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How to avoid burnout in a high-stress environment

Burnout seems like a colloquial term for feeling tired or temporarily feeling disinterested in your job. And that doesn't sound so bad. But in fact burnout is  a real and serious phenomenon among entrepreneurs.

Career burnout can manifest as a growing distaste for your line of work or frustration with your current venture, as well as an emotional and physical response: Among other symptoms, you may experience changes to your sleep and appetite patterns. You may become more irritable and depressed. You could even be more susceptible to disease.

Physicians, nurses, social workers and other high-stress positions are notorious for their burnout rates, and for good reason: High stress, managed improperly, can wreak havoc on both your personal and professional life. Before you know it, the job and environment you once craved could become more like a hellish prison sentence, forcing you to decide to either continue your misery or abandon your original goals.

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This all sounds terrible, but it's actually an entirely avoidable outcome, so long as you practice the following strategies.

Identify the root causes and eliminate them.

This may sound obvious, but don't underestimate its power as a strategy. Each day, take notes on what you do, how much time you spend and how you feel about the way you spent that time. Chances are, you'll identify a selection of tasks that disproportionately contributed to your stress. You might find you've spent far more time on them than you realized. Or they may be tasks you hate doing due to your personal preferences.

Your main strategies here are to:

  • Automate the work, by finding a software tool that can handle the task for you.

  • Delegate the work, by training another staff member or hiring someone new to handle those specific responsibilities.

  • Rework your processes, possibly reshaping the business so you no longer have to focus on those specific tasks as an organization.

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Keep in mind that even if you genuinely tolerate all the work you do, you may still be overburdened. If your workload is chronically high, you'll eventually burn out no matter how passionate you are, so don't be afraid to rebalance your workload with other people within your company. Delegation is a skill.

Manage stress through healthy lifestyle choices.

There are dozens of lifestyle choices and strategies that can help you manage your chronic, high levels of stress -- and you probably know what they are. For example, physical exercise helps you manage stress both as a short-term measure (by releasing endorphins and endocannabinoids that give you a kind of natural high), and as a long-term measure (by lowering your blood pressure and improving your overall health).

Eating healthier foods can give you long-lasting energy throughout the day, and regular sessions of meditation are shown to dramatically reduce levels of stress. You'll also want to get a full night's sleep (at least seven hours) every night.

The big problem most entrepreneurs have with these lifestyle choices is finding the time to accomplish them. Sleep instantly cuts seven hours out of the day, and finding even more hours to prepare healthy meals, work out and enjoy life can be difficult. However, if you want to be successful, you do need to make time for yourself and your health; otherwise, all the hours you pour into your business could end up wasted.

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Take breaks (and a vacation).

Whenever you can, let yourself take breaks (even if that means sneaking in a nap at the office). You'll see a boost in productivity, and you'll foster a more positive relationship with your work. Things won't seem as intimidating or as burdensome, and by allotting time for a break, you'll create slots in your schedule for more relaxation and enjoyable activities. In a similar vein, make sure you take a vacation at least once a year.

Even if you don't leave the house, taking a few consecutive days off work can give your mind the refreshing breather it needs to stay sane in your high-stress environment.

Know the symptoms.

Finally, learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout. They tend to start out being somewhat innocuous, growing more intense over time, and include:

  • Persistent feelings of exhaustion

  • Feelings of self-doubt and recurring frustration

  • Feelings of cynicism or the tendency to be overly critical at work

  • Loss of motivation and/or dread about coming to work in the morning

  • Isolation or the feeling that you're alone

  • Use of food, drugs or alcohol to cope with your frustration.

  • Avoidance or abandonment of your responsibilities

  • A change  in sleep or eating habits

  • Headaches and/or muscle soreness

  • Susceptibility to illness and fatigue

If you start to notice these signs, it's your responsibility to take action, increasing your attention to the above-mentioned strategies and making an improvement before things get worse. If that happens, you could be dealing with significant health consequences, including depression and heart disease.

Fortunately, you're equipped with the knowledge and awareness necessary to nip the problem in the bud -- you just have to invest your time in the strategies that can make it happen.

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