Imagine you have a bucket. This bucket represents your capacity to cope with the ups and downs in your life. We all have a different sized bucket that’s determined by a range of factors, like your genetics, personality and events that have happened to you.

Stressful events are the water poured into your bucket. Money problems? Add a cup of water. Relationship issues? Add a cup. Excessive workload? Add another cup. Most buckets have room to manage a few stressful events at a time – but when water keeps being poured in, you can get close to the limits of what your bucket can hold.

What does a full bucket look like? 

At this point, it doesn’t take much more stress to raise the water level over the top of the bucket. Even a small thing can tip it over. This may have other people thinking you’ve overreacted, but they can’t see inside your bucket and everything else you’ve been dealing with before this moment. You’ll start thinking and acting differently as a result. You might be more reactive, irritable and critical – and less patient and kind.

Child in bucket pouring water over

How do I know if I'm burnt out? 

Burnout is a feeling of complete exhaustion and can make you withdraw from other people and develop a cynical attitude – especially towards your work. Burnout can cause you to delay tasks that would have once been easy. In severe cases, burnout might make it hard for you to function at all.

Burnout is your mind and body’s way of forcing a shut down so you retreat and your bucket can’t have any more water thrown at it.

Because the water in your bucket is not pure – it contains stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenalin – if it’s too full for too long, your physical and mental health will gradually get worse. Burnout is not an official diagnosis, but can be associated with depression, anxiety and heart disease.

What do I do? 

By tuning in to your stress levels, you can catch a small issue before it becomes a big one. Developing strategies for reducing stress is like punching holes in the side of the bucket, so as the water level drops and you’ve got some more space.

Healthy ways to cope with stress 

  1. Delay any major life changes. If you’re already feeling stressed or anxious, it might be best to avoid or delay moving to a new house or changing jobs.
  2. Resolve personal conflicts. Learning how to communicate honestly with people and address problems or conflicts as they arise is important. A counsellor or psychologist can help.
  3. Do the things you enjoy. Make time to listen to music, read, garden, or spend time with family and friends.
  4. Manage your work/life balance. If work is increasing your stress levels, try to avoid long hours and additional responsibilities, and learn to say ‘no’ more often.
  5. Exercise regularly. Physical exercise can help relieve tension and relax your mind.
  6. Get support. Talk to a friend, doctor or counsellor. Don’t be afraid to ask for support at home, at work or in your other activities.
  7. Try relaxation. Breathing and muscle relaxation exercises can be helpful. Some people find meditation or yoga a good way to unwind.

When you’ve reached the point of burnout, it’s probably going to take more than a few new holes to fix the issue. You may need to take significant steps to reduce the amount of stress you’re facing and also draw on support from other people, including health professionals. The Beyond Blue Support Service can help point you in the right direction. For other specific ways to cope with stresses at work, check out our Heads Up website.

Related reading: Finding the work-life balance sweet spot

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