As the holiday season draws nearer, so do my responsibilities as a mother and college professor. Meeting work deadlines, traveling for business, attending committee meetings, chauffeuring my children to and from extracurriculars, volunteering at my parish, and trying to keep up a semblance of a social life comprise only some of the regular activities I participate in. You might notice that cooking, laundry, and other housework items aren’t even on this list, but are likewise typical markers of my day. As is a consistent, seemingly never-ending stream of emails.
I noticed a few months ago that, following the COVID-19 pandemic, I experienced not simply a sense of general tiredness from completing these activities—including those I generally, and used to, love—but a wider feeling of burnout. Much of what used to give me pleasure at work no longer did. I felt less available to my family and friends outside of work, too.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” That last part certainly resonated with my feelings. Like many of us, I associated my sense of identity with the love I felt for my job and all its tasks. Who was I, if I no longer loved what I was doing, or if I felt exhausted at the mere idea of sending another email or grading another assignment? I felt as if I were no longer accomplishing tasks with the same passion and vigor I once had. It took me a longer time to concentrate my energy on projects that I knew I had loved being a part of or leading only months prior.
I am not alone in experiencing a sense of disconnection from my job recently. Burnout is a global concern, with both the UN and WHO recognizing it as a damaging phenomenon. Nearly half of Gen Z (ages 18 to 29) and women workers in general express that they are currently feeling career burnout, likely because of the lingering effects of the pandemic and the economic downturn.
With this said, I remained aware intellectually that my job had been life-giving for a long time prior to experiencing burnout. While I felt exhausted in the moment, I worked to find ways to alleviate the negative emotions I felt. As we approach an increasingly busy season, here are four tips I found that helped me mitigate burnout:
Praying for 20 minutes a day
This may seem a bit too obvious for Catholic readers, but I realized that during the pandemic, I would think about praying, but I didn’t have a committed practice to include it in my daily schedule. One symptom of burnout is loss in concentration, and I felt this change in my life acutely; basically, every facet of my prayer life became more difficult. Even during weekly Mass, my mind would often wander to work troubles and what I needed to accomplish, rather than being fully present in the communal and independent prayer rituals offered therein.
I finally decided to include a contemplative meditation for 20 minutes a day each morning. I sit in prayerful silence, concentrating on the phrase, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Over a period of weeks that has included this daily prayer time, I have begun to feel calmer and more optimistic about every facet of my life, including my work.
Focusing on what I love about my job
Paperwork and email are never going away for any of us who work in an office. Nor are colleagues we find annoying or specific work practices that irk us. Another commonly cited burnout symptom is an increased feeling of negativity toward one’s work in general. After reflecting on my job as a professor, I realized that what replenished me most was spending time with students, writing about my field, and participating in professional mentoring.
Now, I try to spend the time of my day when I’m most energized doing what I know feels sustaining to me, and I’ve pulled back from projects that feel draining. That doesn’t mean I refuse tasks I don’t want to do, only that I have created enough room on my plate that whenever I’m requested to take on a new project, I no longer feel as if it is being added to an already frenetic, overloaded life.
You might write down your values as I did when I initially realized how burnt out I felt. Does what you’re spending time on most align with those values? If not, see if you can remove at least some of what doesn’t, or simply move a less enjoyable task to a time of day when you’re not the most energized (and schedule what you love for those times that you are). Plan your time. Focus on what you love within your day-to-day schedule.
Seeking, and celebrating, work champions and colleagues.
We all have friends and mentors who help us feel recharged. In 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Paul advises the church members: “Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Chances are, if you’re feeling burnt out at your job, others with whom you work are, too. God wants us to have communion with those he places closest to us, including our coworkers.
Carve out time for colleagues who bring you joy. Try to avoid only scheduling meetings with them to go over long agendas or merely accomplish tasks. Plan moments of communion doing something you both enjoy, so you can encourage each other, share common interests, and make memories beyond work. For instance, I’ve formed non-work-related book clubs, gone on movie dates, practiced yoga, and even scheduled Mass attendance with colleagues who I know also want to deepen their faith. In the past few months, I’ve sought out and found those people whose presence replenishes me and vice versa, invigorating me (and I hope them) for all the varied aspects of my job’s functions.
When we’re stressed at work, our bodies undergo the same physiological symptoms that they would in stressful situations, such as being chased down the street by a bear, even if what we’re feeling is predominantly emotional and not physical. Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote a book about burnout that suggests 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise can help your body complete the stress cycle it needs to after facing an anxiety-ridden situation at work.
Stated simply, exercise can be considered another way we serve our souls. As Catholics, we might recall here the Jesuit concept of cura personalis, Latin for “care for the whole person.” How we treat our bodies is reflective of how we treat our spiritual and emotional selves. When meeting with work friends and colleagues, I now often suggest going on a walk outside rather than meeting in someone’s office. Adding this physical practice to any work activity can serve to calm us and remind us of our holistic responsibility to our own well-being as well as the well-being of those with whom we work.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux once famously wrote: “My vocation is love.” Last spring, I framed this quote and set it on my office desk. It acts as a reminder that no matter how burnt out I might feel at any given time, my vocation, or calling as a Catholic, is to love and serve others. Avoiding burnout is not a selfish pursuit then. Instead, it is essential to living out one’s vocation. By prioritizing our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, we equip ourselves to better give to others, at our workplaces and beyond.
Indeed, St. Thérèse’s words ring true for all those who share the Catholic faith. In seeking and finding ways to overcome burnout, we end up fulfilling not only the vocational stirrings specific to our jobs but also the overriding vocation of the Church in general: to accomplish God’s loving work in the world, wherever and whoever we are.