We spent the first three parts of our “Your First Year in PR” series talking about how to set yourself up for success as a budding PR pro. Today we’re going to take a break and focus on something that can creep up on you at any point during your career: burnout.

As a psychological term, burnout is defined as a state of chronic exhaustion characterized by cynicism and inefficacy, often associated with overwork and occupational stress. In other words, it’s when you start dreading work each morning because you’re tired, miserable, and not performing well.

While stress is something like a live wire, researchers compare burnout to an extinguished flame.
While stress is like a live wire, researchers compare burnout to an extinguished flame. [Photo credit]
Unfortunately, “don’t overwork and burn yourself out” is easier said than done. This is especially true in an industry like PR, where frenetic workdays, late nights, and perpetually growing to-do lists are par for the course. Furthermore, top agencies tend to attract highly motivated “overachievers” who hold themselves to high standards. This makes for an almost perfect storm of conditions for burnout.

The key is learning to recognize the warning signs, take preventative measures, and eventually build a personal work strategy that is “burnout-proof.”

What are the signs?

Any of these sound familiar?

  • You feel exhausted at work, and every day is a “bad day.”
  • Your personal life is suffering because work leaves you so drained.
  • All of your hard work feels pointless.
  • Thinking about your clients or a current project immediately sours your mood.
  • You don’t feel very excited about successes like landing a killer hit for a client.
  • You regularly take on extra work you know you can’t handle because it feels like you don’t have any other option.
  • You feel resentful of your boss and coworkers who don’t appear to be as overloaded with work as you.

If the answer is “yes,” then you’re starting to burn out.

Okay, so you’re reaching the danger zone. What now?

In the short term, you need to take a vacation. Even if it’s just a day. It’s hard to take time off when you feel like you have endless work, but you need to give your brain the rest it so badly needs.

You also need to experience first-hand that your team will be fine without you for one day. Until you detach yourself from the burdensome notion that all of your responsibilities are dire emergencies, it’s going to be difficult to derail your fast-track to burnout.

In the long term, start training yourself in the art of sustainable work-life balance, which involves three crucial steps:

1. Learn to say “no”

Saying “no” to work you honestly don’t have the bandwidth for is the number one most effective way to avoid overextending yourself. You may say, “but ‘no’ isn’t an option.” I challenge you to test that notion. You may find that “no” is an option — just one you’ve never tried before.

Keep in mind that it’s all about how you say “no.” Rather than, “No, I won’t,” try saying something like, “I want to, but realistically I don’t have the bandwidth today. I can work on it tomorrow, or, if it’s urgent, I can push off one of my other projects with your permission.” This shows that your top priority is helping the team get the job done well and efficiently, and that you’re responsible enough not to bite off more than you can chew.

2. Prioritize you

It’s okay to make some sacrifices for work and “take one for the team” once in a while. But do it enough times and you’ll start to feel resentful.

Ask yourself things like “Am I getting enough sleep?” and “Am I leaving work in time to get to that class I love?” Set personal boundaries with your physical and mental health in mind so you know when to say “no.”

3. Examine your values

What do you value? Does it match up with your agency’s values? At SHIFT, we talk a lot about values. As noted in the 2008 paper, “Burnout: 35 years of Research and Practice,” one long-term cause of burnout is a difference of values between employer and employee.

For example: if you value creativity, but your agency tends to crank out work without taking time to think outside the box, that dissonance will start to wear you down. Take a look at what you value. If it’s too different from what you see around you, it might be time to seek out another agency to call home.

Year One and Beyond

This post is about burnout in the context of your first year at an agency, but it can happen at any point in your career. Learning how to handle it now will help you immensely further down the line.

PR can be stressful, yes, but stress does not have to equal burnout! Keep your head on your shoulders and be honest with yourself when you start to notice the signs. You got this!

JJ Samp
Marketing Analyst


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