When Ron first started with his organization, he loved his job. He went into work every day filled with purpose and passion, and he was excited about the difference he could make in his new role.
Three years later, however, it's hard to recognize him. Now, Ron dreads going to work. He feels as if his work is meaningless, he's always stressed, and he calls in sick frequently.
These are classic symptoms of burnout. If you've experienced this yourself, it's essential that you know how to recover from it, before you experience lasting damage to your sense of well-being and your career.
In this article, we'll look at what burnout is and how you can recover from it.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time. You can also experience burnout when your efforts at work have failed to produce the results that you expected, and you feel deeply disillusioned as a result.
You might be experiencing burnout if you:
- Feel that every day at work is a bad day.
- Feel exhausted much of the time.
- Feel no joy or interest in your work, or even feel depressed by it.
- Feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities.
- Engage in escapist behaviors, such as excessive drinking.
- Have less patience with others than you used to.
- Feel hopeless about your life or work.
- Experience physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, sleeplessness, or heart palpitations. (Make sure that you see a physician about these!)
Studies show that people who experience burnout early in their career often find it easier to recover than people who go through it later in life. However, it's important that you know how to recover effectively, whatever stage you're at in your career.
These are just a few of the many symptoms that you can experience with burnout. Take our Burnout Self-Test if you think that you're experiencing burnout, and read our article on Avoiding Burnout if you think that you might be at risk.
Recovering From Burnout
Burnout doesn't go away on its own; rather, it will get worse unless you address the underlying issues causing it. If you ignore burnout, it will only cause you further harm down the line, so it's important that you begin recovery as soon as possible.
Recovery from burnout is a slow journey; not a quick dash to some imaginary finish line. You need time and space to recuperate, so don't rush through this process.
The recovery strategies that we've outlined below are all useful in different situations. Some of these strategies will work for you, while others won't, so find a balance of strategies and best practices that feels right to you. If you believe that something isn't working, don't be afraid to try something new.
Think About the "Why" of Burnout
You first need to identify why you've experienced burnout. In some situations, this will be obvious. Other times, it will take time and introspection to uncover this.
First, look at any resentment that you feel towards your work. Often, feelings of resentment point to something important that is missing.
Here's a good example: Jennifer manages a team halfway around the world, so her workday often starts at 6 a.m. She doesn't mind this because she likes her team and her job. But she feels resentful when her boss forgets that she works so early and repeatedly asks her to stay late, which causes her to miss important time with her family.
In this example, burnout didn't occur because Jennifer disliked her job; in fact, she loved what she did. She experienced burnout because she hated missing out on family time in the evenings.
Take time to think about any negative feelings that you have about your role, and, perhaps, use a technique like the 5 Whys to get to the root of the problem. Once you've identified the cause of your burnout, write down at least one way that you can manage or eliminate that source of stress or unhappiness.
Another useful method for identifying underlying causes of burnout is to keep a stress diary. Each day, write down what causes you stress and record why the event stressed you. Stress diaries can be illuminating, so long as you keep up with them for a reasonable period of time.
Once you discover the root causes of your burnout, look at what you can do to resolve it. This might involve delegating some of your responsibilities to others, adding more autonomy to your job, working from home one day a week, or even changing roles.
Focus on the Basics
If you've experienced burnout, your body may be in need of attention. This is why it's important to think about the basics of good health and well-being.
Start by getting plenty of exercise. Countless studies have shown that this offers many physical and mental benefits; not only does regular exercise help reduce stress, but it also boosts your mood, improves your overall health, and enhances your quality of life.
Next, make sure that you're getting enough sleep, eating well, and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. These might sound obvious, but busy professionals often ignore their most basic needs. Instead, they take care of others and their responsibilities far more than they take care of themselves. This can contribute to burnout.
Take a Vacation or Leave of Absence
One good way to start your recovery is to take a real vacation. Time away from work gives you the distance you need to relax and de-stress.
While the stress and problems that you're experiencing at work may still be waiting for you when you get back, taking time off is essential for getting the rest you need and coming up with long-term solutions to burnout.
Reassess Your Goals
Next, take time to reassess your personal goals. Burnout can occur when your work is out of alignment with your values, or when it's not contributing to your long-term goals. You can also experience frustration and burnout if you have no idea what your goals are.
Start by identifying your values and thinking about what gives you meaning in your work. Then use this to craft a personal mission statement. This self-analysis will give you a deeper understanding of what you find most important, and it will show you which elements, if any, are missing from your life or work.
Next, look at how you can tie your values and mission to your current role. This could mean crafting your job to fit you better, or even just changing the way you look at your role.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman says that all of us require five essential elements in our lives in order to experience well-being. These elements – positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement – are described in his PERMA Model. Use this model to discover whether any of these elements are missing, and to think about what you can do to incorporate them into your life.
Say "No", Politely
Try not to take on any new responsibilities or commitments while you're recovering from burnout.
This might be challenging, especially with colleagues who need your help. Our article on "Saying ‘Yes' to the Person, ‘No' to the Task" has useful tips for saying no, diplomatically.
Practice Positive Thinking
Burnout can cause you to slip into a cycle of negative thinking. This negative thinking often worsens over time.
When you're in recovery from burnout, it can be a challenge to develop the habit of positive thinking. This is why it's important to start small. Try thinking of something positive before you get out of bed each morning. Or, at the end of the day, think back to one great thing that you did at work or at home.
You deserve to celebrate even small accomplishments. These celebrations can help you rediscover joy and meaning in your work again.
You can also bring more positivity into your life by practicing random acts of kindness at work. A basic part of our human nature is to help others. Being kind to others not only helps spread positivity in the workplace, but it also feels great. Our article on Winning by Giving has several ideas that you can use to help others in your workplace.
While there are many causes of burnout, people are more likely to experience it when they work in a physically or emotionally demanding role, or when their efforts at work don't produce the results that they expected.
Symptoms of burnout include depression, hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and using escapist behaviors to cope.
It's important to make the effort to recover properly from burnout. To do this, try the following strategies:
- Think about the "why."
- Focus on the basics.
- Take a good vacation or a leave of absence.
- Reassess your goals.
- Say "no."
- Practice positive thinking.
Stress is a strong contributor to burnout. Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, can cause death. While stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.