How to Avoid Post-Holiday Burnout: 3 Ways to Manage Stress and Achieve Happiness

Back to work doesn't have to mean back to stress.

It’s 2015! The endless distractions of the holiday season are behind us. We’re reenergized and refocused after a relaxing vacation away from email (or at least more away from email than usual). We’ve written out our goals for our most productive year yet. The next real break from work isn’t until Easter. There’s nothing standing between us and getting stuff done… in theory.

The mental benefits of vacations inevitably fade away to once again be replaced by the 24/7 demands of the modern workplace. The careful boundaries we set during the holidays vanish as we try to squeeze more and more into a 24-hour day. We wear our 50+ hour work weeks as a badge of honor– “Look at how busy and productive I am!”. But are we really accomplishing more? And at what price? The current research on workplace burnout may surprise you.

The effects of workplace burnout

There are hundreds of articles and books devoted to the study of stress and what it means for our physical and mental health (for more details check out this article).  The long and short of it is that our bodies are fantastic at equipping us to handle short-term threats (e.g., taking on a saber-tooth tiger), but are rather lacking when it comes to dealing with the nuances of longer-term stressors  like preparing that presentation for your boss’s boss on Wednesday or reaching your quarterly marketing targets.

According to David Ballard, a researcher at the American Psychological Association, constant neural stimulation from long-term stress often manifests itself in chronic exhaustion, difficulties concentrating and recalling details, increased feelings of frustration and negativity, and an overall lack of motivation.  As a result, job performance, quality of relationships, and general health plummet, creating the downward mental-emotional-physical spiral we call burnout.

It’s no wonder that studies consistently show that happy, engaged employees are productive employees– up to 31% more productive that their unproductive counterparts, in fact. For perspective, that’s the equivalent 1.5 days of work in a 5-day work week, 6 full work days in a month, and nearly 75 work days a year. A 2012 Gallup study found that 70 percent of Americans report feeling disengaged from their jobs, costing the country nearly $500 billion in lost productivity!  The research is clear: chronic work-related stress is bad for business and bad for your career.

How to manage stress and achieve happiness at work

So how do we slay our modern saber-tooth tigers with thousands of years of evolution working against us? I’ve combed through the articles and research and compiled a list of the best tips to manage stress and achieve happiness at work.  They all revolve around three fundamental themes: create boundaries, stay motivated, and manage your emotions.

stress free zone

1) Create boundaries – and stick to them!

One of the key characteristics that has come to define the modern workplace is a lack of boundaries between work and home.  Employees regularly check Facebook during the workday and their work emails while at home.  Not only are we less productive during normal working hours, but we don’t reap the benefits of a mental break even when we do finally leave the office.

You productivity buffs out there may be familiar with Parkinson’s Law which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion”.  It’s the idea that if you give yourself a week to complete a two-hour task, it’s going to take you a week. Have you ever found yourself slowly chipping away at a project, only to complete the vast majority of it in a spur of productivity the day before it’s due? That’s Parkinson’s Law.

The good news is, you can use it to your advantage by setting clear boundaries for yourself and committing to finish your daily to-dos within a restricted amount of time.  Try writing down your three most important tasks for the day and schedule the time you’ll give yourself to work on them.  Keep track of the time you spend on each task with a tracker like Toggl– it even has an easy-to-use Todoist integration so you can start and stop your timer right from the tasks in your to-do list.

Being more intentional about how you spend your time at work will allow you to leave work at work– or at least leave more work at work– giving yourself time to do the things you enjoy, recharge, and start the new day fresh.

2) Stay motivated


According to Alexander Kjerulf, the author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Live, and Kick Butt at Work, studies consistently show that one of the most important factors in employee engagement, satisfaction and happiness is results. He further breaks this down into three elements: accomplishing something that’s meaningful, knowing your job is important, and getting appreciation and doing work you can be proud of.

While achieving this trifecta of positive motivation depends a lot on who your boss is, there are concrete steps you can take today to keep yourself and your colleagues motivated.

You can’t see progress if you haven’t defined what success looks like. In his book Getting Results the Agile Way, JD Meier outlines his approach to goal-setting. He suggests taking time to set out three key results you want to accomplish each year, month, week, and day.  In this way, big-picture goals are captured and broken down into actionable items on a weekly and daily basis, with each level of goal flowing from the longer-term monthly and yearly goals.  The beauty of Meier’s system is that by aligning your goals with your business’s objectives, you never lose sight of how your day-to-day actions are contributing to your organization’s success.

A fundamental principle of Meier’s approach is a review at the end of each the day, week, month, and year to evaluate where you’ve made progress and where you can make improvements. When you do achieve a goal, reward yourself! Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile has found that taking the time to celebrate the small wins is the most effective way to increase engagement, happiness, and creativity at work.

While you can’t always control the amount of appreciation others give your work, you can certainly help contribute to a culture of gratitude on your team by taking the time to tell others that they’re appreciated. Not only is appreciation shown to boost employee engagement and lower stress, but practicing gratitude has been shown to increase the giver’s level of happiness as well.

3) Actively manage your mood


“Stay positive” might be a cliche bit of advice, but recent research has shed new light on the link between mindset and work performance.  Scott Crabtree, a corporate veteran and founder of Happy Brain Science, has found that a positive mindset leads to greater productivity and creativity. “When you’re in a positive, safe, receptive environment, your limbic system and brainstem— which manage fight or flight response— calm down, freeing up other, productive parts of the brain. This is where we see data showing that people have better ideas because they’re happier.”

In the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor cites some pretty convincing evidence to back up the link between positivity and productivity:

…doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

Try these science-backed methods to enhance your mood and prime yourself for a positive mindset at work and in life:

    • Get consistent sleep, at least 8 hours a night. Sleep deprivation has been shown to make us more susceptible to negative thoughts.
    • Exercise. Exercising even a little as 15 minutes each day has been shown to be as effective at treating anxiety and depression as medication.
    • Meditate. One mindfulness meditation study found that the parts of participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew while those parts associated with stress decreased.
    • Set aside time for friends and family. Longitudinal studies have found that having strong relationships, especially with siblings, is the number one indicator of long-term life satisfaction.
    • Take a walk outside. Spending just 20 minutes outside in good weather has been shown to significantly increase happiness, improve memory, and stimulate creativity.
    • Help others. Volunteering, spending money on other people, and showing random acts of kindness have all been shown to lead to greater happiness.

Have any of these strategies to stay happy, healthy, and productive worked for you? Are there other things you do on a regular basis to keep yourself from burning out?  Feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about them!