- Tuning into oneself is key to recovering from burnout since it is easy to ignore the warning signs.
- Feeling energetic again after burnout can lead one to overcommit once more, so it's important to think through all choices.
- Experimenting with one's activity level helps the burnout recovery process.
A major case of burnout can force us to change our work habits: cutting back our hours, being willing to say no, perhaps changing professions altogether. When I was burned out a few years ago, I stopped seeing therapy clients in the evenings and eventually transitioned out of full-time clinical practice.
Unless we’re independently wealthy, however, we still need to make a living. Moreover, humans don’t do well with extended idleness; we need worthwhile ways to direct our abilities and effort. How can we get back to work without burning out again?
1. Awareness is key.
The signs of impending burnout are usually obvious in hindsight, like having low energy and dreading work, but it’s easy to disregard them. Everyone I know who’s experienced burnout—myself included—realizes at some point that they need to pay more attention to how they’re doing.
Practice listening inwardly. What is your body telling you? What is the state of your mind? Is your spirit expanding or contracting? The warning signs of too much stress are there when we open to them.
2. Recognize adrenaline-fueled energy.
It’s common to feel wired before a mental, physical, or emotional breakdown. The body can mount a temporary coping response that allows us to keep pushing through high levels of stress, like the burst of energy that gets us across the finish line of a marathon—before we collapse. Learn to differentiate healthy, sustainable energy from stress-driven activity that eventually leads to exhaustion.
On a related note, avoid relying on caffeine to sustain your activity. Caffeine and other stimulants artificially prop up overactivity, even as we exhaust ourselves.
3. Beware of overcommitting.
Once we start feeling more energetic and less burned out, there’s an understandable desire to take on more work. Be careful about making hard-to-escape-from commitments that could easily overtax you, like attending a four-day conference away from home, especially early in your recovery process. Think through what will actually be required from you and if it’s a wise choice at this point.
4. Learn real-time stress management.
A common pattern leading up to burnout is incomplete recovery after weekends or vacations; rather than feeling rested and ready to work, we just want more time off. Living for the weekend and for paid time off is not a sustainable stress management strategy. We need to learn to let go of stress in real time. Aim to find ease in activity.
For example, spend a few minutes at lunch releasing stress from the morning, and take a short walk with a friend if possible. Question stress-generating thoughts in the moment, like when the mind tells you that you have to finish this project today. Consider investing in a mindfulness training program, which can revolutionize your relationship with work and stress.
5. Set rules that work for you …
When I was recovering from burning myself out, I established rules that worked for my recovery: taking a lunch break every day, stopping work by 5:00 p.m., limiting the number of meetings in a day, and more. Find what works for you. To start, be conservative about what is realistic to accomplish in a day, and guard against the strong tendency to do more than you’re ready for.
6. … and be willing to experiment.
At the same time, hold your rules lightly. Otherwise, they can become their own source of stress, like when I felt stressed out about working past 5:00 p.m. As you build back your strength and reserve, experiment with doing more if you want to. We might be capable of more—or less—than we imagine, and we’ll only know by trying.
If you do overextend yourself, watch out for hindsight bias (I should have known better!) and self-blame. Treat it all as information to learn from.
Burning out from pushing too hard can feel like a kind of self-betrayal, so it can be difficult to trust ourselves again. Continually foster a relationship with yourself, checking in to see how you’re doing and adjusting based on what you observe. With care and attention, we can rediscover the joy of rewarding, life-giving work.