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How to recover from burnout in six steps

By Vincent Ashitey
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Burnout is a buzzword which is often bandied about when we feel a bit tired at work and overwhelmed by life. In fact, it is a syndrome with clear symptoms, including exhaustion and feeling cynical about your work, which was recognised by the World Health Organisation in 2019. It not only affects workers’ lives, but also the economy.

It is not a modern phenomenon, either. Graham Greene’s 1961 novel, A Burnt-Out Case, is about an architect worn down by his job. In 1974, Bob Dylan sang about being “burned out from exhaustion”. 

In the same year, Christina Maslach, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, started to research the phenomenon. She says: “Someone told me, ‘lawyers call it burnout’ and that term captured the feelings people were expressing to me.”

If you’re exhausted, feeling negative and your performance has dropped at work, you may well be suffering from burnout – but how can you get back on track?

Understanding burnout: symptoms, stages of burnout and recovery

The WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. 

Maslach, author of 2022 book The Burnout Challenge, explains: “Burnout is a stress response to those chronic job stressors. A stress response is a normal human response to threats or challenges, and it’s a good thing usually. That’s how we cope. 

“But recovery is the issue. When you run a marathon, you recover. Chronic job stressors – we liken them to pebbles in your shoes – are the daily things that are always in the way. But the optimistic note in the WHO definition is that stressors can be managed.”

The three main symptoms of burnout are:

  • Exhaustion
  • Feelings of negativity or cynicism towards your occupation
  • Reduced professional efficacy including difficulty processing information or making decisions 

Maslach describes the latter as the feeling of, “‘What’s wrong with me, why can’t I do it?’ Burnout is the trifecta of stress, disliking the job and yourself.” 

Jacky Francis Walker, burnout specialist and psychotherapist, adds: “You feel more exhausted and lacking in energy as time goes on. It becomes an everyday experience. You are bone-tired – different to fatigue, you feel under temporary stress.

“Secondly, you feel disillusioned about your job and lose your motivation and engagement. There’s a sense of detaching from your commitments to your role.

“Finally, you might notice you’re not as sharp mentally and it’s harder to process information or make decisions. You might work less effectively so you work longer hours.”

Stages of burnout

According to Maslach the typical employee profiles are: 

  • Those who are engaged
  • Those with burnout
  • Those who are experiencing one of the three symptoms who may be on the road to burnout

In 2021, the American Psychological Association found 26 per cent of workers had a lack of motivation, 32 per cent emotional exhaustion and 44 per cent physical fatigue. And it has consequences; according to Mental Health UK’s Burnout Report, 20 per cent of workers in the UK had to take time off work in 2023 due to occupational stress.

Research also suggests there may be differing types of burnout relating to different types  of work environment. Studies have suggested three subtypes:

  • “Frenetic”, marked by work overload and often experienced by highly involved, ambitious individuals 
  • “Underchallenged”, experienced by those working in roles with no personal development
  • “Worn-out” which occurs in a rigid, hierarchical organisation where workers may have a lack of control or recognition

Steps towards burnout recovery

So how do we recover from burnout? Maslach says: “I use an analogy of a canary in a coal mine. The canary has a tough time surviving because of the toxic fumes. It’s not about fixing the canary to make it more resilient. There are coping strategies to help you rest, but they don’t change the stressors.”

In other words, it’s not as simple as writing up a self-care list. While there are steps the individual can take, workplace stressors need to be sorted too as ineffective coping mechanisms can exacerbate burnout, causing both physical and mental health issues.

Acknowledge burnout

The first step to recovering from burnout is acknowledging it. But that can be easier said than done when we are hard-wired to keep going.

“There is denial around burnout and we can lose insight the more burned out we become,” 

Walker says. “Look out for early warning signs like short-temperedness, irritation with colleagues or frustration with small tasks. If you’re in a caring profession, you may feel emotionally detached.

“You can feel as if your batteries have been depleted: I say to clients you’re not the famous brand of batteries which keep on going, you are the competitor.”

Remove stressors

Try to identify your workplace stressors, and remove “the pebbles”. 

“Having recognised there is a problem and something needs to change, assess what is possible to change – what is the low-hanging fruit?” says Walker.

The stressor may not be the job per se. In her book The Burnout Challenge, Maslach cites the following factors contributing to the perfect environment for burnout: 

  • Increased workload
  • Lack of control
  • Inadequate reward systems
  • A toxic community
  • Lack of fairness 
  • Opposing values 

Work constructively with colleagues and management in addressing these. Maslach says: “Can you  say, ‘[Let’s] make this better?’ Can you make suggestions and be constructive? Can you say, ‘We don’t need patting on the back all the time, but occasionally let people know they’ve done something well?’”

According to the Mental Health UK survey, 43 per cent of workers cite having a supportive line manager as an effective measure in beating burnout. By law, employers are obliged to identify any risks to your health and must take steps to help prevent or reduce workplace stress. 

Put boundaries in place

Walker says: “Knowing what your normal time boundaries are at work – when you start, when you finish – helps your brain understand, ‘This is when I normally switch off.’ There might be days when we need to push the boat out, but you need to know what your normal is.” 

Being more disciplined about when we stop and start being in work mode, putting an out of hours response on emails, or switching off the work phone, can help. 

Reassess goals

You may have to have some hard conversations with your employer about what is actually achievable, or with yourself, about the goals you have for your career. A 2022 review into burnout states: “The expectations that employees have regarding their work are related to the level of burnout, such that higher expectations and higher goal setting lead to greater efforts and thus higher levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization… This mismatch between expectations and realities can lead to frustration and burnout in workers.”

Walker says: “When someone is nearing recovery we look at what brought them to this place and what to put in place to make [their job] more sustainable. Often we need to address their attitude to their expectations of what they should do, would like to do, or ought to do.”

Focus on looking after yourself

  • Eat healthily and stay hydrated
  • Try cardiovascular exercise and yoga
  • Switch off screens

Maslach says: “There are coping strategies out there: meditating, mindfulness, doing exercise, getting eight hours of sleep, and being more healthy, which don’t change the stressors, but help you be more rested.” 

In The Burnout Challenge, Maslach cites Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week which recommends switching screens off one day a week. 

When it comes to diet, she writes: “Eating healthier foods on and off the job and eating regularly are important. This means cutting down on ‘junk’ foods, drinking more water to stay hydrated and not skipping meals.” 

Other books include Prof Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which has an accompanying app.

In terms of exercise, a 2015 study showed that cardiovascular training was better than resistance training at reducing psychological distress, while the latter (including yoga and pilates) boosted feelings of personal accomplishment. Both were effective in combating stress and emotional exhaustion, with High Intensity Interval Training (HITT) thought to be superior to moderate intensity.

Remember that taking time out on sick leave or holiday may be a short-term way to cope with burnout, but it is not a long-term path to recovery. 

Instead, Walker advises focusing on sustainable recharging strategies: “Start to put some healthy habits in place. Establish what is the non-negotiable bare minimum time away from work you need each week for you to sustainably function and give you enough respite.” 

That time can be spent doing activities such as yoga, mindfulness or having social contact, but she also cites being out in nature and spending a day a month taking ourselves out of our usual environments. 

Seek professional support

In extreme cases of burnout, seek a therapist. Evidence shows Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be effective in reducing burnout: a 2019 study of 60 nurses experiencing burnout showed CBT – a problem-focused talking therapy which gives people tools to cope with current situations and negative thinking patterns – had an impact on feelings of negativity surrounding both the job and individual performance. 

The strategy to overcoming burnout

Take back control

There is no hard and fast rule as to how long it will take to overcome burnout. Some people recover in three months and others may take years. But evidence shows those who acknowledged they were ultimately in control of their own lives recovered successfully. 

A 2015 Finnish study of 12 people who attended a rehabilitation course after suffering burnout, entitled My Well-being in My Own Hands, noted that, “The entire process of self-recovery represents a shift in clients’ perceptions from denying their burnout symptoms to a realisation they are ultimately in charge of their own physical and mental well-being.” 

Make changes to your lifestyle

According to Walker, changes we can make to create that “buffer zone” such as reading, exercising and switching off from workplace and online stress are a key part of a burnout recovery strategy. “We are bombarded with emails with expectations of responding immediately and also with visual stimuli, adverts and social media. It takes up mental load. Our buffer zone has been taken away from us.

“Even looking at cat videos on X [social media] is putting load on us in a way offline activities don’t. It’s designed to give us dopamine hits from short periods of attention so it can be hard to settle into a deep attentional task like reading.”

Be careful that relaxation strategies such as socialising – which can be beneficial – do not fall over into negative habits such as self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to cope. 

Prioritise quality sleep

Maslach says, “The notion of that eight-hour workday, eight-hour personal time, eight-hour sleep - which is how the 24 should be divided - is actually how we as human beings function.”

A Mental Health UK survey found that 64 per cent of working adults thought that poor sleep was a contributory factor in burnout. A 2021 study found nurses with burnout also suffered from daytime sleepiness and poor sleep quality. 

Make sure you wind down before bed. Walker says: “If your mind is overactive and you haven’t switched off, it will be hard to sleep. I call it the always-on brain. Build in at least 10-15 minutes before bed where you regroup, and perhaps make a note of what’s floating around in your head”, such as worries or priorities for the following day.

Activities you love

“Some people might like to go to the gym, cycle or do a hobby, or simply spend time with the family,” says Walker. In a Mental Health UK report, 71 per cent of people cited having a supportive social network as helping to prevent burnout. 

Learn stress-management techniques

Walker suggests: “Take mental time out. Whatever works for you, like reading offline material including newspapers or simply closing your eyes, is fine. You may have regular practices like mindfulness which helps you immerse yourself in another world for a period of time.” A 2023 study showed that diaphragmatic breathing – taking four deep breaths a minute – could improve negative reactions to stress.

If you’ve lost your commute, be mindful you might also have lost a key stress-management technique. In The Burnout Challenge, Maslach discusses the lack of separation we get when we work from home and cites Jerry Useem’s article The Psychological Benefits of Commuting to Work. If you work from home or do so part-time, try to replicate the effect of the commute by walking or meditating before and after work. 

How to avoid burnout in the future

In extreme circumstances, some people with burnout may choose to leave their job. Ideally, you won’t have to take the nuclear option. 

If you do, then the key to avoiding burnout in a new workplace is to make sure there is a match between your values and theirs. Walker says: “Ask sensible questions about the culture and specific examples like, ‘What’s the company’s approach to helping employees have a work-life balance?’” 

Find a company that takes burnout prevention seriously. A survey last year from the Executive Development Network, found that 86 per cent of employees would leave a job if it did not support their wellbeing. 

If you have experienced burnout and decide to stay in your job, then be aware of the triggers that lead to it last time. “You may feel you have recovered and you are back to normal, but you start to put yourself under the same load, and you go down again,” says Walker. 

Remember that it can be a two-way street between employee and employer. A 2020 study examined how employees could contribute to reduce burnout risks. Among these were: seeking out tasks that energise; socialising with co-workers; reducing work-home conflict – especially relevant with the rise of hybrid and flexible working. 

No one wants to be stuck in a cycle of repeated burnout, but with collaboration, on both sides, it can be avoided.