Burnout Prevention and Treatment
Hi! I’m looking for recommendations for some type of retreat or inpatient treatment for this? Thinking 2-3 weeks and yes, I know that it will take much longer! I need a kick start to unravel my head. I feel overstimulated by everything.
Three symptoms characterize burnout: exhaustion; cynicism, or distancing oneself from work; and inefficacy, or feelings of incompetence and lack of achievement. Research has linked burnout to many health problems, including hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and substance abuse. Moreover, it can ruin relationships and jeopardize career prospects.
Resolving burnout often requires changes at the job, team, or organizational level. But you can also take steps toward recovery and prevention on your own: Prioritize your health, shift your perspective to determine which aspects of your situation are fixed and which can be changed, reduce exposure to the most stressful activities and relationships, and seek out helpful interpersonal connections.
It’s important to ward off burnout on your team as well: Insist on time for rest and renewal, set realistic work limits, boost your team’s sense of control, provide meaningful recognition, and ask people what help or training they need to succeed.
Heavy workloads and deadline pressures are a fact of managerial life. Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed or stretched thin sometimes? But when relentless work stress pushes you into the debilitating state we call burnout, it is a serious problem, affecting not just your own performance and well-being, both on the job and off, but also that of your team and your organization.
Hard data on the prevalence of burnout is elusive since it’s not yet a clinical term separate from stress. Some researchers say that as few as 7% of professionals have been seriously impacted by burnout. But others have documented rates as high as 50% among medical residents and 85% among financial professionals. A 2013 ComPsych survey of more than 5,100 North American workers found that 62% felt high levels of stress, loss of control, and extreme fatigue. Research has also linked burnout to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety, as well as to increased alcohol and drug use. Moreover, burnout has been shown to produce feelings of futility and alienation, undermine the quality of relationships, and diminish long-term career prospects.
Consider the case of Barbara (last name withheld), the CEO of a PR firm that serves technology industry clients. During the 2001 collapse of the dot-com bubble, the challenge of keeping her business afloat added extra stress to an already intense workload. Focused on this “unrelenting hustle,” she neglected her health, lost perspective, and began to doubt her own abilities. Cheryl (not her real name), a partner in the Philadelphia office of a global law firm, hit the same sort of wall after she agreed to take on multiple leadership roles there in addition to managing her full-time legal practice. “I felt like my body was running on adrenaline—trying to do a marathon at a sprint pace—all the time,” she recalls. And yet she couldn’t step back mentally from work. Another executive I know—let’s call him Ari—felt trapped in his role as a consultant at a boutique firm. Toxic internal dynamics and client relationship practices that clashed with his values had eroded his sense of self to the point where he didn’t know how to go on—or get out.
Over the past 15 years as a coach, researcher, and educator, I’ve helped thousands of clients, students, and executive-development program participants in similar predicaments learn to manage the stress that can cause burnout and to ultimately achieve more-sustainable career success. The process involves noticing and acknowledging the symptoms, examining the underlying causes, and developing preventive strategies to counteract your particular pattern of burnout.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
Most of us have days when we feel helpless, overloaded, or unappreciated—when dragging ourselves out of bed requires the determination of Hercules. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may be burned out.
Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first, but become worse as time goes on. Think of the early symptoms as red flags that something is wrong that needs to be addressed. If you pay attention and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent a major breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out.
Physical signs and symptoms of burnout
Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout
Behavioral signs and symptoms of burnout
A Take-Home Message
It’s impossible to avoid stress at work completely, and sometimes clients will need to put in extra hours to complete a task. This is normal. However, in anticipation of these normal occasional work pressures, it’s even more vital that your client’s battery is fully recharged.
Regular recharge moments alone or with friends and family lay down the foundation for a stronger battery in the future. Your client should not wait until they feel burnout symptoms to start focusing on the benefits of self-care and stress management.
Burnout is not limited to only your clients; as a therapist, you are also at risk. So make sure to look after yourself too, and use the advice in our related self-care for therapists article to help you mitigate your workplace stress.
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- Cherniss, C. (1990). Natural recovery from burnout: Results from a 10-year follow-up study. Journal of Health and Human Resources Administration, 13(2), 132–154.
- Demerouti, E. (2015). Strategies used by individuals to prevent burnout. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 45(10), 1106–1112.
- Derks, D., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). Smartphone use, work–home interference, and burnout: A diary study on the role of recovery. Applied Psychology, 63(3), 411–440.
- Gallup. (2020). Gallup’s perspective on employee burnout: Causes and cures. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/282659/employee-burnout-perspective-paper.aspx
- Hahn, V. C., Binnewies, C., Sonnentag, S., & Mojza, E. J. (2011). Learning how to recover from job stress: Effects of a recovery training program on recovery, recovery-related self-efficacy, and well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16(2), 202–216.
- Hakanen, J. J., & Bakker, A. B. (2017). Born and bred to burn out: A life-course view and reflections on job burnout. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 354–364.
- Meijman, T. F., & Mulder, G. (1998). Psychological aspects of workload. In P. J. Drenth, H. Thierry, & C. J. de Wolff (Eds.), Handbook of work and organizational psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 5–33). Psychology Press.
- Oerlemans, W. G., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). Burnout and daily recovery: A day reconstruction study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19(3), 303–314.
Alicia Nortje, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the University of Cape Town, where she is involved in multiple projects investigating eyewitness memory and face recognition. She’s highly skilled in research design, data analysis, and critical thinking. When she’s not working, she indulges in running on the road or the trails, and enjoys cooking.
Thanks so much.
I am still recovering from work place stress from 2016. I was able to work 50 hours a week easily but 6 years on I am only able to work 15 hours a week.
Which is slowly increasing but how come the recovery time is so slow? And how can I speed it up? I am doing a lot of the things you mentioned already.
I’m sorry to read you’re experiencing burnout. It’s only natural you’d be eager to return to your previous style of working — this must be very frustrating. Assuming you’re working with a medical professional as you continue recovering, I’d encourage you to continue updating them about your experience (and if you’re not working with a professional, I’d recommend speaking to your doctor to get put in touch with some support).
I’d offer two thoughts. My first thought is around work design and person-job fit. If you love what you do and most of the activities involved in the job feel energizing for you, that’s fantastic and there’s no problem. However, sometimes burnout results when the job we’re doing (or the way the work is designed) does not fit us. In these instances, we may find an inability to re-acclimatize to the work after a period of burnout, as it turns out the work never really suited us in the first place. You might find this blog post (and the others linked throughout it) useful for exploring this theme.
My second thought would be to check in with your expectations for yourself. The feeling that we can’t do the things we used to do can be psychologically painful. We feel as though we should be able to do the things we used to and may beat ourselves up when we can’t, when really these may be impossible standards. The remedy involves accepting yourself and the things that are not necessarily within your control. It’s a paradox in some ways, but if you can practice acceptance of your present situation (and of yourself) you may find your energy lifting faster. If you search our blog for ‘radical acceptance‘ and ‘self-acceptance‘, you’ll find several posts on these themes that include useful activities and exercises.
I really enjoyed this article. Thank you for approaching burnout and the changes you need to make to your life.
I too had to resign from work in 2020. Unsympathetic bosses and bullying pushed me into severe anxiety, major depression when menopause arose. I’d start to recover, think about a new job in my old field and get worse again.
Working with a psychologist I realised that I had fallen so far from my beliefs in what I did, was suffering trauma from the stress endured I changed direction. In fact, the effects on my brain and the yoga teacher training I did during this time fascinated me..and I found a Coursera course on Intro to Psychology when I started with a psychologist (not knowing much of this field at all.) I am now studying for a graduate diploma in science in psychology.
I am learning to manage my energy, and as it is totally under my control can just give up on any day and take a rest. I have found I need to do any reading in the morning, but can listen to lectures and type notes un the afternoon.
It is still difficult, and I couldn’t work 40 hours per week…where before, like James, 50-60 hours were east. But it is getting better, slowly, and I am so thankful for the support I had from GP, counsellors and psychologist.
Although going through traumatic experiences like burnout can be very difficult, they can also present important opportunities to reconnect with your values what’s important to you in life, which sounds like it’s been the case for you. And indeed, one of the kindest thing you can do for yourself moving forward will be to keep checking in with your own energy levels and allowing yourself to rest when your body is telling you to.
Hi, I work in K-12 special education. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an incredibly high stress environment dealing with so many needs. Many of my coworkers are burnt out and I have realized that I too am experiencing burnout. We can’t really change workload demands and can’t leave education(yet). Do you have any more articles that focus on self care and recovery? And for people with limited time?
Anything is much appreciated!
This the best helpful burnout article I’ve read on the subject of burnout so thank you Alicia. Most articles offer child like simplistic responses like ooh do more exercise get plenty of sleep and rest. To someone who is so busy they haven’t got time to eat let alone cook it’s not helpful. This is the only article that acknowledges how long recovery takes and what the cures are. Most seem to dodge leaving your role or going to do something else.
I appreciated reading your article. I am currently on a short (2 week) medical leave relating to stress and burnout in my healthcare related field. Are you aware of any articles that you feel would be helpful to someone in my shoes? I work in radiation oncology where client emotions are always higher due to the nature of them being under our care. I feel that in “regular” times my work can be emotionally exhausting, never mind during a pandemic.