When you're experiencing burnout, the resultant fatigue, cynicism, and detachment can distort reality so much that peace of mind seems lightyears away. That's because burnout runs deeper than typical stress; it's usually the result of dealing with challenging responsibilities or situations on a chronic basis. The impact of these stressors can accumulate and permeate virtually all areas of your life, leaving you feeling fizzled out across the board. This stress can even make you sick!
Burnout is usually a slow and gradual process – one that tends to rob people of their passion, their motivation, and energy, leaving them instead with feelings of exhaustion, disillusionment, and frustration. But as overwhelming and infiltrating as burnout can feel, recovering is possible.
Here are 9 tips to help you recover if you’re experiencing burnout:
1. Strengthen active reflection and self-compassion practices
When helping individuals recover from burnout, I highly recommend extra self-compassion and patience, as well as reflective exercises to see the big picture of what may be going on.
Studies indicate that actively cultivating self-compassion and empathy can mitigate the impact of burnout. With practice, you can start cultivating self-compassion in your everyday life. This will alleviate existing burnout symptoms and prevent further ones.
Here are some ways to practice self-compassion when recovering from burnout:
- Be patient – give it time and focus. Reminding yourself that healing from burnout is a process and won’t happen from lighting just one candle or taking one bubble bath.
- Notice and reward the effort you are putting in, not just the outcome.
- Consider taking an ownership mindset. Look for the opportunities and choices you can make to improve your present and future.
- Remember and reflect on the system you are in! If you view success as getting all the work done in an environment that has never ending work, you are bound to get stressed and feel terrible about yourself. Take a step back and think of how you can protect yourself, improve the system, and/or find another system that fits your needs.
2. Create action items for systemic changes
Action items that fit your schedule and demands can help make lasting systemic changes in your daily life. Here are some everyday ways to effect change in your work life, preventing further burnout:
- Set work boundaries: When you notice yourself being unproductive, take a short break. If you work from home, set up a work space and a play space so you associate home with more than just work. Similarly, set a schedule so that you know you can “turn off” at a specific time.
- Stress reduction list: Make a list of some of the things that stress you out, as well as a list of things that re-energize you. Jot down a couple of actions to reduce your stress every few days or every week. If creating this list is stressful in itself, I recommend setting boundaries on the task (5-10 minutes), and remembering that burnout recovery is a process.
- Make meaning: Give yourself time to reflect and reconnect with your values, goals, and priorities. You might be in this demanding job because you want to help people, you might also be working hard to provide financial security for your family. When we remember and connect with why we’re doing something that is difficult, it makes it easier to do the task. If you notice that your values or goals are shifting, that’s okay – you can come up with a plan to help you address this shift proactively. A gratitude journal is a great way to do this.
3. Develop daily strategies to prevent burnout
Recognizing and replacing habits that may be fueling the burnout is a great way to prevent it from controlling your life. Take some time to check in and reflect with the following everyday exercises:
- 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.
- Unwind before bed: 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.
4. Take time to actively reflect on your efforts and accomplishments
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.
Here are two low-effort, high-impact ways to reflect on your progress:
- 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.
5. Consider taking time off to hit your "reset" button
If your burnout is severe to the point where you're struggling to function, you may benefit from taking time off so that you can reset and refresh. Taking a trip away, or even setting aside a few days to relax at home, can help.
Remember to turn off work emails or other contacts, since even small notifications can remind you of stressors and impede your relaxation efforts.
If you're not able to take time off, consider taking breaks at work. Bouncing between demanding projects or assignments can perpetuate burnout, so try to remember to go for a walk or practice breathing exercises between tasks.
6. Recognize and replace negative self-talk
We often fall into patterns of self berating during stressful days or weeks. But knocking yourself down in the midst of an already-stressful period won't exactly move you forward! So instead, try replacing your negative self-talk with more supportive, nurturing language. Here are tips for getting started:
- If your negative self-talk is firmly rooted in your mind, you may need to work on identifying it. The next time you're feeling really bad about something, carefully notice the details of how you talk to yourself, like "I should be done with this work by now," or "I'm such an idiot for dropping the ball on this."
- Respond directly to that negativity with compassion and a reframed perspective. For the first example, replace "should" with "could" and remind yourself of what you have accomplished, like "I could be done by now, but I prioritized [abc], and as a result, I'm in a better place with [xyz]." For the second, try "I'm worried about doing a good job, but one slip up doesn't define me. I can take a step back and remedy the situation."
7. Adopt an "ownership mindset"
One of the mainstays of burnout is the feeling that things are happening to you, rather than you having control over your own life. Intentionally adopting an "ownership mindset" is a way to remind yourself that while others may have contributed to your current situation, you still have the power to make your own choices (this is empowerment, not blame!).
Small ways to adopt this mentality might be:
- Asking yourself at the start of the work week or day, “What’s the one thing I need to do to get closer to my [target accomplishment]"?
- Embrace accountability by thinking like an "owner" throughout your commitments, by being clear about what exactly is within your ability or bandwidth
With this outlook, you may find that you're more readily poised to see the opportunities and choices you can make to improve your present and future.
8. Grant yourself permission to be an imperfect human
If you consistently hold yourself to high standards without wiggle room, anything less than perfect can feel like a failure. Grant yourself permission to act imperfectly, while recognizing that no single action defines you.
Here are a few ways to speak back to perfectionism, if it is detrimentally affecting you:
- Observe perfectionist thoughts, and label them accordingly without judgement ("That's a perfectionist thought," or "That's perfectionism").
- Imagine speaking to a friend who's facing a similar situation. Would you tell them something caring and encouraging, like “It sounds like you’re being really hard on yourself, and did the best you could in the moment”? Now try turning that same kindness towards yourself.
9. 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.
When looking for a therapist for burnout, look for a therapist who:
- Is familiar with burnout recovery literature
- Is able to help you build towards short-term and long-term goals
- Has skills helping clients distinguish between burnout, depression, and anxiety
- Helps you feel comfortable with and understands the context of your experiences
- Has an understanding of systemic issues such as workplace discrimination if these are big factors in your experience of burnout, as not all of us are trained in culturally competent counseling
The experience of burnout feels pretty awful – but burnout is treatable, and the recovery process can be deeply empowering! Working with a vetted therapist is the right next step.
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!