Feeling Burned Out? These Expert-Approved Strategies Will Help You Recover

Which is why Ziegler recommends paying close attention to your media intake. In addition to limiting your phone’s push notifications to just one or two trusted news sources, she also suggests scanning your social media feeds and unfollowing any outlets or people that consistently make you feel fearful, anxious, or upset. “When we become very passive to how we get news, we experience a loss of control, which fuels stress,” says Ziegler. “Control is huge for a lot of people—especially right now, when many things feel out of our control. But this is one thing you can be in control of.”

Recover burnout

Feeling Burned Out? These Expert-Approved Strategies Will Help You Recover

how to recover from burnout

Your inbox is a perpetually overflowing mountain of high-priority emails. You feel like no matter how hard—or how long—you work, you barely make a dent in your never-ending-to-do list. You’re so far behind on everything (paying bills, scheduling doctor’s appointments, you name it) that you just keep putting it off. You’re so exhausted that it takes days to respond to text messages from your closest friends. Not to mention that you’re starting to wonder if you’ll ever feel excited about your life or career again.

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If that sounds familiar, chances are, you’re probably experiencing burnout. And you’re not alone: According to a 2020 Gallup report, 76 percent of respondents said that they experience burnout at least sometimes—a number that’s likely risen since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, in which people have had to juggle work, caregiving, and overwhelming stress and anxiety.

The good news? You can recover from burnout. Though, it’ll likely take more than a weekend away. “Burnout manifests as illness,” says Amelia Nagoski, co-author of Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. “So just like it takes a long time to recover from a broken bone or severe infection, it also takes a long time to recover from burnout. There’s the period where you’re really wounded, the period where you’re working to bounce back, and the period where you’re not quite back to normal, but you’re definitely not in crisis anymore.”

Scientifically Proven Treatments

Burnout recovery

To curate a list of effective treatments, we consulted several peer-reviewed manuscripts.

Daily recovery is vital

Put your smartphone away

Derks and Bakker (2014) found that burnout recovery was hampered by work–home interference, which is when our home and work needs conflict. The researchers argued that smartphone use after hours put people at risk of work–home interference, specifically:

Derks and Bakker (2014) divided their research participants into two groups: those who used their work smartphone after hours and those who did not. Participants who used their work phone after hours were more likely to experience work–home interference and struggle with burnout recovery.

Yes, you should lie on the couch

Other strategies

Burnout Management: The Importance of Self-Care

Specifically, your client should focus on their wellbeing first. The importance of self-care is simple when we return to the battery metaphor. If your client’s battery is not fully charged, then they cannot provide enough energy to their work and life responsibilities.

Promoting self-care can be difficult especially when coupled with bad habits, such as working overtime, responding to work messages or texts after hours, and saying yes to everything, resulting in an unreasonable workload.

    Downtime tasks include activities that require little effort to complete, have no productive outcome, and are not deadline driven. Examples include reading, watching tv, coloring, and napping. These tasks should have little to no physical or cognitive demands.

Furthermore, your client should learn how to identify signs that they are tired or stressed. For example, do they report not enjoying their hobbies or feeling more irritable, demotivated, or tired? These could be signs that your client must take extra measures to recharge their battery.

Download Your Free 9 Ways To Recover From Burnout: Moving Forward When You’re Exhausted Guide

  • Take care of your body: Really important! Get some form of exercise, eat when hungry, sleep when you need to. When in recovery, it is particularly important to not push past your limits. : Set aside time before falling asleep to unwind. Listen to music, read something relaxing or meaningful, reflect on the important moments of your day.
  • Disconnect from screens: Technology makes us more accessible, which can be a wonderful yet demanding thing. Find realistic small ways to get some separation from screens.
  • Create a gentle reflection practice: Could be a thoughtful conversation with a good friend, or a quick journal entry – I love the 2 minute journal, which includes a gratitude practice.
  • Create a practice of staying present/mindful: Most people think of meditation, which is a great idea, but it doesn’t work for everyone, especially at first. Mindfulness could be watching a basketball game, eating a snack, or taking a 5 minute walk around the block with the intention of practicing being present and nonjudgmental.

In the go-go-go of today’s lifestyle, it’s easy to tackle one project and leap to the next without taking a breath to acknowledge your victories. But if you view success as getting all the work done in an environment that has never-ending work, you’re bound to hit burnout sooner or later.

That’s why it’s crucial to acknowledge both your accomplishments and your efforts. You don’t have to tally up everything you do (after all, if you’re burnt out, the last thing you need is another item on your to-do list!). But taking the time to actively reflect can remind you of the value of what you do.

  • Spend 5-10 minutes at the end of each work day jotting down what you learned, noticed, and achieved. You can do this in a designated journal (aka work diary) or app, or even type it onto the “notes” section for each calendar day in your iCal or Google calendar. You can even do this during the day, as there are many subtle, office-friendly ways to destress.
  • Memorize these mindful questions for a daily reflection meditation. Studies have shown mindfulness is a powerful deterrent against burnout [3,4]. Taking just 5 minutes to reflect mindfully grants yourself space to acknowledge your achievements and assess struggles without judgement. Try some version of the following questions: Where did I find joy today? Did anything cause me inner stress or conflict? What did I learn today? You can ask yourself these anywhere, like on your commute home, while eating dinner, or doing the dishes.

Seek professional support through therapy

Therapy is a wonderful space to assess what burnout looks for you, what components of burnout are particularly challenging for you, and what factors are contributing to your experience of burnout. For example, if you notice that your detachment is impacting how you show up for work or home, you can work on strategies to improve interpersonal concerns.

These strategies may include steps to protect your energy. For example, delegating tasks if possible and working on communication such as setting boundaries with respect rather than with irritation. A therapist can also help you sort through and address the factors impacting burnout, since each factor might need a different approach.

Through recovery, you can become more in touch with your values and goals, feel more confident in your ability to manage stress, and learn to implement practices that will help you play the long game well. While burnout generally is temporary, the growth you experience in being intentional about treating it can be lasting!

Snehal Kumar, PhD

Burnout is real. Here’s how to spot it—and recover.

a stressed woman sitting at a desk puts her face in her hands

When people ask me why I became a writer, I have plenty of reasons to list: Words bring me joy. I ask questions constantly. And when I hear a good story, I’ll repeat it again and again until my friends get tired of hearing it. But in July of 2021, these responses started to feel hollow.

I know I’m not alone. At this moment, when work is isolating some people at home while putting others in danger, burnout seems particularly rampant. In a survey of 1,500 workers from Indeed in March 2021, 53 percent said they were burned out—up by nearly 10 percent from the previous year. Another survey of nearly 21,000 healthcare workers published in May in The Lancet found similar rates.

I wanted to regain my curiosity and the joy I find in language as soon as possible, so I reached out to scientists to find out what, exactly, was happening in my body—and what I could do to make it better.

Burnout is a phenomenon so old, they made a sin out of it, according to Gordon Parker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. Once called “acedia,” the eighth cardinal sin described a state of listlessness, apathy, and torpor observed in fourth century monks. “They would wake up one day and say ‘the sky is no longer blue,’” Parker said. These monks would stop getting pleasure out of life and would lose their faith in God.

They were more than just tired. They had forgotten the meaning of all that they did. And that pretty much describes burnout. The response to chronic stress goes beyond exhaustion; sufferers also experience a loss of idealism and feel like they’re bad at whatever they do. Those are the three prongs identified by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the assessment most often used by psychologists to evaluate such mental fatigue.

And all that angst isn’t just in your head—it’s very much a physical phenomenon, rooted in the body’s stress-response system. Scientists studying the syndrome are particularly interested in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, also called the HPA axis. When we’re faced with a threat—say, a bear chasing us, or the prospect of responding to an ambiguously stern-sounding email—the HPA axis releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol helps the body run from whatever is threatening it; it raises our heart rate and helps our body harvest energy from glucose. Cortisol also decreases activity in systems you don’t need when your life is in immediate danger, like the reproductive and immune systems. When the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain that acts like the control room for the HPA axis, detects high levels of cortisol in the blood, it’s supposed to say “okay, my work is done here,” and shut the stress response down.

Researchers can capture a snapshot of how the stress-response system is functioning with a test called the dexamethasone challenge. Dexamethasone is a drug that tells the hypothalamus to suppress the stress-response system. Given a dose of it, a healthy person should start producing less cortisol. But multiple studies have found that people with burnout have an altered response to the drug. Some studies find that those individuals don’t react to dexamethasone much, if at all—they continue pumping out more cortisol regardless. Other research finds that people with burnout have an exaggerated response to the drug—they suppress cortisol more than the healthy controls do. Researchers hypothesize that these two seemingly contradictory findings represent two stages: burning out, and being burnt out.

“During the burning-out phase, the system is in overdrive,” Parker said. When stress is chronic, cortisol levels in the body keep going up, but the system doesn’t shut itself down. The burnt-out phase begins when that system is tapped out, says Renzo Bianchi, a psychologist at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. “Your stress response gets so exhausted that you stop producing cortisol at high levels,” Bianchi said.

Cortisol may stress us out, but we also need the hormone to survive. It’s quite literally what gets us up in the morning. So when people enter this “burnt out” phase, they feel tired and cynical. They lose drive. They might even experience cognitive impairment and memory changes.

Burnout is a syndrome that may cause a person to become depressed; depression might predispose a person to burnout. But ultimately, burnout is distinct in that work is always at its root. People often feel better as soon as they’re able to get away from the cause of their stress, Parker said. That’s not usually the case with depression.

That distinction is important to make, because by treating burnout as an illness—like depression or an anxiety disorder—we risk offering the wrong solutions, Maslach said. You can’t self-care away your burnout, she added. It’s not so much about the individual as it is the situation they’re in. You have to remove the cause of your stress, and that often requires structural changes in the workplace.



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