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Stressed at work? An expert shares tips to beat back burnout

“Work is like weeds — it’ll take up as much of our life as we allow it.”

Stress, burnout, anxiety, depression — all these feelings are common and, often, have been exacerbated during the pandemic. But there are ways to slow down, carve out time for yourself and begin to feel better.

First, recognize what you're actually dealing with. "Burnout is like the candle that's completely out of wax; no matter what you do with that wick, it will not burn," peak performance expert Delatorro McNeal, II, told the 3rd Hour of TODAY. "It's also like the car that's out of gas — you're literally operating on fumes. When you're burnt out, you're toast, you're done." 

But overwhelm is a little bit different. You can think of it like "the rubber band that you've expanded beyond its capacity," said McNeal, who is also the author of "Shift Into a Higher Gear: Better Your Best and Live Your Life to the Fullest."

There are three major reasons why we experience overwhelm: First, many of us don't ask for help. "We all graduated from the University of I Can Do It All By Myself," McNeal said. Second, we tend to think about too many parts of a particular project at once rather than breaking it down and prioritizing tasks. And, third, "we don't delegate," McNeal said, "because we don't trust that other people can execute at the level that we do."

How to manage stress and come back from burnout

Once you know what you’re feeling and why, you can start to address the issue — while acknowledging that some of what's going on (like a toxic work environment) may be beyond your control.

When you're at work...

The first priority to manage stress and burnout at work is to set healthy boundaries because "work is like weeds," McNeal said. "It'll take up as much of our life as we allow it."

Part of building those boundaries is, when possible, learning to say no to tasks you know you don't have the capacity to take on. "A lot of us grew up being people-pleasers... we grew up saying yes to everything and everyone. (But) the more you say yes to things, the more you say no to things that are of even greater priority," McNeal explained. "So we have to learn how to say no more. That's vitally important."

Another key aspect is to "be where your feet are," McNeal said, meaning to be present and focus on what's in front of you. "If I'm at work, dial in and lean into work. If I'm home, dial in and lean into home."

On your way home from work...

Create an outlet to diffuse all that stress so that you don't let it overflow and spill out onto others at home. Try using your commute to practice some mindful meditation or to listen to music or a podcast you enjoy, McNeal suggested.

Also, try to reframe your thoughts about tasks at home that might be adding to your stress level. "Shift from, 'I have to go home to make dinner,' to, 'I get to go home to make dinner,'" he said. "Shift from obligations to opportunities."

When you're at home...

Again, it's helpful to identify enjoyable activities you can use as an outlet, such as going for a walk outside or visiting the dog park with your pet. Any form of movement or creative hobby — baking, reading, knitting — could be beneficial.

And, crucially, tell others when you need to take that time for yourself. "We've got to communicate, 'Hey, I'm a little bit stressed out, I'm a little bit heavy right now. Give me a few minutes to detox and then things will be a lot better,'" McNeal said.