A report by Gallup found that 67% of American workers experience burnout at some time. This makes it a concern for us all, whether we experience it ourselves, or see it in friends, family, colleagues or employees. Recognizing the signs and seeking help are vital, as burnout can have serious effects on our emotional, mental and physical health. The good news is that recovering from burnout is possible, and there are steps you can take to aid your return to full capabilities.
The term burnout was first used in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who applied it to a phenomenon seen in health care professionals. Workers in this industry are still at high risk for burnout (especially in current times, along with others on the frontline dealing with the coronavirus pandemic), and those in education, law enforcement and other service professions.
But it’s now seen in people in a range of careers, and since 2019 has been recognized as a syndrome by the World Health Organization. The WHO defines burnout not as a medical condition in itself, but as a phenomenon that causes health problems, resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” They identify three key aspects: "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job and reduced professional efficacy.”
Whereas short bursts of stress can increase productivity, burnout is caused by continued stress and always results in lowered productivity. Burnout is also distinct from depression, even though it can contribute to depression and shares some common symptoms. The exhaustion and sense of inefficacy or futility are two of the main similarities with depression. The main difference is that depression is usually connected to all areas of life and not just work, while burnout is defined as having an occupational cause.
Once you’re suffering from burnout, recovery probably isn’t going to be easy and doesn’t happen automatically by taking a little time off. Support from your current or future employer will be needed, but there are also steps you can take yourself.
Burnout is a serious phenomenon that has consequences for our physical health, as well as mental and emotional. Even today, there are those who don’t regard it as a real issue, and some find it difficult to admit to suffering from burnout. It’s necessary to break this stigma.
If you know you’re burned out, acknowledge the problem and reach out. Therapy may be a good idea, if it’s possible, and you should seek support of occupational health specialists at work, if they’re available. If burnout has caused physical symptoms, or if you feel you may be experiencing depression, it’s advisable to see a doctor.
Find out what support can be offered by your manager or HR. Companies are becoming increasingly aware of the problems of burnout, and of their responsibilities to support their employees, as well as the detriments to them of losing good staff if they don’t. Since burnout is caused by work, and our reactions to it, changing the nature of the work has to be part of the solution. Reducing hours, reducing workload and allowing more flexible working arrangements can help.
You should also look at the nature of the tasks you’re asked to perform. Are you under-qualified or overstretched by your responsibilities, or are you under-challenged or bored by monotonous tasks? How does the company’s culture and purpose match with your values? A career counselor may be helpful in evaluating whether you’re in the right field or if a change is recommended.
Creative activities are said to counteract the feelings of emptiness and having nothing left to give, which are characteristic of burnout. They also help the brain recover and return to full functioning (burnout has been found to reduce mental abilities), and have been shown to help in relaxation and reduction of stress.
You might focus on artistic hobbies that you’ve enjoyed in the past, or you could start to learn new skills by taking classes or joining a club. Just undertaking small craft projects or writing at home each day could be enough to start to get the imagination working and ideas flowing again.
Make sure these activities aren’t in any way related to your job. The idea is to take your mind away from the types of stress and demands that have brought you to the point of burnout, and to stimulate positivity and cognitive skills, giving them time and space to come back. Find things you can do just for fun, things that open up your mind and allow a sense of playfulness and exploration, but which require focus.
Take time off. During off-duty hours, switch off from work and engage in quality time with friends or family, or other activities that you enjoy. Take a vacation if possible. If you need more time, find out about options for extended PTO or even consider a career break.
Although this may be daunting and seem extreme, you need to make an honest assessment as to whether this is what you need for your health and future productivity. Advice from a healthcare professional may be required to help you assess the best approach for you.
A long time away from work isn’t the right solution for everybody. If you’re remaining at work, ensure you talk to your manager or HR about reducing your hours and responsibilities for a time, to allow you the opportunity to recover.
One of the effects of burnout is to make us want to shut off from others. This self-isolation can extend beyond work to our personal lives as well. A key to recovering from burnout is to fight against this tendency, as a support system of friends, family, colleagues and advisors is going to be necessary.
While it’s important to talk to people about the burnout you’re experiencing, make sure you’re also spending time with people in ways that take your mind off work and the problems you’re experiencing. Get back in touch with friends and family and do the kinds of things you enjoyed before work became all-consuming. Joining groups and making new friends can also help rejuvenate your social skills and willingness to interact with people.
If you’ve distanced yourself from colleagues, as many do when experiencing burnout, try to initiate contact with a trusted coworker, and start to be more open to communication with those you work with. At the same time, cut off or limit your contact with negative or draining people. This applies whether you’re continuing at work without a break, or if you’re returning after time off.
As with social interaction, taking care of our health is something we often lose interest in when experiencing burnout. Since burnout is characterized by fatigue, and can result in other negative health effects such as raised blood pressure, insomnia and an impaired immune system, repairing your physical health is an essential part of recovering from burnout.
Don’t be reluctant to see a doctor. You’re not “just” tired or “just” stressed if you’re experiencing burnout. According to Gallup, those with burnout are 23% more likely to make an emergency room visit.
Fortunately, many of the other steps recommended here will also help your physical health: rest, engage in creative activities, and maintain social contact with supportive people. Exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep and limiting or eliminating unhealthy behaviors should also be part of your plan.
One of the main signs of burnout is loss of any sense of purpose in your work. Nothing seems worthwhile. Feeling that our work is meaningful is important for all of us, and so you should actively engage in finding ways to regain that sense in your own life and career. Take time to reflect on what’s important to you. Assess how well your current or most recent job aligns with your values.
Doing work that helps others is empowering and fulfilling, but in today’s economy many of us work in situations where we are detached from those we ultimately serve, and some jobs can feel less than worthwhile. Doing activities outside of work that give a real sense of being valuable and making a contribution to society, can help recovery from burnout by reminding us of our ability to make a difference, and by showing us that there’s more to life than work. Consider volunteering in an area that’s important to you. And remember to recognize any work you already do to care for or support others.
The amount of control we have over our work is thought to be a major factor in susceptibility to burnout. The more control over where, when and how we do our work, as well as what we do, the less likely we are to suffer burnout. Therefore, regaining a sense of control over your life and work is an important part of recovery from burnout. And learn to say no. This applies outside as well as inside work. Establish boundaries, not only on others’ demands but also on your own demands of yourself.
Being a perfectionist is also a risk factor of burnout. If this applies to you, ensure that you’re being realistic about what you can do, and make sure others are reasonable in what they expect, too. Setting boundaries requires an awareness of when you’ve done enough. If you’re used to judging “enough” by when you’ve done all you can, you’ll need to adjust that outlook to recover from burnout and avoid slipping back into it again.
Pushing yourself to your absolute limit may make you feel great when it happens on rare occasions. But trying to do it all the time is a sure-fire way to hit burnout. Recognizing and breaking these patterns of overachievement on your part, or over-reliance by others, is a necessary step in your recovery from burnout so that you don’t end up repeating the cycle.
The time needed to fully recover from burnout will depend on factors such as how long you’ve been experiencing it, your own personal characteristics that affect your resilience, and the effectiveness of your support system. For some, it can take just a few weeks, and may not require extended time off from work. Others find they need a prolonged career break, and the process of full recovery from burnout could take two or three years.
If you suspect you may be on the path to burnout, or in a situation that makes you susceptible to it, take action now to avoid the problem escalating. If you’re already experiencing burnout, the most important thing you must do is to reach out and seek help. It may take time, but recovering from burnout is possible if you take appropriate steps to address it.
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