Monday, March 19, 2018
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How to Counter Workplace Burnout

We all have to make a living somehow. Many of us do so by spending a sizable portion of the day in a corporate or retail environment, while some of us run our own business. There’s nothing wrong with that, as there is barakah in earning a halal income and supporting oneself and one’s family. But with working hard comes the risk of burnout. One can run out of fuel, so to speak, leading to decreased productivity and quality of work. This is neither good for you nor for your employer/business.
Spending several hours a day at work doesn’t seem so bad, but once you add in a potentially long commute, it eats up a good chunk of the day. On top of that, one might check emails or continue working on tasks or projects after getting home, either due to impending deadlines or for the sake of staying on top of things. Some people have also seen their personal workloads grow as companies reduce the workforce to cut costs, meaning those left behind have to pick up the slack.

There might even be the occasional conference call after-hours, especially if you work for a global company. And if you do work for a global business, it’s not uncommon to clean up your inbox before going to bed only to find a full inbox the next morning. Such is the corporate norm nowadays.

If you really love what you do, then you may find the energy inside to keep going all day due to the sheer enjoyment of the work. For the average person who likes his job but doesn’t want to sleep under his desk, it’s important to maintain a good work-life balance in order to prevent burnout. But how realistic is this concept? On the one hand, companies may tout the importance of work-life balance, while on the other hand, you continue receiving emails and instant messages late at night or even on the weekend.

Getting burned out can lead to emotional or psychological stress, which can have downstream impacts when it comes to relationships with colleagues and loved ones. Being overworked and stressed out can lead to lower productivity. This means diminished output and lower quality, potentially creating unfavorable work evaluations or dissatisfied customers. And let’s not forget lack of motivation and job dissatisfaction. Burnout can also cause anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and other health issues. As a matter of fact, research has shown direct links between stress and heart disease, obesity, gastrointestinal problems, even Alzheimer’s disease.

In Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek, he offers some tips to avoid being overburdened at work, but I feel some of the tips are a bit over-the-top. For example, Ferriss suggests skipping meetings and trying to prove that you can be more productive outside of them. In companies that value and thrive on collaboration, this probably wouldn’t pass muster. He also suggests avoiding phone calls, keeping headphones on so people don’t bother you, and hiring a virtual assistant. Then again, he does offer some productivity hacks such as using online tools like Evernote, reducing clutter, and blocking off time in the morning to work on something important prior to checking emails.

Following are some practical tips that can help you avoid workplace burnout.

1. Know when to shut down
There needs to be a clear boundary between work and personal life. I have to admit that I’ve had a bad habit of signing on after getting home, just to be sure I’m not flooded with emails and all urgent matters are resolved. But if you’re married, as I am, be warned that such behavior is not fair to your spouse. Now I try to be quick about checking emails and closing my browser. At some point, you have to log off and step away from the computer. There’s no need to send work emails at odd hours of the night.

2. The Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of results come from 20% of actions (hence you may hear this referred to as the 80/20 rule). It’s okay if you can’t get everything done in one day. Instead, focus on the things that will make the biggest impact. Prioritize your tasks and make a plan. If you’re worried about forgetting things that need to be done, you can set reminders in Outlook or Google Calendar, or use an app like Google Keep.

3. Consolidate and/or delegate
Where possible, consolidate your tasks. For example, there may be one report that can cover multiple business needs or one trip that can accomplish a few errands. Also, see if there’s anything that can be delegated to others who would be more appropriate for that particular task. Sometimes you simply have to say no, as one can only handle so much at one time. On the other hand, some people have a hard time letting go. If you happen to be a control freak, keep in mind that coworkers and direct reports may resent this, perhaps feeling that you don’t trust their ability to get the job done.

4. Rein in meetings
To prevent long, unproductive, or pointless meetings, ensure that clear agenda are presented and strict time limits are adhered to. Respect others’ time, and demand that your time is respected as well. If you or someone else don’t establish this type of discipline around meetings, precedents will be set and everyone will suffer.

5. Telecommute
Speak with your manager to see if it’s possible to work at least one day a week from home. This will allow you to avoid the commute, save some time, and likely help you feel a little more relaxed. Telecommuting can increase employee satisfaction, increase productivity, and help the environment by decreasing the number of vehicles on the road. Just remember, if you do work at home, know when to stop and transition to personal life.

6. Take a break
During the workday, take occasional breaks to get up, stretch, and walk around. Taking a walk can decrease fatigue and help you perform better by getting your blood flowing and increasing oxygen to the brain. Sitting there all day and staring at a computer is not healthy. Not only can it cause eye strain and promote bad posture, but studies have indicated that too much sitting can actually lead to heart disease and higher blood sugar.

7. Take a vacation
This is easier said than done, especially considering that paid vacation is scarce in some countries, but it can be a huge relief to get away from it all and unwind. Even better if you can unplug and avoid work emails during this time. We’re not robots. We all need time to recharge every now and then. It will help you personally feel better, but potentially improve your performance at work once you go back. Even if traveling is not an option right now, there are local getaways or retreats you can plan.

8. Get a hobby
There must be something you enjoy doing outside of work. Have something fun to look forward to after work or on the weekends, whether it’s reading a book or doing some outdoor activity. This will direct energy to something more enjoyable and less stressful than work. If you have absolutely no hobbies, see if your local masjid offers classes or activities that you might be interested in.

9. Food for the soul
Prayer, or even some deep breathing, can help relax your mind, body, and soul. As Muslims, we have daily prayers prescribed for us, so spiritual breaks are built into our day. The time spent in salat will not only give the brain a break from work but also help you get back to work feeling rejuvenated. Pair your lunch break with dhuhr prayer so you get both physical and spiritual nourishment.

10. Food for the body
While we’re on the subject of nourishment, take a look at your diet. When one is busy in life, it’s easy and convenient to grab junk food or fast food, but these can actually increase sluggishness and inhibit performance, so aim for healthier snacks like nuts, seeds, and berries. Also consider the sunnah fasts every Monday and Thursday, as fasting has the physical benefit of cleansing your body, while also increasing your mental clarity.

11. Pump some iron
Whether you go to the gym, do some pushups at home, play a sport, or take a walk around the block, exercise helps relieve stress and pumps out the endorphins that make you feel good. Finding the energy to exercise after a long day of work may be difficult, so see if you can squeeze something in before work, in the middle of the workday, or on the weekend. Regardless of age, it’s important to continue doing some level of physical activity. At the same time, don’t neglect diet and sleep, as these two things combined with exercise will make you physically more resilient to burnout.

12. Laughter is an excellent medicine
Humor can help decrease stress, break the ice, and lighten the mood. Laughter can contribute to general well-being, so feel free to spend some time laughing each day with some funny cat videos or other clean humor.

13. The great outdoors
Go to a park, shut your phone off, and take a nice walk. Enjoy the nature and fresh air, and forget about work for a while. Take a deep breath, enjoy the breeze against your face, and soak in some sunshine. Appreciate the natural beauty that Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) has blessed us with.

14. Last resort
If worse comes to worst and you really feel burned out, speak with your manager or a human resources representative. They are human, after all, and will hopefully be understanding. Your manager might not even be aware of your current workload and should be able to offer some assistance.

15. Islamic guidance and aid
Don’t forget that we have Islamic methods that can also help alleviate the effects of burnout.

Prayer and fasting have already been mentioned, but also make dua and practice sabr, as difficult times don’t last forever. In sha’ Allah, they will only make you stronger.

Perform dhikr as well, since the remembrance of Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) creates tranquility in the heart:

Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured. [Qur’an: Chapter 13, Verse 28]

Additionally, Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) stated in a hadith:

“Do not do that (stand all night in prayer and fast all day). Sleep and stand in prayer; fast and break your fast. For your eyes have a right over you, your body has a right over you…” [Sunan an-Nasa’i]

Although this hadith is primarily focused on excessive fasting and night prayers, it goes to show that moderation is key. We weren’t put on this Earth only to work and pay bills. We have responsibilities to Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) and to our families. Work is part of life, but not all that life entails. At the end of the day, it’s just a job. Do your best and be thankful for having a halal income, but think twice about sacrificing your health and well-being for the sake of work.

What other methods do you follow to avoid workplace burnout? Are there effects you noticed in your life for not drawing a clear work/life balance? Share with us your experience in the comments.

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