I burned out as a management consultant after debilitating migraines. Now I deal with stress much better — here's my advice.
- Gloria Chan Packer is the founder of Recalibrate, a corporate mental-wellness company.
- She burned out in a management-consulting job and now she helps others avoid the same fate.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Gloria Chan Packer, a 33-year-old workplace mental-wellness leader and educator from Austin. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I worked in management consulting for most of my career, but in 2017, I started having such debilitating chronic migraines that I had to go on short-term leave. It was devastating at the time, but that experience gave me the opportunity to change my life for the better.
Through therapy and mindfulness, I cultivated a healthier relationship with work, boundaries, and my personal identity. I also saw there was a clear need for workplace mental-health education that felt science-backed, actionable, and relatable to busy professionals, which led me to a career pivot.
I quit my consulting job and opened Recalibrate, a corporate mental-wellness company, in 2018. Now I help employers and employees at companies like Whole Foods Market and Uber discuss and implement mental-wellness tools in the workplace.
Through my work, I've learned about creating boundaries in a professional setting, how to stop burnout, and the real reason for stress. Here's my advice for maintaining a healthy work life.
Set boundaries and stick with them
Boundaries help us identify, communicate, and take action to meet our needs. In a workplace, it's critical to get clear on your priorities.
Boundaries shouldn't feel restrictive — they should feel empowering and freeing. Work hours are a classic example: Many of us start by setting a boundary to work only 9-to-5 before realizing it's unrealistic. That type of boundary may not be designed for you.
Choose something different and start small. If you've never set boundaries at work before, commit to doing something for yourself, like stopping work at 5 p.m. every Thursday and Friday, so you can push hard during the beginning of the week.
Then, work on setting other boundaries to prevent burnout at the end of the week, like turning off work distractions and dedicating one night a week to just yourself, your partner, or your family.
Pay attention to the signs of burnout
One thing I do to address my own burnout is to pay attention to the many signs that pop up, whether that's feeling tired when I'm sleeping enough, feeling irritable, or feeling tight in my body. If I notice those physical and emotional signs, I know something is off and work to address it.
When I'm feeling overwhelmed, I look at my calendar in two-week increments and ask myself what I can deprioritize, push back, and reschedule.
Five or 10 years ago, I would look at my calendar and think, "I've committed to all these things; I can't back out." It's taken practice to figure out what projects are lower stakes and who will be more understanding if I need to reschedule.
Even if it's something small like pushing a coffee meeting back a week, it gives you breathing room and makes you feel like you're in a better place. Even something tiny can create significant shifts in mood and stress.
Communicate your needs
First, you should get clear on exactly what your needs are and what the impact will be if those needs aren't met. If you pose a request to your manager as an attempt at collaborative problem-solving, it's less likely to be seen as a complaint. Instead, you're highlighting a gap in resources that needs to be addressed for the sake of the company.
For example, if you've been asked to meet a deadline in half the original timeline, you can communicate the need and impact this way: "If we need to deliver this in half the time, our team is going to need the help of an extra part-time analyst, otherwise there's going to be a risk to either the delivery quality and our clients being upset or the team burning out and us having some internal flight risks. Can you help me figure this out?"
Hopefully, that response will lead to a productive and collaborative conversation on how to fill the gap and mitigate the risks. But sometimes you won't get the answer you want because a work situation can't be changed or a manager isn't responsive to the request.
In those cases, treat the answer as data to evaluate to determine what to do next. Do you need to have another conversation with your manager or a conversation with someone else? Are you OK riding out the busy season, or are there things you can do to help yourself through it? If the answer is no, do you need to consider finding a new position?
Remember that some stress is to be expected
There's a big misconception that our goal should be to get rid of stress. But we can't eradicate stress entirely — it's a natural, biological response.
Instead, try to establish a healthier and more sustainable relationship with your stress. It may require long-term work, such as going to therapy, practicing mindfulness, or getting coaching, to make true behavioral changes. But there are some small ways to start the process.
For example, you might consider turning your morning routine of drinking coffee into a simultaneous self-care moment. While you wait for your coffee to brew, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself what you need that day.
Or maybe right before you eat lunch, you tense and release all your muscles a few times to clear tension that's built up in your body. Small, consistent, and realistic changes are what you're aiming for.
Look at stress and burnout as a feedback loop instead of a problem that needs to be eradicated and adjust your behavior around it.
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