It’s no secret that burnout is a common problem among most of us. But, COVID-19 introduced new stressors to nearly every aspect of life, from working longer hours to increased work and at-home demands. Moreover, because work and life are no longer separated, burnout is on the rise.
Simply put, burnout and stress are everywhere. In fact, 79% of employees reported work-related stress in APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,501 U.S. adults. Additionally, nearly 3 out of 5 employees report that work-related stress negatively impacts their motivation, energy, and work. (26%) had their effort affected. A staggering 44% of respondents reported physical fatigue, a 38% increase since 2019, while 36% reported cognitive fatigue, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and 32% reported cognitive weariness.
Sadly, those aren’t the only consequences of work burnout. If not addressed, burnout can lead to:
- consistently running behind and missing deadlines;
- taking shortcuts at home, like skipping chores;
- ill health, including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, depression, and suicide;
- diminishing work quality;
- lowered creativity;
- work absences; and
- strained relationships.
Usually, burnout occurs slowly and gradually. And, rather than feeling energized, passionate, and motivated, people feel exhausted, disillusioned, and frustrated as a result.
Despite burnout’s overwhelming and engulfing nature, recovery is possible.
1. Think about the “why” of your burnout.
In order to recover from burnout, you must first identify what caused it. It may be evident in some cases. At other times, this has to be uncovered through introspection and time.
Burnout, however, usually results from a combination of the following:
- overwhelming workload;
- absence of autonomy;
- lack of support from colleagues and leaders;
- unsatisfactory recognition;
- mismatch of values;
- unfair or toxic work environment; and
- a lack of autonomy.
Take the time to reflect on negative feelings about your role if you can’t identify the problem. Then, possibly, you can also use a technique such as the five whys.
If you’re unfamiliar with this, the five whys and five hows techniques are a questioning process designed to peel back the layers of symptoms to uncover the details of the problem or solution. Sakichi Toyoda developed the technique and stated that “by repeating why five times, the nature of the problem, as well as its solution, becomes clear.”
As soon as you have identified the cause of your burnout, write down at least one way to manage it.
It is also useful to keep a stress diary in order to identify the underlying causes of burnout. Make a list of what causes you stress each day. It’s possible to gain valuable insights from stress diaries. However, for this to be effective, you should keep them for a reasonable length of time.
When you find out what is causing your burnout, look for ways to resolve it. For example, you may need to delegate responsibilities to others, increase your autonomy at work, work from home once a week, or even look for a new job.
2. Evaluate your existing commitments.
Let’s pick up from the previous point. There may also be a few methods you can use right away to lighten your workload once you’ve identified the cause.
Are you working long hours on three different time-consuming projects? That’s common if you’re overly ambitious. As a consequence, you attempt to do it all. In the long run, though, this can lead to you depleting your energy so that there isn’t any left over for anything else.
Rather than trying to juggle everything, ask if a project can be reassigned or if another team member can lend a hand.
Do you have a work and home schedule but still can’t refuse requests from family and friends? For people-pleasers, saying “no” is almost impossible. The problem arises when you are running out of time in the day for the things you really need to accomplish. Thus, adding more tasks will only make you more frustrated and stressed.
Reconsider canceling or rescheduling some of your existing commitments in your calendar. For example, if you already made weekend plans with your family, you can decline the RSVP to your friend’s BBQ. It may surprise you how much relief this brings right away.
3. Repair the base of the triangle.
People have five levels of needs based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
“When these needs are not met they create anxiety, stress, and feelings of inferiority,” explains Sheryl A. Isaacs, MS. “When our basic needs are not met it is difficult for us to reach self-actualization.”
According to Maslow’s Pyramid, the most basic needs are at the base of the triangle. The failure to meet these needs can lead to illness and even death, adds Isaacs. In the absence of safety, people can develop PTSD from relational trauma. It is possible to develop depression or anxiety if we cannot satisfy our need for love and belonging. These needs can guide focused self-care.
While it may seem like a stretch, burnout can also be the result of not meeting your most basic needs. As such, to recover from burnout, it is essential to take care of yourself physically and mentally.
While this isn’t always easy, like if you have to take care of a sick family member, are some tips to help you pay attention to your needs:
- ensure that you get enough restful sleep;
- keep yourself physically active every day;
- maintain a healthy diet and stay hydrated;
- enjoy time with family and friends, but don’t overdo it…time alone is equally important;
- if you want to improve your relaxation, try meditation, yoga, or another mindfulness practice;
- learn stress management techniques, such as mindful breathing or, intuitive eating; and
- finally, spend more time doing the things that you enjoy.
4. Rest like an Olympic athlete.
“Pause and reflect,” suggests Dr. Liz Slonena, PsyD. “What would your life be like if you took your rest as seriously as your job?” It would probably be very different from what it is now.
“Get inspired from Olympic athletes who hold rest as a nonnegotiable and necessary ingredient to prevent injury and perform optimally,” adds Dr. Slonena. “Athletes rigorously plan their rest days, scheduling them in advance into their planners.” When you do less, you can achieve more.
Here are some tips for scheduling your pace and space.
- If it is only for one or five minutes, mark it in your calendar as protected time. During this time, allow yourself to recharge.
- Breathe slowly and intentionally for three breaths. Do your best to exhale twice as long as you inhale.
- While you’re between meetings, listen to your favorite music.
- Visualize the vacation of your dreams.
- Exercise at your desk to de-stress or treat yourself to a self-massage, such as using a foam roller.
5. Adopt an “ownership mindset.”
People with burnout often feel that things are happening to them rather than that they control their own lives. Having an ownership mindset is a way to remind yourself that you are still in charge of your own destiny — even if others have contributed to your situation.
Small changes can be made to adopt this mentality, such as:
- At the beginning of each week or day, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I need to do to achieve my goal”?
- Take responsibility for your commitments, and be clear about what exactly you can or can’t do.
The more open you are to improving your present and future, the more likely you will see the available opportunities and choices.
6. Build a support network.
In a safe environment, you can discuss your burnout struggles and relieve stress. In addition, it will reinforce your sense of solidarity with others. And, sharing your troubles with your colleagues can even make you more productive.
Support is always available, whether it’s from a personal or professional relationship. Preferably, you want to talk to people you trust like your spouse, parent, or BFF. And, there’s also absolutely no shame in talking to a therapist.
7. Make daily recovery a priority.
Your recovery can be sped up by taking a real vacation. When you take time off from work, you can relax and de-stress.
Of course, that’s not always possible. For example, maybe you’ve already used up all of your vacation time. Or, maybe your vacation is scheduled three months from now.
Also, a vacation can feel restorative, but it won’t cure burnout’s stress, exhaustion, and negative feelings. In fact, two-thirds of respondents to an American Psychological Association survey said they had lost the mental benefits of vacation after a few days. Moreover, the study supports an earlier finding from the Journal of Applied Psychology, which found workers’ self-reported burnout levels had recovered only four weeks after vacation.
The answer? Daily recovery. In fact, it’s more important to have daily recovery periods than to wait for the weekend or a vacation, according to research.
How can you make daily recovery a priority? Well, when at work, schedule frequent breaks throughout the day. During that block of time, step away from work and go for a walk or chat with a co-worker. If you can’t get away from your desk, there are multiple ways to de-stress from there as well.
When you’re off the clock, consider putting your smartphone away. Researchers found that burnout recovery was hindered by work-home interference when work and home collide. Researchers argue that smartphones are a risk of work-home interference when used after hours, namely:
- getting work-related text messages after hours; and
- a constant check of work email after work hours.
It should come as no surprise then, that if you could “disengage” from your work and not use your work phones you would be able to relax. But, if that’s a problem, find alternatives for picking up your phone. You can also establish “phone-free” zones in your home. And, don’t sync your smartwatch with your work email.
8. Embrace self-compassion.
As a result of burnout, feelings of failure and a loss of direction can surface. As such, when you don’t feel like you can achieve your goals, you might think you can’t do anything right.
Additionally, burnout is likely the result of pushing yourself beyond what most people would realistically consider your abilities.
One way to fight back when you feel like this? Use supportive, nurturing language instead of negative self-talk.
If you’re struggling with this consider a time when you helped a friend out. What did you say to them? Instead of berating them, you probably showed empathy and kindness.
Likewise, support and love yourself. Remember that it’s okay to not be perfect, and to take a break from time to time.
The chances are that you will not be able to complete three projects at the same time, for instance. But, with the exception of a fictional superhero, is there anyone who can?
When it comes down to it, all you can do is make the most of your strengths. It will be easier to use those strengths when you are not exhausted.
9. Reflect on your accomplishments and efforts.
In today’s hectic lifestyle, it’s easy to leap from one project to another without acknowledging your successes. However, in an environment with never-ending work, if you define success as getting all your work done, you will eventually burn yourself to a crisp.
As a result, acknowledging your accomplishments and efforts is essential. Of course, you do not have to keep track of everything you do. After all, if you’re burnt out, trying to add another task to your list will only make you feel worse. You can, however, be reminded of the value of what you do when you actively reflect on it.
In order to assess your progress, here are two low-effort methods that will have a high impact:
Make a note of what you learned, noticed, and achieved every day for 5-10 minutes.
Alternatively, you can type it into the “notes” section of your online calendar for each day of the week. It’s even possible to de-stress in the office if you follow a few subtle, office-friendly techniques.
For a daily reflection meditation, memorize these mindful questions.
Researchers have found that mindfulness is a powerful deterrent to burnout. Reflecting mindfully for 5 minutes allows you to acknowledge your accomplishments and assess struggles without judgment. Ask yourself:
- Today, what made me happy?
- Are there any inner conflicts or stressors that I am experiencing?
- Today, I learned what?
Anytime is a good time to ask yourself these questions. Some thoughts could be reviewed while you’re commuting home, going for a walk, or doing the dishes.
10. Reassess your goals.
Work that is not aligned with your values or that doesn’t contribute to your long-term goals can lead to burnout. Also, if you don’t your goals, you can also experience frustration and burnout.
Take the time to identify your values and the things that give you meaning in your work. Using this as a guide, create a personal mission statement.
By self-analyzing, you will gain an understanding of what matters most to you, and you will be able to identify any elements, if any, that aren’t present in your life.
Next, think about how you can integrate your values and mission into your current position. If you want to work better for yourself, you might have to adjust your job to fit you better. For example, asking for a more flexible schedule. Then again, you might have to change your perspective on your job.
How long does it take to recover from burnout?
Depending on the level of burnout, recovery can take days, months, or even years. The length of your burnout, the intensity of your burnout, and the speed with which you eliminate or cope with your burnout triggers determine how long you need to recover from burnout.
Further, there is no quick fix for a condition such as burnout. And, due to the fact that the issue is mainly internal, tracking progress is not always straightforward. But, you can use the tips listed above to help you begin your burnout recovery.