Five Ways to Avoid Work Burnout This Fall

Michelle Goodman tells you how to rejuvenate after a stressful workday.

Oct. 7, 2010— -- Ah, autumn. Season of back-to-school sales, home winterizing projects and rapidly fading tans. With summer's barbecues, camping trips and seaside weekends quickly disappearing from the rear view mirror, it's time to throw yourself back into office life -- or the job hunt -- full throttle.

But what if you couldn't afford a summer vacation and your work -- or your quest for it -- has you so burned out you're not sure how you'll make it to Halloween, let alone to next Labor Day? How do you soldier on without telling off your colleagues or recruiters, pulling an emergency chute and sliding off into the unemployed sunset like former Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater?

I asked a number of seasoned professionals who've been to the fried side and back how they managed to slog through all that on-the-job boredom, frustration and misery (besides blasting through all their sick days). Their top burnout busters follow.

Set Some Boundaries

Earlier this year, "Marisol," an ex-employee at a furniture dealership in Nashville, Tenn., found herself "torn between being thankful for still having a job" and needing to set some boundaries with her boss on when quitting time was. (Understandably, Marisol didn't want her real name used.)

"My co-workers and I used to work late every day, and no matter how hard we worked it was never enough," said Marisol, who has since found a new job with a more predictable schedule. "So we started setting an alarm to go off at 4 p.m. every day to remind ourselves that we should start wrapping things up so we could literally be walking out the door at 5 p.m. It worked some days, and didn't others, but it usually made us laugh and feel better."

Lighten the Mood

For Barbara Roche, an organizational development consultant in Boston, playing games with colleagues has helped add some much-needed levity to "potentially high burnout" periods at work. At a previous job, Roche and her co-workers would often play buzzword bingo throughout the workweek. "We made actual bingo cards and had a cash prize," Roche said. "It worked wonders."

Another on-the-job favorite of Roche and her former co-workers: guessing how many times the company's managing partner would walk down the hall on any given day. "The best part of this game was the hilarious e-mails that were shared when someone wanted to confirm a sighting," said Roche, who's a firm believer that bonding with one's colleagues can help reduce workplace weariness. "I worked with some very smart, funny people, and that was the more effective burnout preventer than the actual winning."

Take a Mini-Retreat

If you don't already do it yourself, chances are you know someone who breaks up each office afternoon with a 3 p.m. walk to the nearest purveyor of triple-shot espressos. (As one editor pal put it, "It's really the walk more than the caffeine that wakes me back up and hits my mental reset button.") But strolling down the block or doing laps around the company's grounds aren't your only options for a midafternoon pick me up.

"Instead of going downstairs and getting a coffee or smoking a cigarette on my breaks, I go into a spare office and do yoga for 10 minutes," said Karin Nembach, who works at a law firm that handles foreclosures in Boca Raton, Fla. And Bridget Quigg, a Seattle-based web editor, bounces back after lunch by taking what she calls "little lie-downs" for five to 15 minutes.

"I find a quiet place to go horizontal," said Quigg, who's been known to take advantage of a roomy closet at the office that she and her co-workers sometimes use for quick naps, private phone calls and breast-feeding. "It totally recharges my battery."

Embrace Your Alter Ego

Tiffani, a manager in Atlanta who didn't want her last name used, gets through the workweek by sharing the highlights and low points of her job via anonymous posts on Twitter. Tiffani is one of dozens of workers tweeting their daily office triumphs and gripes, with each post accompanied by a hashtag such as #newsfromthecube or #cubenews so they're easily searchable. (A quick Twitter search on #newsfromthecube turns up such tweets as "It's like time stopped after lunch today" and "Look of concern on boss's face after I pulled out my paring knife midconversation? Priceless. It's for my afternoon apple.")

"Now I have an instant way to vent, complain and share the good days and bad days," Tiffani said. "I think any of those posting #newsfromthecube or #cubenews would agree that our [online confabs] help to fight burnout. They are like an online support group."

All well and good, but isn't Tiffani worried her colleagues might catch wind of her anonymous complaints from the cube?

Not at all.

"There are tons of other cubicle workers using Twitter to vent," she said. "I don't say anything too inflammatory or anything that if caught I wouldn't admit. I am sure that co-workers often think some of the same things I tweet about anyway. The tweeting is just a way to share frustrations with others in work environments who can relate."

Remember Why You're There

Nadine Owens Burton, who worked as a Head Start director at a community action agency in Maryland until the recession began, took a more analog approach to surviving the workweek. Although she enjoyed many aspects of her job, it had become incredibly draining.

"I often was stressed out with grant and report writing deadlines, budget problems, human resources challenges and the general 'buck stops here' things that organization leaders have to deal with on a regular basis," she said.

But Owens Burton had an easy solution for fighting burnout.

"I simply visited one of our classrooms," she explained. "Being with those wonderful little human beings made me remember why I was doing what I was doing. My suggestion to those who don't have the benefit of a classroom full of 3- to 5-year-olds nearby [is to] find a way to remind yourself of who -- besides yourself and your family -- you are working for: your clients and customers. If that doesn't revive you and provide you with motivation to push past the burnout, then maybe you are in the wrong business."

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.