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How to recover from burnout: 12 ways to beat chronic stress

a man with yellow and curly hair knows how to recover from burnout by picking up on the things that makes him happy

Seventy-five percent of people have experienced job burnout, according to a 2020 FlexJobs survey. And that’s just scratching the surface because burnout can exist outside of the workplace, too. 

With such staggering numbers, the world is starting to take notice of this growing crisis. Awareness is only the beginning. The next step? Learning how to recover from burnout and live a life full of vitality once again.

Below, we’ll go over ways you can combat the chronic stress that leads to burnout. But first, let's look at a definition.

Table of contents
What is burnout?
What causes burnout?
How do you rest and recover from burnout? 12 ways to tackle chronic stress
Your recovery from burnout begins today

What is burnout?

The American Psychological Association defines burnout as:

“​​Physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”

In her research, Dr. Christina Maslach has identified three components of job burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion - feeling emotionally depleted
  2. Depersonalization - feeling callous and lacking empathy for others
  3. Lack of personal accomplishment - feeling ineffective and having a low sense of morale at work

People in “helping” jobs—such as nurses, teachers, and therapists—are particularly prone to burnout, but it’s important to realize that there is more than just job burnout. You can feel burned out from personal things, too, such as caring for an ill family member. 

What causes burnout?

In short, chronic, unresolved stress causes burnout. In terms of occupational burnout, the Areas of Worklife (AW) model, developed by Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, outlines six areas in which person-job imbalances can lead to stress that causes burnout:

  1. Workload: If you take on too high of a workload, you never get a chance to recover from the stress.
  2. Control: When you lack the ability to influence decisions or act autonomously at work, it can lead to burnout.
  3. Reward: If you feel like no one ever recognizes or praises your work, you can start to feel burned out.
  4. Community: Work friends matter. Feeling like no one supports you on the job is a significant stressor.
  5. Fairness: Do you feel like your boss treats you fairly? Are decisions made in an equitable way? If you answered "no" to both of those questions, you're likely to feel more cynicism and anger around your work life.
  6. Values: If your personal values do not align with your organization's values, you'll feel an inner conflict. Living our lives according to our internal moral compass and the things that matter to us is crucial to feel contentment and fulfillment.

The above six areas were originally formed to describe job burnout. But they can apply to your personal life too. Examine your life and see if there are any imbalances in the areas of workload, control, reward, community, fairness, or values. If there are, you could be at risk of burnout. Below, we'll go over some ways to address specific areas.

How do you rest and recover from burnout? 12 ways to tackle chronic stress

As we saw above, burnout is caused by chronic stress. Therefore, burnout recovery requires finding ways to eliminate or minimize stressors to bring those stress levels down.

1. Make an appointment with your doctor

Burnout can create a whole host of health issues, both physical and mental. For example, it can cause high blood pressure and create or worsen anxiety and depression. Without addressing these legitimate health issues, it's going to be tough to recover from burnout.

Don't know where to start? Talk to your doctor. Tell them you think you're experiencing burnout, and then tell them your symptoms, including if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, and stressed. Many people don't realize this, but it is completely appropriate and helpful to speak to your primary care provider about mental health symptoms. That’s what they’re there for. In fact, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, "Family physicians are well-equipped to provide mental health services and are one of the primary sources for mental health care in the U.S."

And of course, if it's an emergency, such as if you're having thoughts of harming yourself—call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately. ERs are equipped to help with mental health crises.

Unfortunately, mental health can still be a taboo subject at work and at home. But there's no need to feel awkward or ashamed for caring for your whole self. You have a body, and that means taking care of its physical health needs, right? You also have a brain, and it has mental health needs, too.

2. Talk to a therapist

Everyone can benefit from talking to a therapist, especially if you’re experiencing burnout. Rather than viewing therapy as a one-and-done thing, though, view it as a long-term journey to healing. You’ll probably talk to a few therapists before you find one who’s a good match, and from there, you two will work together to form a therapy plan based on your goals. 

3. Work with a coach

Once you have your physical and mental health needs taken care of by medical professionals, consider working with a coach to unlock your full potential. Coaches help you tap into your unrealized strengths, identify your values and live a life in alignment with what you want and what you’re good at. 

If your burnout is related to work, a career coach might be the best person to talk to. They can help you identify misalignment between your goals, values, and work. They can even help you prep your resume and practice interviewing if you want to make a career switch.

You don’t even need money or loads of time to benefit from coaching. F4S offers a free eight-week online coaching program that equips you with science-backed tools to address burnout.

Led by AI-powered Coach Marlee, you’ll learn how to regain your vitality by boosting self-esteem, increasing emotional resilience, and tackling self-sabotage—all at your own pace! Join Vital Wellbeing today at no cost to you (ever).

4. Spend money to buy time (and peace of mind)

If you don’t realize the value of your time, it can cost your health. While saving money and being frugal are laudable goals, spending a little money to get back more time and rest can help you overcome burnout.

Physician and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Alexa Kimball calls this maximizing your "marginal time." For example, Dr. Kimball advised her junior faculty to "spend more money to build in more child care time than you think you need." If a faculty member headed to work at 7:30, she suggested they have the babysitter arrive at 7. Why? Because something always comes up, causing a sense of urgency—and when you rush, you feel more stress (the very thing you want to avoid with burnout recovery).

Another great way to do this? Virtual assistants. You can hire them for a relatively low price to complete tasks that you find overwhelming and tedious, thereby giving you time to relax and do what you enjoy most.

A great example of this is when I was experiencing burnout in 2020. I was completely overwhelmed by the pandemic and my workload, and on top of that, I had just found out I needed oral surgery—which I was dreading. When I reached a breaking point, I decided to hire virtual assistants on FancyHands and have them call all the local oral surgeons, find out their availability and pricing and give me a list of my options. It saved my sanity and was money well-spent.

Of course, this piece of advice only works if you have the extra money to spend, which not all of us do—and that's okay. If you find some discretionary income in your budget, it might be a wise investment to spend it on saving time (such as paying a virtual assistant to book your doctor appointments for you). But, if not, there's still plenty more you can do for free to combat burnout.

5. Use technology in your favor

Technology, especially artificial intelligence, has massive potential to save time and lessen your workload, which can reduce stress. After all, who hasn't dreamt of having a robot assistant to help them out?

It's why F4S uses AI to power Coach Marlee, an app with free online coaching programs accessible to anyone with internet, regardless of their income. Join the Vital Wellbeing program for free and watch how AI can save you time and help you prioritize life satisfaction and boost emotional resilience so you can bounce back from stress.

6. Show yourself compassion

Often, when we're under constant stress, we take it out on ourselves, berating ourselves with incessant criticism.

Rather than add more stress on top of your burnout, practice self-compassion. Kristin Neff, who has researched self-compassion for years and even wrote a book on it, writes on her website: "Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings."

Neff has many free and helpful self-compassion exercises on her website, including this one on changing your critical self-talk. The steps include becoming aware of the inner critic, responding to it with compassion, and reframing self-criticism in a more positive light.

7. Take an extended leave of absence from work

Ever wonder why so many companies offer a sabbatical (extended leave from work) after an employee has worked there for several years? Sure, it's a great company benefit to attract top talent, but it's also a strategy for preventing burnout.

Even if your company does not offer a sabbatical, you can speak to your boss about taking extended time off. If you're a valuable employee, a manager will be more open to considering granting you a leave of absence than you might think. They would much rather "lose" you for a few months to a sabbatical than lose you forever if you decide to quit due to burnout.

Additionally, in the U.S., there is a law called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's website:

"entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave."

Of course, there are requirements you must meet to qualify. Be sure to do your research and speak to your HR department if you're interested in taking an FMLA leave.

8. Establish clear work-life boundaries

If you're suffering from burnout, you probably also suffer from a lack of boundaries—the two tend to go hand-in-hand. So if you find yourself consistently saying "yes" to another project you don't have time for, squeezing in extra meetings during your lunch break, or responding to emails after you've put your kids to bed, try the following:

  1. Take a step back and notice where your work-life bleeds into your personal life.
  2. Acknowledge how that makes you feel. Is it fulfilling? Is it stressful? Maybe a bit of both?
  3. Ask yourself, "What do I need?" Is it a relaxing lunch break to enjoy your meal? Is it alone time with your kids, no devices allowed? Be specific.
  4. Honor your needs. This is the part where you'll need to communicate your boundaries. You can do this in a variety of ways, depending on what makes you feel comfortable. You might set an auto-responder during your offline times, stating that you only answer emails on weekdays from 9-5. You might close your office door. Or you might respectfully tell your colleagues, "I'm on lunch break, so I can't take a meeting right now. Let's reschedule?"

9. Get out of a toxic work environment

Of course, setting boundaries can only go so far. If people are not respecting your boundaries, you might be in a toxic work environment.

If that's the case, you can try changing the environment through meaningful dialogue and policy changes, but realize that true change happens slowly. It might be best to start planning how you can leave that environment, either through finding a job at a different company or even switching departments.

10. Lighten your workload

Related to boundaries, lightening your workload is a key aspect of learning how to recover from burnout. Taking on more than you can handle can lead to overwhelm, resentment and stress—so it's crucial to take a good look at all of the items you're juggling on a daily basis.

To begin, track your time for an entire day. Every second of it. You can use free software like Toggl or RescueTime. This will provide you with a baseline to work with. Many of us feel overwhelmed yet have no idea where our time is going.

Next, look at the report of where your hours went for that particular day. Are you surprised by any of them? Where can you cut back on the things that don't matter? What meaningful things will you replace them with?

11. Ask for more control over your work

Human beings crave autonomy; we want to know we can control aspects of our work, rather than being bossed around, unable to think for ourselves. As we saw earlier, an imbalance in the area of control can lead to burnout. This is especially true if your boss is a micromanager. So how can you take control back?

Instead of asking for "control," ask your boss for more responsibility. For example, you might say something like, "I really appreciate that you and the team support me by collaborating on the decks for our client presentations, but I'm looking to grow as a professional and take on more responsibility. I'd like to start putting these presentations together on my own."

Usually, a manager will be impressed that you want to take on more responsibility, as that is indicative of ambition and leadership quality.

12. Find ways to reward yourself

Recognition and praise are key components of a fulfilling life and career. But if you're not getting them from your colleagues or loved ones, find ways to reward yourself.

These rewards can be small. One idea is to gamify your productivity. For example, I use ToDoist to keep track of my daily tasks. Each time I check off five items on my to-do list, it rewards me with a congratulatory message. It even rewards me with Karma points that help me see my progress.

So find things that bring you joy after you've accomplished something, no matter how small. You can buy yourself flowers at the end of a tough work week, order takeout after you've cleaned the house, or treat yourself to a spa day once a month to soothe your aching muscles from caregiving for a loved one. It's like saying "thank you" to yourself.

Your recovery from burnout begins today

Discovering how to recover from burnout is a journey. There isn’t just one way to achieve it, and you might start down one path and decide to switch courses. It’ll require addressing your physical, emotional, mental, social, and occupational needs to optimize your overall wellbeing.

But you definitely don’t have to begin this journey alone. Join our free Vital Wellbeing program, and let Coach Marlee be there to cheer you on the whole way through.

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