Taking a break from work helps prevent or minimize burnout, but it’s not the be-all, end-all. As glorious as a vacation might sound, what you really need to do to mitigate burnout is consistently and constantly practice a good work-life balance, and that goes well beyond the occasional vacation. 

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent over six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

Just over a year ago, on March 11, 2020, to be exact, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.  

365-plus days of conflicting information, handwashing, toilet paper shortages, mask-wearing, vaccines, politics, closed offices, travel restrictions, canceled events, Zoom calls, no classrooms for the kids and general chaos.

Exhausting, isn’t it? 

Throw in an insane seller’s market in much of the country. Dozens of showings within hours of listing a property, buyers waiving inspection and appraisal contingencies, multiple offers over list price. Breaking the news to your buyers that they just lost out on an offer for the 34th time, but maybe offer No. 35 will be the winner!

You’re tired. Your clients are tired. You haven’t hugged your friends and family in a year. The world has been flipped upside down and inside out.

It’s a wonder we haven’t all gone clinically insane. The good news is your brain and body are remarkably resilient.

The bad news is burnout is real, and it can be debilitating.

Before I launch into what burnout is and how it can be avoided or managed, we need a disclosure:

I am not a medical or mental health professional. You might find yourself in need of either or both of those services. And that is OK. There’s no shame in seeking professional help. I do have some experience with burnout — not just as one who has suffered from it, but also from an educational and professional perspective.

My college degree is in human resource management. In my pre-real estate life, I was an HR manager who took countless hours of training in identifying and managing burnout and helped employees from entry-level production workers to senior management cope with burnout.  

What is burnout?

According to WHO, “Burnout is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.”

That’s an important clarification. Burnout is not considered a medical condition but an occupational phenomenon. The definition of burnout goes deeper, with WHO saying: 

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. 

It is characterized by three dimensions:

    • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
    • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
    • Reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Burnout is more than being tired or even exhausted. If you’re experiencing one of the symptoms, you might be worn down or approaching burnout, but it takes all three dimensions to have occupational burnout technically.

Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion aren’t uncommon among workers. But mental distance and reduced self-belief are not as common, and they make burnout a more concerning issue than just being tired. 

How do I know if I have burnout? 

There are no blood tests or X-rays that can diagnose burnout. Because much of burnout relates to how you feel, it’s very subjective to determine if you’re suffering from burnout. Everyone has a bad day, but bad days that are strung out into bad weeks and bad months are not normal and might be a sign of burnout.

The WHO definition includes reduced personal efficacy and increased mental distance from your job. Those two criteria are technically the difference between burnout and feeling tired or having a bad day.

There are numerous self-assessments available online to give you more insight into burnout. Mindtools and Psychology Today provide two good ones. 

What can I do to mitigate burnout?

Just take a vacation! Right. That’s difficult enough to do in normal times, throw in a global pandemic and see how that vacation thing works out. Taking a break from work helps prevent or minimize burnout, but it’s not the be-all, end-all.

As glorious as a vacation might sound, what you really need to do to mitigate burnout is consistently and constantly practice a good work-life balance, and that goes well beyond the occasional vacation. 

Here are some proven tips for helping reduce the occurrence and severity of occupational burnout.  

1. Meditation

I’ve been practicing daily meditation for over three years, and it has literally changed my life. I sleep better, and I feel better — physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s free, and it takes only five minutes a day. Yes, you are incredibly busy, but you’ve got five minutes to spare. The return on investment from meditation is staggering. You can’t afford not to do it. 

2. Yoga

It’s likely the aforementioned and ever-present pandemic has closed your local yoga studio. Fortunately, you can learn and practice effective yoga in the privacy of your own home. 

There are apps available (I use the Peloton app, but there are many others) to guide you through yoga sessions and countless free YouTube videos. The great thing about in-home yoga is if you’re exceptionally clumsy, no worries if you faceplant while executing a downward-facing dog pose because no one is around to see it. Trust me, I speak from experience. 

3. Exercise

Virtually every expert will tell you that exercise, specifically cardio exercise, is one of the best ways to combat burnout. It’s also good for your heart and overall health. Hate doing cardio? Welcome to the club. 

A Peloton bike makes it fun, really. Yes, it’s a pricey option, but likely cheaper than the gym membership that you haven’t used since the week after New Year’s Day. An alternative is buying a less expensive exercise bike and using the far more affordable Peloton app to access the classes and community that make Peloton special. Or, just do my favorite cardio activity … 

4. Walk

One of the best activities I’ve ever done for my heart and my head (and my knees, back and hips) is walking. Spring for a good pair of walking shoes, and it’s the only hard cost and well worth the investment. 

Then open your front door, pick a direction and start walking. Although a Sunday stroll is great for clearing the mind, you’ll need to pick up the pace to get cardio benefits. I walk 12-minute miles, which is quite brisk — I’ve passed joggers on many a walk. Start slow, maybe just a walk to the end of your block and back. 

Do it consistently, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you gain speed and distance. Listen to music or a podcast while you walk. It helps break the boredom that some complain of. (Safety tip: Only use one earbud as you need to pay attention to things like traffic, and hearing an approaching car is crucial.)  

5. Avoid alcohol and caffeine

I know, what an absurd recommendation. I’m a fan of the occasional glass of wine or a tasty cocktail. I drink too many caffeinated sodas, and coffee is the nectar of the Gods. But reducing your alcohol and caffeine consumption has multiple health benefits. 

6. Write a letter or journal 

Back in the day, when I was sometimes bombarded with pretty hateful stuff while doing my job for Zillow, I found something that helped me get through and over that stress

I’d write the response how I really wanted to say it. Then I would go for a walk around the block (or a scream in the elevator), come back to my desk and delete what I wrote. It was very cathartic. Is there an agent on the other side of the transaction driving you insane? Have that whiney, never satisfied client? Write them a letter. Just don’t send it. 

7. Talk to a friend. Zoom without a purpose

I’m currently doing a little consulting work that involves demoing an app to real estate professionals. I started with setting up 30-minute Zoom sessions for the demos and quickly found everyone was running overtime because we’d chat and catch up for the first 15 minutes. 

It was glorious. I’m personally committing to having two 15-minute Zooms a week with friends I haven’t seen or spoken to in a while. There will be no topic, and ideally, work discussions won’t surface. 

I just want to reconnect with the humans I love and miss. It’s so good for the head. You could do the same with the Clubhouse app, but avoid the rooms with hundreds of people listening to a “guru” bloviate.

8. Take some ‘me time’ 

Last but far from least, take what I call “me time.” Being a far bigger introvert than many would think, I have to take “me time,” also known as alone time. It might be just 10 or 15 minutes of being alone. 

No phone, no commitments. Maybe a book or my guitar. Maybe just sitting and staring off into space. Escape the grind. Go to the Caribbean in your mind. It’s cleansing.  

Finally, seek help if you need it. Although burnout is not really a medical condition, opening up to your doctor is a great way to get help. Mental health is sadly a taboo subject with many and often has negative connotations. Being burned out doesn’t mean you are crazy, weak or anything other than you’re burned out. 

It can lead to physical health issues if not treated. So if you try to self-mitigate and aren’t having success, please seek professional help. Your friends and family need you. You need them. These are trying times; please take care of yourself!

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree living in the Texas Coastal Bend, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.

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