How to Avoid Burnout When You Have Little Ones

How to Avoid Burnout When You Have Little Ones

By Jessica Grose

This guide was originally published in NYT Parenting.
The World Health Organization added workplace burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the most recent edition of the International Classification of Diseases handbook. Read about identifying and easing burnout below.
When I started reporting this piece, I thought that the notion of “burnout” was all-encompassing. I assumed that if you were a working parent and felt burnt out at work, you’d feel exhausted at home, and that if you felt burnt out at home, that would bleed into other aspects of your life, whether you worked or not.
But while researching this guide, I discovered that the burnout you feel as a parent and the burnout you feel at work are two separate phenomena with similar symptoms. “You can be totally detached from your kids and be well-functioning at work,” said Dr. Isabelle Roskam, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, who researches parental burnout. “And you can be totally overwhelmed and super stressed at work to the extent that you are rude or detached from clients and still be happy to go back home and take care of your children.” However, if either kind of burnout is ignored, it can infect everything, so it’s important to address the issue before it becomes systemic.
We spoke to a clinical psychologist and three academics who study burnout; they gave us recommendations for diagnosing and repairing burnout in all parts of your life.

What to do:

In their research on French- and English-speaking populations, Dr. Roskam and her colleague Dr. Moïra Mikolajczak, Ph.D., a fellow psychology professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain, found that the amount of time people spent working didn’t affect how burnt out they felt at home, but the amount of flexibility at work did matter. Work itself isn’t the problem, said Dr. Roskam, it’s reconciling your work life with your family life.
Burning out is a process. “You don’t burn out overnight,” said Dr. Roskam. Fatigue and increased irritability, she said, are early indicators. Parents need each of the following four symptoms to get a clear diagnosis of burnout, Dr. Roskam and Dr. Mikolajczak concluded:
  • Overwhelming exhaustion. “Typically, they report that they feel so drained that merely thinking of what they need to do for their children is exhausting,” said Dr. Roskam. “They have zero energy and don’t want to wake up.”
  • Emotional detachment from children. This is a consequence of their exhaustion, as parents pull back from managing their children’s day-to-day well-being and education. They can even have trouble showing their children how much they love them.
  • Loss of productivity and pleasure in their parental role. They can no longer perform their usual parenting-related tasks and wish they could be something other than a parent.
  • Change in behavior. The exhaustion, detachment and loss of efficacy constitute a marked shift in the way a mother or father acts towards their children. If parents experienced these feelings from the beginning, the diagnosis wouldn’t be burnout. It’s the contrast that makes the definition.
Dr. Michael Leiter, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Deakin University in Australia, has been studying workplace burnout and how to manage it for more than two decades. He said that even in the happiest of circumstances, people expend a tremendous amount of energy at work, and they need space in their lives to recover. “If your life outside work is chaotic,” if it has extreme demands in terms of child care or commuting — a two-hour commute each way, for example — it’s not restful, said Dr. Leiter. According to Dr. Leiter, you need each of the following three symptoms to qualify as burned out at work:
  • You feel worn out at work. “It’s a persistent feeling of exhaustion,” Dr. Leiter explained, not just a passing feeling a couple times a week.
  • You no longer feel effective at work. It’s damaging to lose the feeling you’re doing important work and that you’re good at it. “People are really motivated to feel a sense of mastery,” Dr. Leiter said.
  • You don’t like your job. You used to enjoy work but can no longer feel excited about any part of it.
Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University finds herself asking clients who are overwhelmed: “Do you actually have to do everything you think you have to do in this moment?” You obviously can’t blow off feeding your family every day. But you don’t have to have every dish cleaned or create the perfect homemade Halloween costume for your kid. “If you don’t finish all the dishes and take 20 minutes to yourself that are pleasurable or enjoyable, where you can sit and read or relax,” said Dr. Burnett-Zeigler, “that’s a better use of your time.”
Dr. Roskam and Dr. Mikolajczak framed parental burnout as a problem of risks outweighing resources. For example, a risk might be driving your kids to activities, which takes a lot of time and might involve driving in heavy traffic. A resource might be trading carpool duties with another family, or handing off that responsibility to your spouse, if you’re in a two-parent family. When your risks far outweigh your resources, you’re perilously out of balance and may burn out.
In Dr. Roskam and Dr. Mikolajczak’s psychology practices, they have parents fill out a questionnaire that measures the impact of various stressors on their lives. Every six months parents come back to that questionnaire so that if new stressors arise — a new baby, three new extracurricular activities for their kids — they can reassess.
Work burnout can eventually impede your parenting ability. “If you’re so exhausted you can’t connect with other people,” Dr. Leiter said, your home life will eventually suffer. Burnout may even manifest itself in physical symptoms, like headaches, tension in your body or difficulty sleeping because of racing thoughts, said Dr. Burnett-Zeigler.
Many people become exhausted by work because of systemic issues at their workplace. Their offices are inflexible or not respectful places, or they’re given a lot of busywork that isn’t useful. “It’s administrative nonsense fatigue which I find is really the contributor to burnout,” Dr. Leiter said. “People want to be doing important work, and employers give people a lot of silly things to do.”
But there are concrete things you can do to help, like drawing better boundaries between work and home. Many people feel the pressure to be connected to work via email 24/7, but, Dr. Leiter said, “It really is good for your mind to totally disengage from one arena and engage in another, whether it’s with your children or paddling on a lake.” A way to do that is to be clear with colleagues that you won’t respond to email between certain hours each evening and on weekends and to call if it’s an emergency. TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes famously doesn’t answer emails after 7 or on weekends, and her email signature plainly states, “I do not answer calls or emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends, and if you work for me, may I suggest that you put down your phone.”
Dr. Burnett-Zeigler recommends taking a true lunch break, even if it’s just 30 minutes; too many people work through lunch, she said. She suggests being “mindfully aware of having that piece of time to yourself.” Go outside, take a quick walk — anything that’s giving you a brief respite during a hard day is worth it.
If you’re thinking about death or dying, feeling like you can’t take it anymore or have extreme feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, visit an emergency room, said Dr. Burnett-Zeigler.
Be aware that postpartum anxiety and depression can arise long after birth, and that men are also at risk for depression and anxiety in the postpartum period. If you’re thinking about harming yourself or your baby, get emergency care as soon as possible.