By now, many of us are burnt out. In addition to the stresses about our health and safety, we’ve had to worry about job losses, changes in working conditions, as well as juggling family and work in a way that is even more exhausting than the usual. (And the usual wasn’t all that great either.)
When you’re burnt out, recovery can seem almost impossible. Unfortunately, burnout is one of those conditions that can take far longer to recover from than to develop, while the solutions for burnout are often hit-or-miss. In order to recover, it’s important to think about the source and type of your burnout, as that will make a difference in what you need.
“Exhaustion alone is never burnout,” said Kira Schabram, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who researches burnout. In addition to mental or physical exhaustion, burnout also consists of cynicism, which is often a sense of alienation from others, as well a reduced sense of efficacy, such as feeling helpless or incompetent. “Burnout is a combination of these three,” Schabram said.
Everyone’s recovery will be different
What that means is that everyone’s burnout will be a little bit different, while their recovery needs will be as well. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. So is burnout.
“We all understand what burnout is because we see it,” said Sheryl Ziegler, a psychologist and author of Mommy Burnout. However, since the type of burnout varies from person-to-person, it’s important to develop a more nuanced understanding of your burnout, so you can have a better idea of what you need. “Understanding what is driving you to burnout can help you inform your decisions in the future, which can be both reflective and proactive,” Ziegler said.
In order to have a better idea of how these three components—exhaustion, cynicism and reduced efficacy—relate to your burnout, psychologists have developed a questionnaire called the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which can help identify patterns of burnout in patients. Depending on which symptom came first and which is strongest, it will suggest what might work best.
For the following three components of burnout, here are some of the strategies that have been shown to work:
How to recover from burnout due to exhaustion
“[The] classic case of burnout is a model in which you are first experiencing exhaustion, and then the other two follow,” Schabram said. Usually when we think of burnout, we think of exhaustion. The best way to recover from this burnout is, in fact, by resting. This could involve taking time off, finding a way to reduce family obligations, or any other strategy that will result in getting more rest.
How to recover from burnout due to cynicism
Cynicism is the result of feeling alienated from other people. This could be due to a work environment or your personal life, but when cynicism is the main driver for burnout, rest isn’t the main answer. Instead, it’s important to find a way to connect with people in a meaningful way. Examples could involve mentoring others, volunteering somewhere, performing small acts of kindness, or reaching out to others. Whatever way of connecting that is most meaningful for a person, that’s what will help them the most.
How to recover from burnout due to a reduced sense of efficacy
Having a reduced sense of efficacy usually happens because of feeling bored or inefficient. In the workplace, that could be the feeling of being under-challenged, or in a position that isn’t a good fit for your skills. “You just feel like you aren’t doing a good job or things that used to come easy to you now come hard,” Schabram said.
If a reduced sense of efficacy is the main driver of your burnout, then a solution could be shifting roles within your company, changing jobs, starting up a hobby, prioritizing time for a workout session, or anything else that can give you a sense of accomplishment.
Recovery is about doing more of the right things
Some of these suggestions are counterintuitive. When you are exhausted and burnout, the last thing you are thinking about is adding in something extra. However, if your burnout is related to either cynicism or a reduced sense of efficacy, then it’s important to find some action that can help counteract these feelings. “To reduce cynicism and inefficacy, it’s about doing more of the right things,” Schabram said.
Since there is no one solution for recovery, figuring out the source of your burnout can empower you to identify the next steps. “When you understand [your] burnout, you can see more opportunities and solutions and ideas,” Ziegler adds.
Both Ziegler and Schabram strongly urge people who are experiencing burnout to be as proactive as possible, as it has a way of spilling into other aspects of your life. “You start to lose your zest for things, you start feeling cynical or down about things, and it becomes generalized,” Ziegler said. “It bleeds into other areas of [your] life.” Given their overlapping symptoms, burnout is often confused with or mistaken for depression.
In the early stages of burnout, “the creativity in your thinking is still there,” Ziegler said. “But if you go too far down the cynical route, you won’t be able to access that.”