Feeling Burned Out? These Expert-Approved Strategies Will Help You Recover
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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.
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."
Ahead, Nagoski and other mental health experts share their best advice for how to come back from burnout—and prevent it from occurring again. Consider it your burnout recovery plan.
Acknowledge that you're experiencing burnout.
"Society, and in particular, Americans, have not only learned to tolerate this go-go-go mode, but to also value it," says Sheryl Ziegler, a Denver-based psychologist and author of Mommy Burnout. "We constantly hear people say things like, 'You're such a workhorse,' 'You work around the clock,' or 'I don't know how you do it all.'" That can make it difficult to identify and recognize burnout—which is the first step if you want to recover from it. "It sounds really basic, but if you don’t acknowledge or label it, you won't be able to address the underlying issues," says Ziegler.
Typically, people who are burned out experience three major symptoms.
First, there's the persistent physical and emotional exhaustion, no matter how much rest you get. It's a feeling Nagoski, who was once hospitalized for burnout, describes as, "being overwhelmed and drained by everything you have to do, and yet, somehow still feeling worried you're not doing enough," she says. "I felt tired, scraped out, and hollow—like I was a walking shell of a person and I had nothing inside of me to offer to anyone."
Other signs of exhaustion can include: trouble falling or staying asleep, getting sick more frequently and for longer durations of time, a decrease in sex drive, an increase in neck, back, and stomach pain, forgetting to do normal or routine things, double-booking appointments, snapping at friends and family members, and avoiding social settings. "Another thing to pay attention to is if there's prolonged exposure to stress," adds Ziegler. "For most people, when they take a long weekend or a vacation, it might take a night or two to get their nervous system calm enough to enjoy the time away, but by the end, they feel rejuvenated and recharged. When you're burned out, though, those breaks don't really do the job. It’s the night before and you’re thinking, I'm dreading going back to my kids or I can't face another day at the office."
Additionally, you might experience intense cynicism ("you resent your boss, you resent your spouse, you resent your children," says Ziegler) and a sense of inefficacy—which are the other two classic symptoms of burnout. "You start to get this checked out mentality," says Paula Davis, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute and author of Beating Burnout at Work. "It doesn’t seem like anything you do really matters, so you might find yourself asking 'Who cares?' or 'Why bother?'"
Identify what you need to add (and what you need to subtract) from your life.
Recognizing that you're on the road to burnout—or that you're already there—can provide the space, energy, and clarity that's essential for figuring out your needs. "When you turn towards the pain you're experiencing with kindness and compassion, that opens the doorway for your body to tell you what's going to help you the most," says Nagoski. "For me, that started with Tai Chi. It gave me the ability to live a life with the freedom to oscillate from a state of stress to a state of calm and relaxation."
If adding something to your routine—no matter how replenishing it may be—feels impossible, consider this advice from Ziegler. "I usually tell people, 'Why don't you start with one thing you need to reduce or give up and one thing you need to add?'" she says. "There's this ying-yang relationship in recovering from burnout: When you cut out something that's draining, you create an opportunity for something that fills you up." For example, one practice that Ziegler makes sure to squeeze in her schedule is daily quiet time. "I might go into a meditation or I might sit with a pad of paper in front of me and jot down whatever comes to mind," she says. "But that ritual has been very helpful for me."
Adds Nagoski: "The bad news is there's no single answer that's going to be true for everyone—I can't just hand you a recipe for how to recover for burnout. But when you start listening to your mind and body, it'll be obvious what it needs. Most likely, the first thing is going to be rest. But after that, it could be more vegetables, it could be more exercise, it could be more alone time. Every body is different."
Reach out to your friends and family members.
Even though there may not be a one-size-fits-all treatment for burnout, research overwhelmingly agrees: Social interaction is one thing that reliably increases positive emotions. Yet, when people feel emotionally and physically depleted, they tend to retreat. "When you’re isolated, you start to lose your understanding of what it means to be connected with other people, which can lead to losing your trust in them," says Nagoski. "From there, it becomes even harder to reach out and start a connection, so it's almost like a self-reinforcing state."
That's why it’s crucial to reach out to friends or family members who you can really share your experiences with. "Surrounding yourself with people who care about you and your wellbeing the same way you care about them and their wellbeing is almost always going to be beneficial," says Nagoski, who recommends regular, 30-minute stress-reducing conversations with loved ones. The practice—which was first developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman—encourages each person to spend 15 minutes talking about a source of frustration or a stressful experience, while the other person simply listens and offers empathy. "They don't try to solve your problems or dismiss them by insisting it's no big deal," says Nagoski. "Instead, they're just on your side the entire time."
Don't have 30 minutes to spare? Even a simple, in-person chat or a quick phone or video call can be beneficial. "It could honestly just be a quick text that says, 'I'm thinking about you,'" says Ziegler. "Because chances are, you'll get a heart emoji or an 'I miss you' message back. That little boost is a reminder that your connected to other human beings—outside of being their caregiver, parent, boss, or employee."
Get outside for 20 minutes a day, five days a week.
"Essentially, burnout is chronic stress gone awry," says Ziegler. When you experience a stressful event (like a tight deadline or an intense medical test) your body enters fight or flight mode, causing hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine to spike. Typically, your body would return to normal once the situation was resolved—except that many of us ping-pong from one stressful event to the next. That creates a state of constant stress, which is linked to a variety of health concerns, from an increased risk of heart disease to a weakening of the immune system.
But there are solutions: "Physical activity is one of the most efficient ways to end the stress cycle and help your body recover from it," says Ziegler. Plus, you don’t have to take an intense spin class or run a half-marathon to feel its effects. She adds, "Just taking a brisk, 20-minute walk outside has a truly dramatic impact on your health." Not only will you get the mood-boosting benefits of exercise, but you'll also get the benefits of being in nature—which include decreased blood pressure, enhanced immune system functioning, increased self-esteem and cognition, and a boost in overall wellbeing.
Limit your media intake.
Picture it: You're padding around your house first thing in the morning, enjoying a quiet cup of coffee, when you receive a breaking news notification on your phone. You turn on your TV for additional information, and suddenly your mood is ruined all day. Sound familiar? In fact, a study conducted by the Institute for Applied Positive Research, found that “when you’re exposed to just three minutes of negative news first thing in the morning, you have a 27 percent higher likelihood of reporting that you had a bad day six to eight hours later,” one of the researchers, Michelle Gielan, told The Washington Post. “We expected people would report being unhappier for the next few minutes after watching negative news. But we didn’t expect it to have such a lasting effect six to eight hours later.”
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.”
Reduce your job demands—and increase your work resources.
While a week away from the office can certainly feel restorative, a vacation is not a cure for the stress, exhaustion, and negative feelings associated with burnout. In fact, according to a 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of respondents said that the mental benefits of vacation had disappeared within a few days. That supports an earlier study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which found workers’ self-reported feelings of burnout had bounced back to pre-vacation levels just four weeks after taking time off.
That’s why, according to Davis, it's essential that you get to the underlying causes of your job burnout, which tend to be some combination of the following: high workload; inadequate support from leaders and colleagues; insufficient recognition; a values mismatch; an environment of unfairness (there’s little transparency and lots of favoritism and arbitrary decision making); and a lack of autonomy (feeling like you don’t have a say in how your day unfolds and being left out of decisions that directly impact your work).
While solutions to some of these problems may require deeper, structural change (keep reading for advice on how to talk to your boss), there are things you can do at an individual level. First and foremost, make sure you have a clear and complete understanding of the resources available to you and that you're taking advantage of them. “Professional burnout is caused by an imbalance between your job demands and your job resources—and the research suggests that you’re better off trying to increase your resources than trying to reduce your job demands,” says Davis. “So it's essential that you know what resources are offered by your employer—for example, there may be a marketing person who can help with some part of a project, or programs that provide additional employee assistance."
Additionally, it’s equally important that you understand your core beliefs and values (which Davis calls “detecting your icebergs”) and how they might influence the ways you think and behave. This can include things like: “The best workers don’t ask for help,” “I need to be in charge or things will go wrong,” or “Relaxing is a sign of laziness.” Once you become aware of these thoughts, you can start to examine the ways in which they might be making you less effective. “Almost every coaching conversation I’ve ever had includes some aspect of helping people identify, then wrestle with these thoughts,” says Davis. “Because if you think, for example, ‘If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself,’ that’s going to make it hard to delegate something, which means you’re going to take on too much work, which means you’re going to be overloaded, which means you’re going to struggle to find time for things that'd help, like self-care.”
Dedicate 20 percent of your time to your most meaningful work.
Even if the majority of your workday is spent working on tedious, annoying, and emotionally draining tasks, you can still find meaning and purpose at your job—which is key for feeling happier, more productive, and more engaged. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), doctors who spent 20 percent of their time on work that felt personally meaningful were about half as likely to experience burnout than doctors who spent less than 20 percent of their time on meaningful activities.
Plus, when you think about it, 20 percent isn’t that hard to achieve—it’s one day per week in a typical 40-hour workweek or 90 minutes in an eight-hour workday. “I would encourage people to ask themselves: What is it about my work that gives me the most energy?” says Davis. “Whether that’s talking to clients or putting together a research proposal, make that a priority.” For an even greater impact on your mindset and mood, you may also want to consider reordering your routine, so you either begin or end with whatever you find most meaningful. “If you love mentoring junior colleagues, you may want to schedule your meetings in the morning, so you start your day on a positive note,” says Davis. “But perhaps you’d rather save it for the end of the day, if you want a little boost of energy before going into your evening.”
Keep in mind: The researchers behind the JAMA study did find a ceiling effect to the benefit—meaning that those who dedicated more than 20 percent of their time to meaningful work did not further reduce the odds of burnout.
Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need at work.
“The biggest misconception about burnout is that it’s somehow your fault—if you’re burned out, it’s because you’re weak and you’re not able to do something you ought to be able to do,” says Nagoski. “The truth is that the world asks us to do an unbelievable amount of work. If you feel overwhelmed and exhausted, it’s because life in the 21st century is overwhelming and exhausting.”
Adds Davis: “We have to stop looking at burnout as something individuals can or should be responsible for fixing. Yes, there are things we can do on a personal level, but that’s a very small part of the equation. It’s really a systematic issue that organizations and leaders need to address.”
That’s why Davis strongly encourages people to have a serious conversation with their supervisor—no matter how daunting it may seem. “Before the conversation, you need to really think about: What is it that I’m asking? What is it that I’m looking for? Is it just inserting a boundary that’s really important or is that I need to take a sabbatical? What solutions can I propose?” she says. Once you know what you want to say and suggest, request time on your manager’s calendar for an in-person meeting. (If you’re still working remotely, set up a video call, where you can speak face-to-face.) “Make sure to be very factual and frame your thoughts as ‘I see’ or ‘I feel,'” she says. “Simply state what you’re looking to accomplish or what you’d like the outcome to be, then invite your boss to respond.” Additionally, before you end the conversation, make sure to summarize the meeting—including the next steps, the ultimate goals, and when your next check-in will be—to ensure that you and your manager are on the same page. “Out of everyone I’ve coached and interviewed, few people have regretted saying something about how they were feeling,” says Davis. “The hardest part is getting yourself to actually have the conversation—but what comes from it is often much more positive than we think.”
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