It’s not unusual for IT contractors to burn the candle at both ends while juggling multiple clients and balancing their personal life. Everybody is human, though, and living such a lifestyle will only last so long. Eventually, stress catches up and burnout is inevitable, leading to a crash and all productivity being lost. While there is nothing wrong with taking on a lot to get the most out of your day, it’s important for your personal health to both recognize the signs that stress is building up, and then act on those symptoms before burnout sets in.
Fast Company recently published a series of articles on the topic of stress and burnout. In this post, the author researched medical professionals’ tips on recognizing four physical signs of stress:
- You’re tired in the morning but unable to fall asleep at night – chronic stress causes cortisol levels to become imbalanced so they’re low in the morning and then rise at night.
- You have a nervous stomach – stress makes it easier for bad bacteria to fester than good bacteria, plus it threatens your gut’s permeability. Those who are more stressed end up getting digestion difficulties, inflamed pores and acne breakouts, IBS symptoms and more.
- Your heart is in panic mode – Also known as “fight or flight mode” this increases blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and respiration which are supposed to be for short-term emergencies.
- Your mind is scattered – Stress causes people to have trouble accessing memories or information and minds have difficulty focusing.
Another Fast Company article continues to highlight the importance of recognizing these signs. In fact, its top tip for avoiding burnout is just that. It states that if you’re feeling like you’re coming down with a cold, it’s a challenge to get out of bed, you’re less interested in hanging out with friends, it’s hard to pay attention and/or if you’re grumpy and irritable, you may be on the verge of burn-out. Acting on these signs early is crucial to avoid it from getting out of control. In addition, the article suggests you can prevent burnout from taking over your life by:
- Regularly assessing your vitals such as heart rate and cortisol levels
- Getting out of the house and connecting with friends to build social support
- Volunteering for an organization that you connect with
- Adjusting your outlook on life, focusing on projects and items you can control, rather than factors beyond your control
- Getting quality sleep by cutting out TV and other screens before bed and setting the room temperature to be a bit cooler
Finally, one other Fast Company article referenced a University of Michigan study to beat stress. It says that just 20-30 minutes in nature can cause cortisol levels to drop and will continue to drop for up to 60 minutes. The good news is that “nature” does not have to be the middle of the woods, but simply in your own mind. For example, relaxing by a tree on the street can have those effects.
Of course, many other websites and blogs discuss stress and burnout reduction techniques on a regular basis. Inc recently dug up a video of 28-year-old Bill Gates, claiming the secret to avoiding burnout is to add variety into your day and keep doing different things. And Glassdoor has this list of 9 tips to beat anxiety and stress in the workplace:
- Be Prepared – know what you get anxious for and prepare yourself before those situations
- Exercise – you feel less stress and anxious when you’re healthy, plus it helps clear your head
- Be with Friends – have a support network of people you can call to calm you down or tell you jokes
- Eat healthy – It keeps you healthy (see #2) plus junk food makes you feel tired and weak
- Relax – take a few minutes for yourself to listen to music or play a quick game and re-focus
- Hydrate – Drink plenty of water, not coffee as it will make you jittery
- Pace yourself – Set reasonable deadlines for projects and leave wiggle room so there is time to relax
- Meditate – Guided meditation, sitting in meditative poses and yoga help all ease anxiety and stress
- Professional support – Therapists and councillors will help guide you through tough times
Failure to manage your stress, anxiety and burnout symptoms means you are a train wreck waiting to happen. In addition to the tips above, it is recommended to plan for vacation and/or time between contracts where you can re-energize. Otherwise, it will not be long before your productivity and service begins to drop and you put your reputations as a quality IT contractor into jeopardy.