colleagues do well, it is not especially likely to make you feel like you are not doing well at your job. But if you are working with brilliant researchers using the same methods and studying the same topics as you, then it is more likely that when they do well, you feel like you are not doing well by comparison.
This is why I don’t think that social comparison is quite as big of an issue in industry as it is in academia. In companies, especially when everyone has specific roles that are unique, social comparison just doesn't happen as much. If you feel social comparison is hurting your work-life balance, you may want to work in an environment where everyone has more defined and discrete roles.
3. Does your local culture put you at risk for burnout?
It wasn’t until I finished my masters degree and started my PhD at Berkeley that my local culture became an additional risk factor for me. At Berkeley, everyone expects you to be star. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Berkeley defines a star as being yellow and having five points. This means that a star is not blue, it is not circular, and it is not polka-dotted. Remember, to be a star, you have to be yellow and have 5 points. Of course, every human being is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. So very few of us fit any definition of what it means to be a star.
What happens when people feel they are are not what they should be?
If you are in a culture that expects everyone be stars, you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do
If you work somewhere that believes that people are stars, one thing you can do is build a growth mindset. Growth mindset refers to the belief that people can grow and change, and improve. It means that people are not born stars; they become stars. Be careful though. A growth mindset alone might just lead you to work more. It can even become one more reason to work harder.
So ensure that you also practice self-acceptance. Remember, no one else’s definition of what you should be should make you feel bad about who you are. Maybe you are an octagon (and not a star). If so, try to view yourself positively and celebrate your beautifully unique shape.
4. Does the broader culture put you at risk?
UC Berkeley sits right next to San Francisco and Silicon Valley - an area which is often considered to be a technology mecca. Some of the world's best known tech companies - including Facebook and Google - operate here. Thousands of small start-ups operate here too. If you are sitting at a coffee shop, you are almost guaranteed to overhear someone who is starting, working at, or discussing a start-up.
It is an inspiring and invigorating culture. But start-up culture, like academia - prides itself on hard work. You may have heard stories about start-up founders forgoing sleep, food, and socializing to build their companies. Indeed, start-up culture reinforces the belief that success requires incredibly long hours. Just take a look at some articles coming out of the video game industry to get sense for how unbalanced work-life can really get.
If your culture expects you to work all the time, you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do
Try to establish boundaries. What is an acceptable amount of hours for you to work? What life experiences would you regret missing? What are your work-life balance deal-breakers? Once you establish where the line is for you, you must be assertive in advocating for your own needs. Because no one else will.
What happens if you do burnout?
In my case, the risk factors added up and got the best of me. While still pursuing my PhD at Berkeley, I founded my own company, Lifenik Inc. In between teaching and doing research and dissertation writing, I was fundraising and pitching my company. I also took classes in business and technology, picked up a minor in Management of Technology Innovation, and taught myself how code in R. When my startup started failing (just like 75% of the other start-ups), I worked harder, I pivoted to focus on well-being consulting, and I took on odd jobs to build skills. At this point, balance was not even something I was trying to find.
I started getting migraines, insomnia, and numbness in my hands and back (these turned out to be symptoms of anxiety by the way). I stopped valuing and prioritizing the people in my life, even neglecting to spend time with my husband and my friends. My work stopped giving me a sense of purpose, I felt aimless, and I started wondering if why I didn't feel my life had meaning.
Then the unthinkable happened. Little by little, the quality of my work started to decline. I would schedule meetings at the wrong times, write reports that were missing lots of words, and be unable to answer the simplest of questions. What was happening to me?! I asked myself, “If I can’t work, then what else do I have?!”
It was crazy to realize that I had so neglected the other parts of my life that I didn't even think they existed. I actually believed that if I couldn't do my work well, I had nothing left. It was only then that I realized something was really wrong.
It turns out, I was well into the worst phases of burnout. Because burnout builds slowly, you can miss it entirely. Your health, relationships, and well-being start to falter, but you may not know why. Eventually, your body simply shuts down to prevent you from working anymore. In my case, my brain and body just weren’t working well anymore. In a more frightening case of burnout, Arianna Huffington collapsed and woke up in a pool of her own blood.
Burnout is serious. And balance is important. Don’t let yourself get to this point.
How to recover from burnout
The truth is, many of you may already be experiencing burnout. It’s up to you to reverse it. Just as it took time to develop burnout, it will take time to recover. Returning to a regular 40 hour work week is usually not enough to make up for years of overworking yourself. You may need to take long chunks of time off, work part-time for a while, and/or learn how to better cope with stress.
It is a long road back to a healthy balanced life. The earlier you start getting clear on what really matters to you, the better. You can take surveys to see if your well-being is suffering and try to reprioritize the things that really make you happy in life. Moving forward, it will be essential to accept yourself, and learn how to be more assertive so that you don’t just end up burning yourself out all over again. These are just some of the ways that you can create balance and start living a happier, more fulfilling life.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is the founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at UC Berkeley, she started building online courses, apps, and products to boost well-being—products that have reached more than a million people. Now an author at Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis's expertise on how to boost well-being reaches people all across the world.