So in hindsight this title is a tad misleading, I’m definitely not suggesting to drop all your job responsibilities in a blink of an eye…! But rather evaluate your work/life balance to ensure you’re prioritising your mental health above all – as of course, you should always be your first priority.
I’m writing this blog as a follow up from my Stressed out, burned out, and I feel like a fake post from last year – as I have recently found myself in a similar position of having to remind myself to take breathers and set “no work” time aside as I precariously walk the line of burnout.
So first let’s remind ourselves of what burnout actually is, I’m going to do a nice copy + paste from my previous post as I feel like it summarises it nicely:
What is burnout?
Burnout and stress usually go hand-in-hand. Burnout usually occurs as a result of excessive and prolonged stress, which may be a consequence of workplace stress and coping with career demands. Burnout usually causes exhaustion and affects the ability to work and complete daily tasks. Those suffering from burnout commonly also feel emotionally exhausted and are negative towards their own work.
Similarly with stress, it’s important to realise when you may be “burned out” or heading towards burnout. Burnout can badly affect your mental health and the ability to manage everyday life.
I’ve found that folks that work in cyber security are often hyper-focused on delivering the best level of work they can provide. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this! But with the echoes of imposter syndrome, and the demands of an often high-pressure environment – it’s easy to slip into a dangerous level of work/life balance as you barrel down the hill towards burnout…. and generally not realising it until you’re burned to a crisp.
Okay, that was a bit extreme – but you get the idea!
I find that as I am manically juggling the everyday pressures of work whilst trying to learn a new skillset as I focus my efforts into becoming a subject matter expert (SME) in automotive, as well as continuing to balance school engagements, brand management and championing diversity in tech (#girlpower) – it’s difficult to set time aside for just me.
But as much as I love security and the work that I do (I do, really!) there has definitely been times where I thought I had lost that “spark” that made me want to pursue a career in cyber security to start with.
So here’s a part two of how to take care of your mental health, and how to avoid burnout – and trust me, it’s worth it. Because being burned out is far from fun!
#1 – Acceptance
Accepting that you can’t be a perfect human, and there will be days where you feel far from the top of the world. I’ve previously mentioned how I have a trait of being a perfectionist, and how that trait can sometimes means that I inflict an EXTREME amount of pressure on myself. It’s important to realise that you won’t know everything, and it’s rare that someone will ever know everything. The great thing about our industry is that it is hugely dynamic and constantly changing – people are always learning every day. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I chose to pursue cyber security – that two days will never be the same.
#2 – Build a Network
Not a 0s an 1s network, remember we are trying to steer away from work! But build yourself a support network for when the days are feeling a little grey. Surround yourself with people that lift you up and “fill your cup” (more about this on the next point), rather than bring you down – and embrace the positivity your friends and family can share. This one has been mega, mega important to me. Having a support network that I can just ring up and have a chat over coffee with has saved me from the doom and gloom of burnout more times than I can remember.
#3 – Schedule “me time”
I’m not kidding with this one, get your calendar out and block out actual time dedicated to yourself. This could be a few hours of self-care, or perhaps you’ve been meaning to do that thing that makes you happy (for me it’s either shredding some tyres, or booking in some time with my four-legged friends at the stables). When the world feels chaotic, and that you’re stuck in a mundane loop of the “same old” – it is super, super important to make sure you’re setting time aside to do things that make you happy and bring you joy.
Going back to our previous point, find things that help “fill your cup”. What we mean by this is partake in activities that help replenish your mental and physical wellbeing, things that you enjoy doing and find relaxing. When we are close to burnout we can find that our “cup” runs dangerously empty, so it’s important to set time aside to exercise self-care and “me time” whilst doing activities that help fill your cup again.
#4 – Change Your Echo Chamber
I sound completely mad with this one, but I promise that this will make sense soon!
A while back when I was really struggling, a good friend of mine suggested that I “change my echo chamber”. Often when we are glued to the social media realms of Twitter or Facebook, we can find that the type of content or people we are following may not be the best for the mindset we are trying to achieve. For example, as great as Twitter can be to connect with other peers and find new friendships – I have also found that sometimes it isn’t the best place to be. When people are aggressively criticising, or perhaps actively trying to “stir the pot”. It isn’t the most pleasant seeing that type of content all across your feed! Especially when you’re in a mindset of doom and gloom, I found that creating a space where you can enjoy social media – and a space where you can embrace #goodvibes and the odd meme, it can greatly help your mental wellbeing. TLDR; considering purging your social media, this links to point #2 about creating a network that supports you rather than brings you down.
(If you want to read more about online echo chambers, I found this really cool blog post here!)
#5 – Set Boundaries
“Just five more minutes” is never just five more minutes. Set yourself a strong boundary between work and life, this is especially tricky I find if you work from home. Unless it is absolutely time critical or necessary, make sure that you place firm boundaries with yourself with when you’re scheduled to “clock off”. I usually use my office space as a physical boundary between working and life-ing, when the end of the day hits the clock – I literally close the door to my office. That way the temptation isn’t there, and you can completely separate yourself from work and focus on winding down and chilling out in the evenings.
#6 – Learn to Say No
Okay I am still working on this one! But this is hugely important in preserving your energy and making sure that you don’t burn out. As amazing as it is to do all the things, before you know it you can have a million plates spinning – and there’s a growing risk you’ll end up dropping them all. The world will not end if you say no, and neither will people hold it against you (and if they do, that’s on them!). There will always be other opportunities for engagements, projects, meetups etc. and I’ll repeat it again, remember to prioritise yourself first. I’ve found in the past they if I’m already running out of steam and continue to say yes, that actually the quality of my delivery suffers (I feel that my talk wasn’t as great as it could be, for example). So it is absolutely okay to say “I’ll pass on this one” or even a “please give me a shout next time!” because most of the time there will be another opportunity and you’ll smash it when you’re not running on empty.
#7 – Take breaks & breathers
A given in everyday life, not necessarily just work. But learn to take periodic breaks and breathers throughout the day, heck – I’ve even scheduled 10/15 minute blocks in my calendars so I get a reminder to take one! Go grab a coffee, or take a quick walk round the block. Watch a YouTube video, or play fetch with your dog. Anything that isn’t what you’re currently working on. It allows your brain to have a break & reboot, and I often find that I come back feeling refreshed and ready to carry on with the day – it also REALLY helps if you’re having a brain blank and can’t figure out why (suddenly it all makes sense…!)
Take a breather, it’s okay. Don’t feel like you Can’t Stop working!
#8 – Set aside focus time
A new technique I have found in the past few months, but set aside time to allow yourself to focus on work and power through your goals for the day. This means no meetings, no distractions and no impromptu calls! I believe Outlook actually allows you to schedule “Focus Time” and even changes your Teams status to “Do Not Disturb”. But when you end up having call after call (I think my record was about 21 in 4 days) – it’s really difficult to actually do some work. So make sure you set aside an few hours a week of dedicated time where you can focus on your deliverables, that way there isn’t an “oh no” moment at the end of the week when you’ve just realised you haven’t done the thing you were supposed to do (and bare the risk of working into the weekend because of that…)
#9 – Book the damn holiday
Use your leave and book your holiday. Simples.
It doesn’t have to be an extravagant city break in Europe, just book a week off to decompress and not have to worry about the realms of the working world. This is a “take breathers & breaks” on a new level, and gives your brain and body a chance for R&R (rest & relaxation/recuperation). I can’t stress enough how important this one is – and probably sits in my top three for avoiding burnout.
#10 – It’s okay to ask for help
If you’re floundering or find yourself struggling in the workplace, ask for help. No one will think of you any less, and it’s okay to not be okay. I’ve been guilty of this many times for asking for help often when it’s too late, but there is no shame in admitting you need a little help. To put it bluntly, if you keep pushing yourself – you may end up burning out and ending up not being able to fulfil your job role. Again, I’m guilty of this too! But by asking for help (early on I may add), you’re preserving your wellbeing and protecting your mental health too. There will always be a solution, sometimes you may just need a helping hand.
To be brutally honest, not every day will be all sunshine and rainbows – but hopefully at least one of these tips will help you steer clear of burnout. It’s not a pleasant place to be, and often you can feel isolated, depressed, anxious, and filled to the brim with self doubt.
It’s okay to have “off” days, what isn’t okay is to become so consumed with work that it detriments your mental health. Now a regular reminder before we wrap up….
Struggling and need someone to talk to? (UK Helplines)