You might find yourself more irritable than usual. Or you may feel tightness and pain across your back. A more worrying sign – you’re unable to motivate yourself to make progress on projects. This is not a string of bad days. These are early signs of burnout – physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion through stress.

1 in 5 highly engaged U.S. employees suffer from burnout, according to a University of Cambridge study. “When talking burnout, you’re talking about a spectrum,” says Paula Davis-Laack, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute. It’s a spectrum of stress with boredom on one side to “breakdown” on the other.

You can prevent a burnout breakdown, if you know the tipping point of your stress.

Some amount of stress is useful for growth. It motivates us and helps us avoid danger. At the same time, too much is damaging. But, what is that point of balance, before we tip into unhealthy stress? Finding this is the key to avoiding burnout. Davis-Laack calls this point the stress sweet spot – where we have the resources to handle stress well. It’s where we get the benefits that stress offers, without the havoc.

Davis-Laack points to three different aspects of our work which contribute to stress, and depending on how we manage each aspect, we either remain in the sweet spot, or tip over into burnout:

  • Job demands– the tasks and responsibilities that require consistent effort and energy.
  • Job resources– the resources we have to get our work done.
  • Recovery– what we do every day to recharge and recover from the demands placed on us.

These aspects work together like an equalizer – for example, if job resources are low, the stress in our job demands would be really high. But we can balance it by increasing our recovery. And what if you don’t have space for recovery? Davis-Laack says, “It’s hard for a lot of people to lessen their workload. But if you focus on getting more resources – building strong relationships with your colleagues, asking for feedback, and communicating, you can build a supportive network of people you can rely on when you need help.”

How do you know if you’ve tipped over?

Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter suggests a simple exercise. Commit to a relaxing, stress-free weekend. You can’t do any work – no calls, texts, or emails. Your only task is to remove as many sources of stress as possible from that weekend, even if it means getting away from family. Then, sleep in both days. Eat right. Occupy your time with relaxing activities. Read, cook, or do anything else you like.  And if you don’t like to do anything, don’t. Just no stress.

If after this, on Monday morning, you wake up tired and dreading your day, you are likely suffering from burnout. But, take a deep breath. You can change this, with more recovery. Are you willing to commit?

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