Boss Lady

How sleep can help you avoid burnout


Burnout can happen to anyone.  Whether you’re in the fast-paced corporate world, you’re trying to balance work and family life, or you are a busy entrepreneur, there is the possibility of burnout.  Putting constant stress on our bodies and minds has far-reaching and serious consequences for our health.  The World Health Organization have declared that long-term work stress leading to burnout is a global healthcare problem.

World sleep day

Tomorrow (March 16th, 2018) is World Sleep Day, so it’s the perfect time to take a break from our busy schedules and look at how we can improve our sleep habits to prevent burnout.  This year, World Sleep Day is focused on preserving our bio-rhythms, such as our internal body clock.  Professor Debra J. Skene of University of Surrey, UK explains, “If there is misalignment between the circadian timing system and behaviour, such as during night shift work or following travel across time zones, then one is sleeping and eating at the wrong time of day. This has acute consequences (daytime sleepiness; reduced performance and increased risk of accidents) as well as long term consequences (increased risk of metabolic disorders, cancer).”

What is burnout?

Humans have an incredible survival tool called the fight-or-flight response or (less popularly) the acute stress response.  The acute stress response occurs in reaction to a perceived threat or danger, and causes certain hormones, like adrenalin and cortisol, to be released into the body.  This generates physiological responses such as; increased heart rate, increased breathing, slower digestion, extra blood flow to major muscle groups, and changes to various other autonomic nervous functions.  Traditionally, this response was designed to help humans escape from or fight off a wild animal or something similar.  However, in modern society, human bodies are having the same reactions to stressful situations in the workplace.  And, it is happening far too often!  The long-term impacts of the body constantly thinking it is fighting for survival are still being studied, but some research has shown that it contributes to mental health issues (such as anxiety, PTSD and depression) and physical health conditions (such as heart problems, cancer and diabetes).

Burnout is dangerous to our health, but its also damaging our productivity.  Working ourselves to the point of exhaustion might ‘get stuff done’ but it doesn’t produce a high quality of work and it stifles creativity.  Studies have shown that overtiredness impairs concentration and affects the ability to make decisions in the workplace.

Signs of impending burnout

Burnout will look different for everyone and the symptoms are often only clear to us in hindsight.  Some of the most common signs are listed below:

  • Constant high levels of stress might be the best indicator of burnout. This is described by suffers as feeling ‘high strung’ or ‘on edge’ and often results in irritability or moodiness.
  • Not getting enough sleep. The World Sleep Society recommends 7 hours of sleep per night as the very minimum.  If you are burning the candle at both ends burnout is inevitable.  Trouble sleeping can also be a sign that your body has too much adrenaline built up.
  • Constant feelings of exhaustion and fatigue. If you are feeling flat all day everyday, then it’s time to slow down.  It’s also a good idea to check with your GP for any underlying health conditions.
  • Getting sick all the time. It could be as innocuous as a cold or a headache but if these things are happening more than usual it can be a sign that overwork is starting to affect the immune system.
  • A feeling of ‘drowning’ in work or responsibilities. People describe this as feeling overwhelmed or like there is not enough time in the day.  It can feel like you are always rushing, always late and always doing at least two things at once.
  • Negative feelings in general. These feelings can go by many names (frustrated, cynical, worried, hopeless, trapped, resentful, defeated, empty) but you know if you’re feeling worse than usual more often than usual.
  • Dependence on an external substance. This one sounds bad, but it can be as simple as relying on a coffee to wake you up or needing a sugar hit in the afternoon.  This might be fine for you, but be alert to changes in habits or excessive food, alcohol or smoking to cope with your day.

Getting enough sleep to prevent burnout

The number one thing to do to avoid burnout is to consistently get a decent amount of quality sleep.  If you can achieve this, then a lot of other things will fall into place.  The Dalai Lama’s saying that ‘sleep is the best meditation’ is often repeated and for good reason.  Sleep gives the body and mind a chance to heal from the day and to rejuvenate for the coming day.  If we can prioritise sleep, burnout won’t stand a chance.

There are many ways to improve your sleep habits but start with the basics to avoid burnout.

  1. Keep a routine. This is the key to good sleep health and overall health.  Have a bedtime and a waking time and stick to it as much as you possibly can.
  2. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugar before bed. This does not have to be a rule for every single day of your life, but the more you can do this the better you will feel.
  3. Bed is only for sleep and sex. Don’t use your bed as an office or living room, and try to avoid the allure of emails and social media before sleep.

Pro tips for avoiding burnout

Once you have your sleep routine under control, turn some of the following tips in habits to prevent burnout and enjoy your work more:

  • Physical exercise helps you manage stress both as a short-term measure, and as a long-term measure.  You will also experience increased energy and productivity when you exercise regularly.
  • Take work breaks. Try scheduling free time in your calendar.  It may feel a bit like you’re back at school, but it will also give you a chance to rejuvenate yourself for the tasks ahead.  Some people find meditating helps to avoid that overwhelmed feeling.  Listen to a guided meditation (there are plenty on the web) and see if it works for you.  If possible, leave your office for lunch and eat in a different environment.  You might even find a spot for a quick nap, but do not day nap for longer than 45 minutes.
  • Take a holiday. Holidays are fun and good for your well-being so it’s a win/win.  To take a proper holiday, turn off your emails and ask colleagues not to contact you unless it’s an emergency.
  • ‘Clock off’ your mind. We’re all guilty of sending and replying to work emails outside of the usual business hours.  Try to curb this as much as possible.  Give your mind a break from work and focus on relaxing, recreation or family and friends.
  • Seek professional help when you need it. Don’t put up with feeling subpar!  See a GP or psychologist to help set you back on the path to happiness.
  • Take part in regular social activities. Spend time with people you don’t work with or live with.  A regular activity will hold you accountable so organise a monthly brunch, join a book club or start a walking group.
  • Pursue a hobby or passion project. Do something that you get lost in.  It could be photography, blogging, star-gazing, knitting, guitar, folk dancing, or painting.  This is especially important if you don’t have a job that lets you flex your creative muscles.
  • Eat healthy foods. Eating healthier foods will give you long-lasting energy throughout the day, as well as warding off physical and mental health issues.

About Alicia Potts

Alicia Potts is a Sydney mother-of-two who is passionate about helping people realise the value of sleep. She is the founder and owner of The Deep Sleep Co . Australia’s guide to sleep products and services. The Deep Sleep Co. showcases the best sleep products available in Australia and New Zealand. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ to stay up to date with sleep technology in Australia.

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