Female business owner suffering from burnout

Proven Ways to Recover from Burnout

5 min read • Jun 03, 2020 • Ben Glaser

You struggle to go to work in the morning. You can’t even pretend to care about meetings and responsibilities, and it’s creating issues with your coworkers. And despite a career of achievements, you feel like your work has been for nothing. These feelings aren’t a garden-variety bout of stress: it’s burnout. It means you experienced stress, anxiety, and depression, and you kept working.

The good news is that burnout is not a permanent state. In this article, we’ll review some tested and successful methods for coming back once you’ve acknowledged the issue.

What Is Burnout?

Though studied for several decades and widely considered to be a serious phenomenon, burnout is not a medical diagnosis in the US. It is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. The World Health Organization added the diagnosis to its upcoming International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Most definitions include 3 main components:

  1. Mental and physical exhaustion
  2. Cynicism and depression; callous attitude
  3. Decreased productivity or perception of decreased productivity; feeling like a failure and helpless to do anything about it

Burnout has been illustrated most acutely and clearly in caretaking professions like medicine—especially during high-stress situations like the coronavirus outbreak. Medicine is, by nature, a stressful profession, and doctors have to grow thick skins to witness suffering on a daily basis. But when a doctor becomes indifferent and can’t perform, it crosses a line. Some stress is normal in the workplace. Losing a little idealism and sensitivity can make us more competent and resilient—but too much incapacitates us.

Reduce, Control, Support

Adam Grant is a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied productivity and burnout extensively. Writing in the New York Times, he says that the best method for fighting burnout is “Reduce, Control, Support.”

Reduce Your Workload

Some of burnout is environmental. You may very well have more on your plate than you can reasonably handle. Speak to your supervisor about reducing your demands. If you are the supervisor, delegate, even if it means a temporary decrease in the performance of tasks. It’s the only way work will get done sustainably. Far from being a sign of weakness, understanding how to create a manageable workload shows that you put the well-being of the business ahead of your ego.

Another important part of managing workload is just saying no. Saying no to work when you don’t have the time and bandwidth runs against the optimistic and diligent nature of most entrepreneurs. But stretching yourself too thin is probably a big reason for the burnout in the first place. Saying no is hard and may earn you some frustration at first, but it’s a necessary step.

Increase Control Over Your Work and Perspective

Feeling helpless is a signature feature of burnout. As you recover, it can help to think about all the ways you really are in control. Start with enforcing clearer boundaries between work and your personal life. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Elizabeth Grace Saunders encourages burnout sufferers to “question your assumptions about the way that your work life has to be and what you have to do… Who says that you can’t leave work at [a reasonable time] tonight? Or ask for a deadline extension?” If you ask, you might find that some of your expectations and pressure were more internal than external.

Grant also suggests seeing mental perspective as something we can control, even when we can’t control our work tasks: “A teacher feeling daunted by the challenges of delivering online classes might reframe it as an opportunity to build new skills or refocus on topics students have been excited to explore.”

Increase Support Infrastructure

As you return to work, try not to return to the same environment that caused burnout the first time. Add new infrastructure designed to catch stress and overload before it becomes burnout. That adjustment might mean additional support staff, additional check-in meetings, or some kind of pre-existing, easily accessible system to ask for help. 

The importance of asking for help also applies to your entire team and can be an important cultural shift for many organizations. “To make sure people get the support they need, it helps to remind them that asking for help is a sign of strength, not a source of weakness,” writes Grant.

Take Breaks, Both Short-Term And Long-Term

Burnout is a downward spiral: Work is overwhelming, so you work more, and your output gets worse, so you get more overwhelmed. Breaking that cycle requires time. It seems counterintuitive, but when you have too much to do, you need to stop working for a bit. During the workday, step away for a few minutes periodically to rest your brain and stretch your body. There are various methods for when to take breaks and for how long–at least 5 minutes every hour with longer breaks for coffee and meals should satisfy most schedules.

And after major projects and deadlines, take some real time off. Taking a vacation can’t cure burnout, but it can help prevent it.

Practice Self-Care

It might sound cliche, but eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep are essential as you recover from burnout. Not only will these practices help your body repair, but they will also help you regain a feeling of control over yourself and your life.

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Ben Glaser

Ben has almost a decade of experience covering personal finance and business. From 2014–2017, he was blog editor and spokesperson for the shopping website DealNews.com, where he regularly appeared on programs like Good Morning America and Fox and Friends to offer consumer advice. Ben graduated from Harvard with a BA in English and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.