Burnout, work-life balance and stress triggers

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but a couple of conversations over the last few weeks pushed it to the forefront of my mind again. What I want to talk about here is burnout (and what it looks like), how I try and maintain work-life balance, and stress triggers and how to mitigate them. What follows is a what works for me, but hopefully there is something there that would be of use to other people too.


I’ve not had a traditional 9-5 job for a while, and I do tend to gravitate to roles where the work is never done, and where it would be easy to work significantly longer than is sensible. Jobs like that do lend themselves to the potential of burnout, and I’ve both suffered from this myself and seen it affect other people.

Wikipedia says “Burnout is a type of psychological stress. Occupational burnout or job burnout is characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and also may have the dimension of frustration or cynicism, and as a result reduced efficacy within the workplace.”

Burnout often starts to affect the balance between work and what goes on outside of work. In my case how it usually manifests is through exhaustion, and through not wanting to do anything in the evenings or at weekends, and I can generally trace it back to times when I’ve worked long hours, felt unappreciated, or have skipped lunch breaks several times in a week. It’s hard to spot sometimes, but once I do notice it I find it’s quite straightforward to come up with an action plan to get a bit of work-life balance back.

Work-life balance – how to get it back

Things I’ve found that work are:

There are some things that related to my role, but that I’d never get round to if I prioritised them purely on importance/urgency. Some of these things are really enjoyable, allow me to use different skills and work with different people, and make me feel a whole lot more positive about the rest of my work. If the rest of what I’m doing isn’t going well, or is including too much of the same kind of task, then including a few of these types of activities make the day a whole lot more bearable.

I use my morning and evening commute to draw a line between work and non-work most days each week. My commute consists of two periods of walking (20 minutes and 10 minutes) with a 20 minute train journey in between. This gives me blocks of different sort of time to listen to music, read, and think about what I need to achieve during the rest of the day (be that at home or work). I also find the physical act of walking invaluable, as it’s probably the only point of the day where I’m not sat in front of a screen of some sort.

Occasionally I need to work in the evenings. That’s not a bad thing if it will make the day ahead easier or make me feel more prepared. But if I do have to do it, then the next day I make sure I reward myself with a long lunch (ideally with company), or an hour off at a different time of the day to walk around campus and order my thoughts.

When I work from home I work at least an hour longer because I don’t have to factor in my morning commute. I therefore spend the last hour of my working day doing something that is in some way related to personal development, such as updating my achievements log, learning about something new, or opening a blank document and reflecting on how things are going, what’s blocking me, and what actions I think I need to take to get things back on track. These internal brainstorming sessions often produce insights that probably wouldn’t have come up if I’d been in the office.

Stress triggers

I know what my stress triggers are now. It’s something I was particularly interested in when I did my MBTI practitioner training, and they are pretty much exactly what my MBTI profile says they should be:

  • Being bombarded with facts and details
  • Having to adapt to changes in my usual routine, new places, different ways of behaving
  • Encountering obstacles in the outer world – traffic, equipment failures, interruptions, flight delays
  • Extraverting excessively; having to interact with individuals and groups
  • Coping with crowds. noise, confusion, chaotic environments
  • Dealing with incompetent people, illogical systems
  • Being criticised professionally, having my competence attacked, not being recognised

If I’m feeling tense or a little burned out then I’ll look at this list and see if it explains things. It usually does, and it’s a lot easier for me to rationalise the way I’m feeling. It also helps me formulate my reaction to what’s going on, as it’s possible that if I react based on how I’m feeling then I’ll over react compared to someone of a different personality type, and so I try and bear that in mind when I’m talking to other people about things that are on my mind.

MBTI theory says that the following things should help me if I’m feeling stressed:

  • Spend time alone recharging in a quiet, calm environment
  • Engage in positive Sensing activities that accomplish something useful, such as cleaning out closets, sorting photographs, fixing things
  • Take steps to lighten my schedule and sticking to my commitment to do so
  • Step back and use logic to analyse the situation
  • Get closure on some lighter, more manageable tasks
  • Remind myself that it will pass

Based on that I think I’m doing the right sorts of things to manage periods of stress. Most of what’s listed above works well for me, and is usually enough to get my equilibrium back.

Of course, different people respond to stress in different ways, but knowing what works for me has been really useful.