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Thrive tip: Tips to Care for Yourself When You’re Experiencing Burnout

Jessica Gold, MD, MS
Jessica Gold, MD, MS, assistant professor of psychiatry

It’s no surprise that many employees, especially health care workers, are exhausted, tired and ready for a break. Burnout, as this feeling has been defined, is a constellation of three things:  emotional exhaustion, reduced sense of personal accomplishment and depersonalization. As we continue into the beginning of year three of the global pandemic, we have heard burnout used over and over, and know the term well. Jessica Gold, MD, MS, assistant professor of psychiatry, gives us her perspective as a health care worker on her feelings of burnout as well as practical advice for how we can support those around us. 

Gold self-admits that she’s spent a lot of time reflecting during the pandemic and figuring out how to move forward. As a trained psychiatrist who has been on the front lines of the pandemic and often sees health care workers as patients, she feels the effects of burnout on a daily basis in both her professional and personal life. Based on her experiences, Gold recommends the below approaches to combatting burnout.

Know your limits and find useful coping mechanisms

“Moving forward, I’m doing a lot of work on boundaries and saying no to things, evaluating why I’m doing it and trying to do a better job of not saying yes to everything,” Gold said. “I cope through social events. I am an extrovert and used to people, and when it was taken away in 2020, I felt lost in a lot of ways. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find ways to cope.”

Gold recommends finding coping mechanism you enjoy and that work both immediately and long-term. She admits it is a process that she still works on herself each day. Check out her advice on forming a perspective and self-care habits here.

Find professional support

“Therapy is big for me and I very much value the role of a therapist in my life,” Gold said. “I know a lot from training and for myself but might not put it all together. People in health care say often that we can do it on our own, but having an external observer in priceless. It’s helpful to have someone pay attention to my patterns in a different sense, listen to me and remind me to take care of myself.” Gold points out that, of course, not everyone needs to see a mental health professional for their burnout, but she thinks therapy is beneficial for everyone. To get connected with a therapist or psychiatrist at WashU, call 314-286-1700, or you can use WashU’s employee assistance program, Work-Life Solutions, which provides employees with five free sessions per issue.

Control only what you can

“Nobody likes uncertainty,” Gold said and emphasizes how that feeling has led to a lot of anxiety during the pandemic. “Focus on the things you can control: your reaction to things, your day-to-day life and how you’re feeling, how you treat yourself and your loved ones. If you focus on the negative, you might not make it out.”

Gold has found noting your “failures” and how you can grow from each experience has helped her and some of her patients learn to harness those feelings into an something worthwhile. You can find worksheets online.

Acknowledge your feelings

Respectfully acknowledge others’ feelings, too. Given the uncertain times we continue to live in, have grace with one another and know that one person is likely not experiencing the same feelings or reactions. If you’re feeling burned out or think a colleague might be, find ways to reduce that feeling when you have energy.  If you have the capacity, check in with your colleague and consider the power of vulnerability in breeding true connection.

Take time for yourself to reduce burnout 

Find something that fits in your busy schedule and is an activity that you enjoy. For each stressful or tiring activity, balance it with a scheduled moment of rest or reflection. For example, if you have a long meeting, take a five-minute break afterward to reset yourself. You can determine the effect of activities and how you’re feeling using a worksheet like this.

Below are some ideas to help you avoid or reduce feelings of burnout. 

  • Get some physical activity in. Go for a walk, take a bike ride or participate in a yoga class.
  • Engage in a mindfulness activity, such as journaling, deep breathing exercises or a daily gratitude practice. WashU hosts weekly virtual classes on mindfulness that are free for employees.
  • Brighten someone else’s day by giving a note of appreciation, gifting a coffee or meal, or just asking how the day has been. You can also send WashU School of Medicine employees a message of hope and gratitude online.
  • Enjoy activities at home with yourself or your loved ones, such as listening to music, watching a moving or cooking a meal together.
  • Reconnect with a friend via a phone call, Facetime or in-person.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. If you struggle with sleeping well at night, talk with one of WashU’s sleep experts or the MyWay to Health team for ways to improve your sleep habits.
  • Set boundaries and learn to say no. Ask for help if you need it and try not to overextend yourself. If necessary, consider leaving or removing yourself from a situation that makes you feel stressed or nervous.
  • Book a future vacation. Even if it’s a “stay-cation”, use your time off and do something you enjoy.  Having something to look forward to absolutely helps.
  • Give back to your community. Find ways to participate in civic engagement through the Gephardt Institute or STL Volunteer.
  • Talk to a mental health professional. 
    • Call Work-Life Solutions, WashU’s employee assistance program, that provides free, confidential 24/7 support.
    • WashU employees have priority access to WashU Psychiatry through WUDirect.
    • Find a mental health app that connects you to a professional. WashU’s Mental Health Hub offers some examples for you.

Visit WashU’s Well-being Hub for programming, resources and guidance to support your physical and emotional health.