How to Recover From Burnout
Burnout is becoming more common, as work pressure increases along with the demand to always be connected.
Almost anyone is at risk of developing burnout symptoms, especially if they have tough schedules and high workloads.
What is burnout?
The term was first coined in 1974 by American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger1, representing a collection of physical and psychological symptoms. The most common symptoms linked with burnout include: exhaustion, reduced sense of personal accomplishment, depression, reduced job function and other stress-related illnesses.
If left undetected or not dealt with, burnout can have extreme effects on health, relationships and career.
High risk of burnout in freelancing
Freelancers are at a higher risk of burnout than those in regular jobs, according to Dr. Dagmar Siebecke from the Technical University of Dortmund, who examined burnout syndrome in various work situations2. According to this study, 65% of freelancers surveyed had chronic pain or illness, work-related psychological problems and exhaustion, whereas only 43% of employees reported the same.
Interestingly, the study discovered that it was not long working hours that caused burnout. Instead, it was the nature of the tasks, the lack of connection to clients and colleagues, as well as the lack of separation between home and work life.
Freelancers rarely have access to programs designed to combat and prevent burnout, as implemented in many companies. They must seek help on their own, but this is difficult when already exhausted.
What causes you the most stress?
If you are experiencing many of these symptoms, you may be at risk of burning out.
- You are exhausted all of the time - you even wake up tired!
- You are frequently sick or have physical pains, without underlying medical reasons.
- You dread each work day.
- You are completely and utterly bored with all of your work projects.
- Your schedule, deadlines and goals are unrealistic and unreasonable.
- You feel helpless, worthless, isolated and overwhelmed.
- You distract yourself and procrastinate every chance you can get.
- You can't concentrate, or forget appointments all the time.
- You lie awake every night, thinking about work.
- You have reduced social contact, maximizing the time spent working.
Freelancers at risk of burnout
- Unmanageable tasks and lack of control - Poorly specified projects with unrealistic deadlines, absorb large amounts of time in miscommunication, too many meetings, and re-work to meet the client's changing demands.
- Lack of support, encouragement and acknowledgement - Freelancers don't have performance reviews, work is accepted by the client but rarely praised. Making this problem worse, freelancers often feel they are underpaid.
- Lack of interaction - Freelancing is a solitary job. There is no team to bounce ideas off, or to check the understanding of a problem. Interacting with clients is not the same as interacting with colleagues.
- No separation between work and home - Working and living in the same space, encourages the feeling that you are always 'at work'. This is exacerbated by pressure to always be connected, and respond immediately to incoming communication (email, phone, social media).
- Time pressures and inadequate breaks - These two factors combine with poorly specified projects, the lack of separation between work and home, and poor time management practices. Freelancers worry about taking 'unpaid' time off, when taking a short break, a sick day, or a vacation.
- Unpredictable schedule and lack of job security - Projects come and go, there is no guarantee that there will be a next project. For some, this uncertainty and fluctuating schedule is deadly.
The first step is to recognize that you are heading towards burnout. Take some time to objectively look at your situation.
- Work out your personal and professional goals, find what you are passionate about. Are you engaged with your current work, or are you bored?
- Check that your goals are realistic, and define realistic ways to measure your success.
- Identify the sources of stress in your job (and in your personal life). Look for where your goals and passions do not match your projects and work habits.
- Check that you are juggling a manageable set of projects. Being overloaded saps motivation and productivity.
- Identify small changes you can make that will help you recover from burnout, and try them for 30 days.
- Look at downshifting, reducing expenses along with working hours to find a better work-life balance.
1. Routines and schedules preventing burnout
Stop or slow down. Set and stick to reasonable working hours. Working long hours, with no time off, does not increase productivity. It increases stress, encourages illness, and leads to burnout.
Keep within your schedule when working with your clients, you do not need to be always connected and respond immediately. Sending emails at 2am after a 14 hour work day encourages clients to expect service at all hours.
Back-up your electronic files regularly. Nothing is more stressful than losing all your work on a nearly complete project, close to its deadline!
Routines are useful for productivity, and for reducing stress. Don't forget to organize your home routine around your work routine, and don't mix them together.
2. Separate work and home to avoid burnout
Have a separate area for working, apart from your living space - don't work from your laptop in bed, or from the couch in front of the TV.
Keep everything work-related in one area. When you leave the area, you are no longer 'at work' and can properly relax.
Shared workspaces are available to hire in many cities, catering to freelancers who don't want to work at home.
4. Prioritise and plan against burnout
Select projects that interest you, or work with clients that you enjoy working with. Encourage long-term relationships with your favourite clients, drop those that take too much energy and time. Take on projects in new areas, stretch your skills and avoid becoming bored.
Plan projects in detail, encourage clear specifications and realistic deadlines. Don't be pressured into impossible situations, get comfortable with saying "no".
If you have too many projects on your plate, you need to re-balance your workload. Look at outsourcing the projects you are least interested in, or which cause the most amount of stress.
Communicate with your clients, ask for further clarification of requirements, explain when you are having trouble meeting a deadline.
Don't work yourself into the ground - your health is more important than this project.
3. Make your workspace comfortable
You have the freedom to make your workspace at home work for you, unlike many who work within companies.
Use a chair that properly supports your back and neck. Arrange your computer and desk according to ergonomic guidelines. If you experience hand pain while typing, a Dvorak layout or split keyboard may be suitable, or use speech-to-text software, such as Dragon Dictate.
Fluorescent lighting causes headaches for many in workplaces - LED or incandescent globes may be better choices. Avoid listening to distracting music, and leave the TV off while working.
Choose software tools that help you focus and stay productive. Many editors now have a full-screen mode, and there are utility programs that can block access to your biggest distractions for a set amount of time.
Keep the workspace clean and organized, both physically and electronically. If the computer is used both for work and play, create a work-only account. Keep all project files and communication notes together for each project.
5. Take time off to prevent and recover from burnout
Take a month or week vacation now and again, or even a day, here and there. Focus on reducing stress, recovering from illness, relaxing, and re-balancing your life. Don't spend your breaks (or your weekends) working!
Spend time with friends and loved ones, whose company you enjoy.
6. Take care of yourself to avoid developing burnout
Set aside a regular block of time in your schedule to exercise. Do something you enjoy - walking, attending a gym, a dance class, swimming, or something else.
Getting outside regularly can help you to leave work behind, and relax more easily.
Eat a healthy diet - set time aside to shop, and cook from whole ingredients. Aim for as many colours as you can in each meal. A balanced diet of fruits, vegetables and proteins provides the vitamins and minerals that are essential for managing stress.
Also set aside time to consciously relax, at least once a week. Take a regular bath, listen to music, or meditate. Notice how your body is feeling, and consciously let go of tension.
Get plenty of sleep every night. Do not allow work to intrude - pack your projects away, plan for the following day, and then clear your workspace (and your mind) at the end of each work session. Allow enough time to unwind between finishing work and heading to bed.
A healthy diet, adequate exercise, relaxation and sleep work together to ward off illnesses that can result in lost work time and increased work stress.
7. Communicate and seek help to recover from burnout
Communicate with your clients. Work out detailed specifications and realistic deadlines, before starting to implement.
Ask for help from your personal support network. Encourage them to keep you accountable - sticking to a schedule, taking care of yourself, making sure you relax. Ask for help with tasks around the house - cooking, cleaning, gardening. Exercise with a friend, your kids, or your partner.
If your symptoms are severe, seek professional help from doctors and psychologists.
8. Spend time on hobbies or personal projects
Personal projects or hobbies are great incentives to stick to a sensible working schedule. A project or hobby that encourages you to relax and think about something other than work, can go a long way to preventing burnout.
Cooking, reading, music, gardening, painting, anything different to your freelancing job is a good way to switch off.
9. Learn something new - interest staves off burnout
In a world where technology is so rapidly changing, everyone must keep learning - new skills, new software, new approaches. Set aside time in your schedule for professional development projects. Take a course, read articles in your field, improve your skills. But keep this within your work schedule.
Taking classes unrelated to work, learning a new skill (perhaps cooking, gardening or a new language), is a great boost to motivation, creativity and engagement - an important tool to use against burnout.
You life is more than your work - there must be a balance. Slow down, re-balance, enjoy life and work.
By sticking to a structured and planned working routine with clear boundaries, balanced with a healthy personal life, and consciously relaxing outside of work, freelancers can overcome, and avoid burnout.
- "Staff burnout", Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165.
- "Freelancer unter Dauerstress – IT als neue Burnout-Branche", Dr. Dagmar Siebecke, Technische Universität Dortmund, 2010 (PDF available from Burnon Infothek)
Have you experienced freelancer burnout?
How did you recover?
Share your tips and tricks in the comments below!