“Burnout” has become something of a buzzword over the past few years. We hear people use it to describe everything from how we feel at the end of a hard work week to caring for a loved one at the end of their life.
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So, what is burnout, really? And do you have it? And more importantly: If you do have it, what can you do about it?
We talked to registered psychotherapist Natacha Duke, MA, RP, about the six steps of burnout recovery and identified 12 strategies for improving your physical, mental and emotional health.
Make sure you’re actually burnt out first
The concept of burnout was originally intended to be focused on work-related stress — and is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition. But Duke and many others use the term to apply to a wide range of stressors and circumstances.
The three hallmarks of burnout are:
- Lack of energy or exhaustion.
- Feelings of negativism or cynicism.
- Poor performance.
Duke recommends asking yourself if you can pinpoint what specifically is happening in your life that’s causing you to feel hopeless, cynical and exhausted. Then, ask yourself how burnt out you are. Can you evaluate the situation and make changes yourself, or do you need some support?
If you come away from a self-evaluation confident that you’re burnt out, one of the first steps Duke advises you take is visiting a healthcare provider. “I’ve had people not realize that they’ve had a thyroid condition or a severe iron deficiency,” she continues.
“There can still be things happening that are burning you out — it could even be both. Once you’ve had a complete workup and you’ve eliminated the possibility of a medical condition, I would suggest speaking to a therapist.”
Duke adds, “Maybe you think you’re burnt out, but actually it’s crept into depression. Or maybe you’re dealing with both burnout and depression. There can be multiple things going on at once.”
The 6 steps of burnout recovery
According to a commonly cited article in Work and Stress, there are six consecutive steps a person needs to take when recovering from burnout:
- Admitting you’re burned out. You can’t get better if you don’t acknowledge that your current situation needs to change. This can be difficult, especially if the thing that’s burning you out — parenting or a job you love, for example — is important to you.
- Putting distance between yourself and your stressors, if possible. What that means will vary based on your situation and resources. “Distance” could be as significant as quitting your job or taking a leave of absence from work. Or it could be as small as — or even smaller than — taking a mental health day. Or taking some child-free time for self-care.
- Focusing on your health. You’ve been running on empty for a while, so it’s time to refill your tank. That may mean getting an extra hour of sleep at night, cooking your favorite food instead of grabbing takeout or going out dancing with your friends. Whatever helps you feel like yourself again.
- Re-evaluating your goals and values. As your health starts to improve, it’s time to use those resources to do some thinking about the situation that led you to burnout. What are you not getting that you need to be happy? Is your mindset helping or hurting you? Are your priorities in sync with your values? What’s most important to you and why?
- Explore alternative paths and opportunities. Once you have a sense of what needs are being unmet in your life, it’s time to do something about it. What concrete change(s) could you make to improve your situation? Maybe you need to leave a relationship that’s no longer serving you … or maybe you just need to get a night to yourself once a week. The changes don’t necessarily have to be big to make a meaningful difference in your daily life.
- Take a break and/or make a change. Once you’ve figured out what you need, you have to actually do it. That’s not always easy, but it is vital to the recovery process.
Strategies to try
We’ve compiled a list of 12 different things you can do to combat burnout.
1. Get professional help
Recovering from burnout can be much easier with the help of a therapist. If you’re dealing with any mental health concerns in addition to burnout — like generalized anxiety disorder, for example — your therapist can also help determine if medication might be helpful in your specific case.
“Sometimes, there isn’t a need to bring in medication,” Duke notes. “Sometimes, it’s more important to have a structured approach, like having a set number of sessions such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).”
“There’s a belief in psychology that when you talk about your problems, you sort of cut them in half,” Duke explains. “One thing that we often need is to feel like we have space to be able to share, and that someone can validate that our situation is actually really difficult.”
2. Alert your support system
If you’re burnt out, it’s important to let people you trust know about it. They may be able to help. Helping may look like lending an ear, taking over some of your responsibilities or even continuing to invite you out to social gatherings after you’ve missed the last four.
If you don’t feel like you have a support system you can rely on, be sure to tell your therapist — that’s important information. Depending on what’s burning you out, you may also want to consider joining a support group.
3. Tell people what you need
For better or worse (but let’s be honest — usually better) people can’t read your mind.
Part of recovering from burnout is asserting what you need, whether that’s alone time during your lunch hour, some space in the house to practice your hobbies, an extension on that 10-page paper or an actual date night with your partner.
You might not always get what you ask for, but speaking up for yourself is a victory in its own right and sends the message that you value yourself and your health.
4. Practice self-compassion
Like “burnout,” the term “self-care” gets thrown around a lot and means different things to different people. That’s why Duke prefers to use the term “self-compassion” when talking about burnout recovery. It’s all about extending yourself the same kindness and understanding you offer others.
Duke demonstrates the approach: “It’s about saying ‘OK, this is a really hard time for me. Everybody in life goes through hard times. And clearly, right now, the stress in my life is exceeding my coping and has been going on, unresolved, for too long.’”
From there, you then start to look at a few things, Duke says. “You need to ask: ’How do I extend myself compassion? How do I start to take a step back and either problem-solve to improve the situation, or change my perspective? How do I take care of myself?’”
If one of the answers is “take a bubble bath,” that’s great. It just can’t be the only answer!
5. Monitor your stress levels
When you’re burnt out, you may find that you’re more easily stressed out, or that you have a stress reaction to situations that wouldn’t normally bother you. Taking the time to note when you’re most stressed can help you find patterns and formulate solutions.
Do you get a knot in your stomach when you hear the “ding” of a new email hitting your inbox? Do you find yourself snapping at your kids every night when they ask about dinner? Do you always seem to find yourself laid low with tummy trouble the night before big meetings? Knowledge is power, after all.
6. Make a habit of journaling
One way to track your stress levels, mood and other burnout symptoms is by keeping a journal.
Journaling can be intimidating to people who haven’t done it before. But remember: Your journal doesn’t have to be bestselling novel material. In fact, you don’t even need to write in complete sentences!
The goal of journaling — at least, when you’re recovering from burnout — is to get what’s in your head (jumbled as it may be) onto paper. Writing down what’s happening in your life, how you feel about it, your goals or even a to-do list can be very cathartic. You might also benefit from keeping a gratitude journal.
7. Try different stress-management techniques
It’s frequently the case that you can’t change the situation that’s burning you out. But even if you can, burnout happens because your coping mechanisms for dealing with stress are being outpaced by your circumstances. Juicing up your stress-management skills won’t just help you recover — but it can also help you keep burnout at bay in the future.
There are almost as many stress management tactics as there are things to be stressed about. Here are a few you may not have heard of:
- Box breathing.
- Forest therapy.
- Yoga nidra.
- Epsom salt baths.
- Vagus nerve stimulation.
- Adaptogen supplementation.
8. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries is difficult under the best of circumstances — and the COVID-19 pandemic only made things worse. Our homes became our offices, parents doubled as assistant teachers and far too many of us became caregivers. Many people — but especially healthcare workers — relinquished their work-life balance completely to help us all get through the crisis. We’re still feeling the effects today.
It’s hard to reconstruct boundaries after they’ve fallen. But reconstruct them we must. Check out this advice:
9. Eat a healthy diet
Long-term stress triggers our fight-or-flight response, which, in turn, can make us crave fatty, sugary foods. Hard as it may be to resist the temptation to indulge, eating a healthy diet can boost your mood. You can also fight fatigue and increase your energy with a few adjustments to your eating habits.
10. Make time for exercise
Exercise is so good for improving your mood that it can help combat clinical depression. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the things that we tend to throw out the window when times are tough. Healthcare providers recommend getting 150 minutes of exercise a week for most people. But remember: Some exercise is better than no exercise, so do whatever your schedule and body permit. Carving out five minutes for a brisk walk or some gentle stretching is a great start.
11. Practice good sleep hygiene
We know — getting a good night’s sleep is often easier said than done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try! Shoot for between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Good sleep hygiene is key, but it’s not always possible. Here are some tips for falling asleep that may be new to you:
- Write down everything you need to do tomorrow before hitting the hay, so you don’t have to keep everything in your head overnight.
- Try sleeping with your socks on.
- Talk to your doctor about taking a magnesium supplement.
- Use relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.
- Do this yoga routine.
- Can’t sleep? Distract yourself with a relaxing hobby.
12. Do things that make you happy
When you’re burnt out, it can be hard to enjoy life. One way to address that is to start making time for your hobbies. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time to improve your quality of life.
Have you stopped reading for fun? Set a timer and make sure you get to spend at least 15 minutes reading every day. Commit to watching one movie you’ve been looking forward to every week. Talk to your best friend on the phone while you do the dishes. Take your adult coloring book with you on your lunch break.
At first, making time for your hobbies may feel more like work than fun. But eventually, you’ll start looking forward to — and genuinely enjoying — that time.
How long does it take to recover from burnout?
Duke shares that how long it takes to recover from burnout depends on multiple factors, like the situation causing the burnout, the extent of the burnout and how soon you reach out for support.
“It can take anywhere from a few months to a few years,” she says.
Another aspect that impacts how long recovery takes is what Duke calls “protective factors.” These are the things you have in your life that help you through tough times. Protective factors can look like a network of close friends, financial stability or an existing relationship with a therapist … heck, your dog could have a protective effect on you! The healthy coping mechanisms and support systems you have in place can’t necessarily prevent burnout from happening, but they can help you rebound faster.
You’re on your way
If you’re reading this article, chances are either you or someone you love is going through a rough time. In case nobody’s said it yet: We’re sorry you’re struggling.
Just getting to the point of reading about burnout is a win — it’s a sign you’re focusing on your health and well-being. And you’re not just thinking about burnout … you’re thinking about recovery. That’s something to be proud of! If you’ve not already seen a healthcare provider to confirm that you’re burnt out, making an appointment would be a great next move.