Millions of Americans rethink their relationship to work. The phrase “burnout” is fixed in this conversation. There is a collective and societal thirst for more information on what to do about it.
One of the most common misconceptions about burnout is that “people can overcome burnout while leaving their work situation unchanged,” says organizational psychologist Michael Leiter. Reverse.
Burnout is not a personal failure but a response to chronic workplace stressors. You cannot take care of yourself to get out of an unhealthy situation created by a workplace.
Because it can be very difficult for a person to change workplaces, burnout often leads a person to quit their job. But with this step comes two other unfortunate truths. The first is that a new job alone will not be enough to end burnout. The other, Leiter tells me, is that there’s no evidence there’s an optimal recovery time — burnout has no clear end.
Experts have also observed a bias in responding to burnout: too much focus on how to deal with burnout at the individual level rather than fixing jobs that cause burnout.
That aside, a crucial question remains: what can be done if these structural revisions do not occur? In the end, you still have to recover.
While people can burn out for the same reasons, the recovery process can vary depending on the individual. But there are still some steps anyone can take to become more resilient and prevent burnout in the future.
What is burnout?
The answer is not necessarily clear. Experts don’t always agree on what burnout is, which makes it hard to diagnose and even harder to treat.
The phrase was coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, a psychologist who used it to describe how professionals in “helping” jobs, like doctors, often end up exhausted and unable to cope. Today, it is observed in all professions and is characterized by simultaneous feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional effectiveness.
In 2019, the World Health Organization added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases, describing it as a syndrome caused by chronic work stress and an “occupational phenomenon”. It is not considered a medical condition.
However, some experts believe that there are different “types of burnout”. They are: “frenzied”, “under-challenged” and “exhausted”.
How to start recovery after a burnout
Yu Tse Heng holds a Ph.D. management candidate at the University of Washington and co-author of a 2021 study on reducing burnout. She says the first thing a person who feels burnt out should do is take the time to figure out what’s causing their burnout.
“The best approach to replenishing may differ depending on the burnout symptoms the individual is experiencing,” she tells me.
After looking at burnout, people can develop strategies to deal with it, she says, adding that “it’s important to note that organizations really should be responsible for preventing burnout in the first place. “.
In his recent study, Heng and his colleagues found that while burnout is a combination of three experiences — mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism and negativity, and a reduced sense of efficacy — identifying more with one between them can make certain strategies more or less effective. .
For example, self-care apparently helps with exhaustion, but less so with cynicism. According to the study, what helps with cynicism is helping others deal with their challenges. Self-care and actions taken to increase self-esteem can also alleviate feelings of reduced efficacy and actions taken to increase self-esteem. These can be taken outside of work, such as completing a workout.
Recovering from burnout also means recovering from physiological stress reactions. In a 2021 article, Arno van Dam, professor of clinical psychology at Tilburg University, argues that a healthy lifestyle is necessary for recovery. This means healthy eating, exercise, sleep, and moderate amounts of alcohol.
Relaxation exercises, mediation, and mindfulness can also help, as burnout teaches the body to ignore signals like fatigue and stress. It can cause individuals to be less attuned to “their body cues” and to “choose their actions based on what they think they should be doing, not how they feel,” writes van Dam.
Dealing with burnout while staying at work
People experience burnout when “there is a mismatch between what people aspire to do at work and the critical areas of professional life,” says Leiter.
These are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.
“If people can’t find better alignment on these critical areas, recovery is unlikely,” he says.
In turn, addressing these critical areas is a positive step towards recovering from burnout. For example, one way to address lack of control—a key driver of burnout—is to empower employees to exercise professional autonomy and influence decisions that affect them.
If someone wants or needs to stay at work, Leiter recommends taking two steps:
- Experiment with how work can be adapted to better match working methods and preferred values. It’s about seeing “how far can you change important things in your work without getting pushed back,” says Leiter.
- Negotiate with co-workers and supervisor to find ways to change work for a better relationship with work.
How to recover from burnout if you quit your job
Exhaustion manifests differently in people, so “there is no single way to relieve exhaustion,” Heng says. This also explains why it is “difficult to say if being absent is necessary and for how long”, she adds.
Actions that help alleviate workplace burnout — like self-care, self-compassion, and acts of kindness — could still benefit someone who quit. If someone decides to quit their job while suffering from burnout, she recommends taking the time to think about the cause of their burnout and consider it when looking for a new job.
“Burnt out people looking for their next job may consider applying to organizations that have a reputation for caring about employee well-being to ensure that their likelihood of being burned out in their new job is lower,” says Heng.
“They could also prepare questions that they could ask during job interviews about the culture of their potential team and the leadership style of the manager, again to ensure that the work environment would be unlikely to lead to employee burnout,” she adds.
“Otherwise they would probably be stuck in an organization that makes them very likely to burn out again.”
This process of reflection and evaluation can lead to an essential part of recovery: self-discovery. Van Dam writes that many ex-exhausted patients “know better who they are and what is important to them in life; they are spending more time with their friends and family, and they have changed their priorities.
It takes patience to get to this period of growth. But exertion can keep a person healthier in the long run.