Burnout is a pervasive problem for employees across industries, leaving many to wonder how to recover from burnout. Despite hopes that burnout would lessen after the pandemic, a recent Aflac WorkForces Report revealed that more workers in the United States experienced moderate to high burnout in 2022 (59%) than in 2021 (51%). A Gallup survey suggested that three-quarters of employees will face burnout at least once in their career.
Individual employees aren’t to blame for the rampant burnout in many workplaces today. Burnout is often the result of an unhealthy work environment or unrealistic expectations at work—factors that are typically outside of an individual’s control.
However, you as an employee can still take plenty of steps to feel better. While the responsibility to address work fatigue shouldn’t be solely on your shoulders, it’s worth remembering that you aren’t powerless in this situation, and there are actions you can take to start recovering from burnout.
What is burnout?
Burnout is similar to work-related stress, but more severe. The World Health Organization identifies workplace burnout as the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and pinpoints three dimensions of burnout: depletion or exhaustion, mental distancing from the job, and feeling ineffective at work. Burnout is intense and long-lasting, and it can have an ongoing impact on your ability to do your job.
Unfortunately, unrelenting pressures in the workforce are driving more and more employees to this level of exhaustion. A 2021 Indeed survey revealed that 27 percent of those surveyed can’t “unplug” from work after hours. A little more than half of remote workers surveyed said they were now working longer hours than they used to work in-office.
Common symptoms of burnout
What does burnout feel like? Here are a few telltale signs.
- You feel emotionally or physically exhausted. Maybe you can’t stop thinking about your job, find it hard to relax, are always tired, or would describe your job as “draining.”
- Physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches and stomachaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, and weight gain can occur when you’re going through the burnout recovery stages.
- Lack of motivation. Do you find it hard to focus and be productive? Is it tougher to manage a full workday than it used to be? For many people, burnout feels like an ongoing struggle to stay motivated.
- Lowered productivity. You may find that you can’t get as many tasks completed as you once did, or that the quality of your work is suffering.
- Self-doubt or lowered self-esteem. You may start questioning whether you’re truly capable of managing this role, even though you’ve handled it capably in the past.
- Feelings of loneliness or detachment. Perhaps you feel that nobody understands or that you don’t want to interact with co-workers as much. This, too, can be a sign of burnout.
These symptoms can also be a sign of stress, so how can you tell the difference between burnout and stress? Burnout happens when you experience these symptoms on a chronic or recurring basis. If your symptoms are temporary, it’s likely stress.
Effects of burnout
The effects of burnout can be serious and far-reaching. A slew of research has confirmed that burnout can affect you in three main areas: physically, psychologically, and at work. This is critical to understand because some people assume burnout only affects your work or career, when in fact, it can affect your quality of life in other areas.
Physical effects of burnout
Several studies have confirmed many different physical effects linked to burnout, noting that burnout is a “significant predictor” of these ailments. In other words, people suffering from burnout were more likely to experience:
- Coronary heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Hospitalization for cardiovascular disorders
- Musculoskeletal disorders
- Prolonged fatigue
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Respiratory issues
- Severe injuries
- Early death (age 45 or younger)
Psychological effects of burnout
As with physical effects, burnout makes employees more vulnerable to conditions like insomnia, substance use, anxiety, and depression.
Work effects of burnout
These are the symptoms we most commonly associate with workplace burnout, and they can erode productivity and morale in the workplace. Burned-out employees are more likely to experience:
- Job dissatisfaction
- Absenteeism and presenteeism
- Low morale
- Disability leave from work
How long does it take to recover from burnout?
Burnout recovery is a highly individual process. There’s no universal timeline for how long it takes to recover from burnout because each case is influenced by many factors. For some people, the most intense symptoms last a few weeks, whereas others may need months or even years to heal from burnout.
That said, there are a few common stages of burnout that many people experience.
- Admitting the problem. It’s difficult to fix something unless you’ve truly accepted the urgency of the problem. Some employees misconstrue burnout as “stress” and may try to address it by taking a couple of days off, which won’t necessarily help in the long run.
- Setting boundaries or taking a break. You may need an extended break from the factors that are stressing you out—maybe even from the workplace itself. Using PTO for longer stretches of time, if you have it, is a good place to start. You may also want to speak to your manager about setting work-life boundaries or shifting or rearranging some of your duties if there are specific ones that are severely draining you.
- Restoring physical health. You may need to practice better sleep hygiene and engage in activities that promote relaxation to reduce physical tension and worry. You may have fallen behind in exercise and eating healthfully, and part of your recovery from burnout will include addressing those factors.
- Revisiting your values. In this stage of burnout, some people re-evaluate their choices and how their current approach to work may be at odds with their core values and the kind of lifestyle they want. It’s good to be honest with yourself about your values as you consider how to deal with burnout.
- Exploring new opportunities. In some instances, there may be no way to recover from burnout while still working. Some employees respond to this by taking an extended break from employment or looking for a new workplace or switching career tracks.
How to recover from burnout
If you’re feeling exhausted and depleted, here are some ideas for how to deal with burnout.
- Keep track of your stress levels. This will help you identify the source of your stress. In some cases, your stress may not originate from just one source, but from the pileup of many pressures.
- Talk to your employer and share feedback in workplace surveys. Your employer may have guidance about how to recover from burnout, but they won’t know you need support unless you reach out. If you can go to them with specifics regarding what exactly is stressing you out, they may be able to better help you.
- Try stress management techniques. You might try yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or other activities that help relieve tension in the body. Check out resources on how to beat stress that will help both your body and mind.
- Move your body. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever and tool in burnout recovery. It can boost mood, reduce tension, and contribute to a healthier body, which reinforces feeling good. Don’t worry if you don’t have lots of time; research shows that just 30 minutes of moderate activity per day is enough for you to reap positive benefits, and you don’t have to do it all at once. Even a couple short walks throughout the day can add up to 30 minutes.
- Set boundaries. It can be hard to say no to extra tasks, especially in a fast-paced work environment, but setting boundaries is a powerful tool in recovering from burnout. This could mean you reprioritize and renegotiate deadlines as extra tasks come in, delegate some of your work tasks to others, or carve out non-negotiable time each evening to fully unplug. You might put limits on the number of work-related meeting invitations you’re able to accept. Whatever boundaries you need to take the pressure off, communicate them clearly and firmly.
- Show yourself compassion. You are not a failure or lazy because you’ve burned out on work. On the contrary, it probably means you’ve been working too hard for too long. Congratulate yourself for all that you’ve accomplished, and give yourself permission to scale back on your workload and self-expectations.
- Nourish your body. Eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods and drink plenty of water. If your body doesn’t get the fuel it needs, it’ll be even harder to figure out how to recover from burnout and get work done. You may need to make time during the workday for a healthy lunch or give yourself a hard stop time in the evening so you have time to cook dinner.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep tends to get short shrift when we’re busy. It seems like the easiest thing to put off, but it can be one of the most devastating to our health when neglected. The American Psychological Association emphasizes that “Sleep is so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation or poor sleep can affect memory, judgment, and mood.” These are all functions you need on the job and in recovering from burnout.
- Talk to a mental health professional. Sometimes, working to improve things on your own isn’t enough, especially if you’re in a demanding work environment that doesn’t seem prone to change. Consider reaching out to a trained mental health professional for ideas about how to cure burnout. They can help you identify the causes and introduce new coping strategies. They can also help you manage symptoms of depression or other mental health concerns that may have developed alongside burnout.
Recovery from burnout is possible
Burnout is rarely an isolated problem. Often, it stems from how your workplace functions and the expectations of employees. So, if you’re experiencing burnout, don’t beat yourself up or feel ashamed. Just because you’re tired doesn’t mean you’re to blame for being overworked. By doing what’s in your power to recover from burnout, you can rest assured that you’re doing your part and ask for support for the factors outside your control.
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About the author
Sarah is an organizational development program specialist on the workforce transformation team at Lyra Health. Sarah has a master's degree in organization development from American University and specializes in coaching and training leaders to build equitable, redeeming workplaces. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, loves spending time with her large extended family and baking with her toddler.