Work-Life Balance and Preventing Burnout

JUNE 29TH, 2020 AT 9:54 PM

Mahsa Sadeghi is a PhD student in clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo. She is passionate about encouraging individuals to cultivate mindful, intentional strategies for improving well-being. Clinically, she enjoys working with children and families, and has seen first-hand the powerful impact of encouraging parents & caregivers to carve out time for self-care and balancing roles.

Ever heard the phrase: “if you do work you love, then you never work a day in your life”? Well, I’m going to vehemently disagree with this sentiment. Enjoying the work you do is wonderful, but you are still working and thus need to delineate this piece of your life from all the others. I find this phrase particularly troubling because if you switch out “work” for any other component of your life, it makes little sense (if you have a social life you love, then you never socialize a day in your life?). This suggests there really is a unique quality to work that demands we set boundaries, and if we enjoy it while we are there then that is a happy bonus! I much prefer what has been suggested by Erik Erikson, who reminded us that “the richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love, and play.” Here lies my attempt to give you some ideas for your journey towards striking that balance!


Burn out is the affective result of sustained stress, leading to depletion of energy, emotional and cognitive exhaustion (e.g., disengaging from coworkers, clients, etc., taking longer to complete work, needing more days off), and physical fatigue (see Shirom, 2003 article linked below for a full review of burn out). I firmly believe that continual progress towards work-life balance can assist you in preventing burn-out. However, institutional characteristics (such as undue pressure, difficult relationships with colleagues or supervisors, harsh deadlines, ambiguous tasks), or scarcity of resources like time or money can be out of your control and are also an important part of the picture. This means that if you are at the point of burn-out, it is well worth considering external factors, and you should absolutely have no expectation of being able to rid of burn out by individual change alone (keeping a gratitude journal isn’t going to fix those confusing mixed messages you are getting from your supervisor, sorry!). In this article, we are focusing on empirical ways to prevent burn-out at the individual level, and I encourage you to reach out to someone you are comfortable speaking to personally or at your institution if you are already experiencing burn out. 


In my own career, I consider burn-out prevention an ongoing process, and I encourage you to take on this stance too. As a graduate student in clinical psychology, I ‘wear many hats’ in a given day; sometimes I am in researcher mode furiously analyzing data in a dark corner of my lab or writing up a manuscript in a coffee shop, while at other times I am sitting in a quiet room being present with a client. Sometimes one hat gets stuck on my head and I have a hard time transitioning to the other, and on occasion I need to exchange my hat because it has become ratty and old (forgive the analogy, the point here is that we need to make a concerted effort to take breaks both between small tasks and step away from our work to recharge a la real vacations). In fact, a clinical supervisor once commented to me that I appeared stand-off-ish when a client thanked me at the end of our session; at the time, I was exhausted and thinking about getting home, and in the midst of my worst experience of burn out in graduate school. I had no energy left to receive my client’s gratitude, a friend’s request for a lunchtime catch-up, or even a weekend gathering with my family. The very things that help us to prevent burn-out are those which become hardest to turn to when we are already burnt out. This is why it is so important to build in effective strategies to prevent getting there (or, in my case, to implement a new way of being a graduate student once I had recovered from my burn-out).


So why should you care about finding a work-life balance, and how can it help you prevent burn out? First, striving for balance implies creating a routine of productivity and rest, ensuring you can depend on giving yourself relaxation, hobby time, and social time in addition to boosts of accomplishment. Your lizard brain will thank you! Moreover, there is ample evidence from historical figures like Darwin and Thomas Jefferson, professional musicians, and even hunter-gatherers of the past, that a strict 9 – 5 (or the equivalent in hours, which let’s be real in academia we are doing way more than that) does not lead to higher productivity or work output (I’ve included a link to a Guardian article on this down below). In fact, a UK poll of office workers found that in an 8 hour work-day, individuals reported working productively for about 3 hours. Some countries, such as Sweden, have rules in place to ensure that workplaces encourage fewer and more flexible hours, as well as more paid vacation time; these countries also show no indication that people are less productive, even though they are working fewer hours.


Before we dive into some tangible tips, I want to emphasize that the most important ingredient to finding this balance is flexibility. I’m not going to ask you to cut off your work at 5 pm when you have the energy to go later and it would make your next day’s work easier. For me, I often schedule clients in the evening to accommodate their own work schedule, and this requires me to work later most weeknights. On the other hand, I seldom work on weekends to make up for these busy evenings. Being flexible means you are respecting your boundaries while also acknowledging that as scientists, or scientist-practitioners, we derive some of our daily joy from these careers we have chosen. Setting boundaries ensures we can continue to feel that energy, excitement, and fulfillment.



Tangible Tips


  • Separate your work space and personal space. This is particularly relevant at time of writing, since most of us are working from home due to COVID-19. It is incredibly important to have separate spaces for work and all other personal activities. It serves as a cue for your mind to be in “work mode,” and then to transition out of it. For example, working in bed is probably not the best idea since you want the bed to be most associated with resting (this is not a hard and fast rule, I definitely have days where I just want to spend a Friday afternoon doing some light work from the coziness of my bed. I do, however, climb out of bed and give myself a “reset” for the evening, rather than putting my laptop down and directly trying to sleep at night). If you have other rooms available to you, it can help to pick a corner somewhere to make your workspace, so that the rest of the home is still for your relaxation. However, I recognize this is not always possible, so even choosing to sit at a small desk in your bedroom instead of the bed could do the trick, or getting up and having a stretch to signal you are transitioning if you can’t physically change your space.

  • Consider your commute. What does your commute look like? Studies suggest a shorter commute leads to more job satisfaction and overall well-being. Could you be doing something on your commute that would make your day a tiny bit more pleasurable, like finding a podcast you really like, or calling a friend to catch up?

  • Be mindful of your breaks (and make sure to take breaks!), by learning to differentiate between tasks of mastery and pleasure, and building a routine that includes both. To get the best bang for your buck, aim for breaks that serve to refresh your mind and feel pleasurable. Socializing, having a snack or drink, and getting some movement are all ways you could do this. Scrolling through social media passively has been linked to reductions in happiness, and is probably not going to fulfill you the way other activities could (especially if you’re taking a short break to recharge and get back to work). Chores like doing laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, are also not the best candidates because they are still focused on mastery (getting some task done to feel accomplished, versus for enjoyment/pleasure); it can still give you a happy boost to check things off your to-do list, but if you are noticing you are quite tired at the end of the day, it is worth considering adding chores as a “work” chunk. As an aside, I also find that trying to blend time for chores/errands with something I enjoy makes them less tiring (e.g., calling a friend while I do dishes, putting on a podcast on my way to the grocery store, etc.). Activities designed for true pleasure (as opposed to mastery) are things like your relaxation downtime (Netflix goes here!), personal hobbies, projects, or even community service.

  • Put away distractions, emails, and other tech while you work, instead setting aside specific times to check email or text. It is incredibly hard to sustain your attention if your computer is notifying you of emails and texts while you work. I encourage you to find a system that works for you, but some ideas are using a Pomodoro timer (see useful resources below) and allowing yourself to check e-mail/text every few rounds of work, putting your computer on Do Not Disturb or similar, overall aiming to find a way to work on one task a time. Similarly, while you are taking a break or having a day off, do your best to avoid checking your work email!

  • Firm up your boundaries. If you’ve decided to take a weekend/evening/whatever set time off, make sure you are not checking your work email while you are aware. You’ve chosen to have dedicated time away, which means whatever you are receiving in your inbox can wait. No emergency is worthy of being e-mailed; if something’s on fire, your inbox isn’t the place to seek help. Conversations with supervisor or colleagues about your e-mail policy are worth having as well; this prevents getting the dreaded “Time Sensitive!” Friday night email.

  • Tend to your physical health. Getting good sleep and developing good sleep hygiene are so key to feeling energized; consider ways you can improve your sleep hygiene if this is difficult for you (see link below for CDC sleep hygiene resource). Daily movement and exercise are also very good for your mental well-being. Finding ways to move that feel nourishing and enjoyable are the recipe for consistency; my personal routine includes choosing between running, yoga, high-intensity intervals, or weight training, depending on my mood that day. Group sports are a wonderful way to socialize and get movement as well. Eat nutritiously to give yourself the fuel you need to work too! The added benefit of all of these is that you can build them in as breaks/personal time, giving you a nice way to find balance in your workday.

  • Recognize what is out of your control so that you can decide how to proceed. Feeling a lack of control in the work environment is associated with burn out. Reflect on whether the supervision or guidance you receive is ambiguous, or whether there are goals that seem too big/insurmountable. Is there a way to clarify these or break things down? Is there a conversation you could have that would help?

  • Celebrate each day’s productivity, even if they are simply attempts at getting work done. I like to make a list of small, achievable tasks for each day, and each time I get something done I acknowledge the work I did. Some days, this looks like writing a whole section of a manuscript, but other times this means I responded to a few emails and attempted to sustain my attention on one article for 3 hours. Often, the output is not the part to be celebrated – our efforts are!



Useful Resources


Dr. Laurie Santos has been widely acclaimed for her Yale course on happiness and well-being, The Science of Well-Being. It is now offered on Coursera, and is a wonderful way to dive deep into the empirical findings on cultivating well-being.


The Pomodoro Technique was designed to help structure blocks of work with built-in breaks, at intervals that you can choose (e.g., working for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break, for 4-5 rounds). Time flies using this technique, and before you know it you have completed a few hours of hard work! I particularly like using this on days where I have a block of time for writing. Though there are several timers available online, this is the one I personally use.


This is the Guardian article I referenced, on the 4-hour workday, in case you wanted more convincing that taking breaks is worth your time!


For a thorough review on job-related burn out, this article serves as a good reference.

Shirom, A. (2003) Job-related burn out. Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology, Eds. J.C.

Quick & L.E. Tetrick. American Psychological Association.



The CDC’s resource on sleep and sleep hygiene is a great way to check-in with your habits and look for tools if you need some extra support.


Familiarizing yourself with tasks of mastery versus pleasure is a great way to be informed and reflect on ways you are balancing these activities every day. This worksheet provides examples of pleasurable activities:


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