dark cloudy sky with text overlay: How to recognize, prevent, and recover from burnout

How to recognize, prevent, and recover from burnout

When you are in a state of burnout, it can feel like you are trapped in a hole, stuck beneath a rock. It can be hard to see where you are, and even harder to get out. Especially the first time it happens.

The first trick is to recognize when you are in burnout. The next is to work your way out (or rest your way out as the case may be). Finally, it is time to set yourself up so you can avoid it happening again – or catch it sooner.

So let’s get started.

What is burnout

The World Health Organization has classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” . It is different from depression or other mental health conditions. However, the symptoms and experience can be similar. The phrase “burnout” traces back to 1974, so the phenomenon has been around for a while.

Burnout is causes by long term stress in the work that we do. It starts there and spreads to all aspects of our lives, because burnout changes how our brain works.

It becomes harder to manage negative emotions. You feel less competent in your work. If burnout lasts for a long time, it impacts your memory and becomes harder to focus. It makes it harder to be creative and solve problems.

It is possible to recover from burnout. You’ll need to make some changes. Those changes could be small or they could be large. You might need to seek help.

If you only remember one thing from this article remember that. You can recover from burnout.

How to recognize you are in burnout

When you are working at the edge of your capacity, you’ll brush up against burnout. You might be hustling to get your business to make money so you can quit a job you hate. You might be working and going to school. You might have young children or be taking care of older or ill relatives. You might be ill yourself.

You don’t have space for a random night of sleeplessness. You don’t have time for a cold. You don’t have space for a deadline to be pushed up.

You are forgetting things. Missing deadlines you’ve never missed before. People are starting to ask if you are doing okay and you just want to scream.

But you hold it all together. On the outside at least. You hold it all together because the alternative is unacceptable.

You have to do it all. You don’t have another option. – Or so you believe.

If you have been nodding along, you are in the danger zone. If you aren’t in burnout now, you will be very soon.

How to recover from burnout

The first step in treating burnout is to recognize that you’re in it. From here, it becomes a little choose-your-own-adventure. There are many options when it comes to getting out of burnout. Some will work well for you. Some won’t. You’ll probably need to use more than one strategy.

Strategy 1. Make sure you are getting enough rest

  • Sleep
  • Quiet
  • Rest
  • Play
  • Reflect

What do they all have in common? We don’t make time for them when we are busy. And if you’ve been busy for months or years, you are long overdue for some rest.

It feels like quite time and play are expendable. After all, you have shit to do. You don’t have time to sit quietly and watch the snowfall or the bees buzzing around the flowers. You don’t have time to journal.

But rest, in all it’s forms, are essential for good mental health. And having good mental health is essential to your ability to get stuff done and be healthy at the same time.

There is a reason why rest is the first thing we schedule in the How to Do It All Workbook1. You need time and space for rest to be at your best.

So if you think you might be nearing burnout or you know you are already there, start by making sure you have time to rest and reflect. It will also give you space to consider other strategies you may need.

Strategy 2. Cut the non-essential

You likely are doing things that don’t need to be done and don’t add any value to your life. We all do. We scroll social media. We watch TV that we don’t even like, often while playing games or scrolling social. We go to meetings or watch webinars that offer no personal or professional value. It’s part of the human condition.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by all that you have to do, consider each task or project and ask:

Do I need to do this? Do I feel better or worse after doing this?

When you have too much to do and you are trying to do eveything… You are setting yourself up for burnout. FOMO is a real thing. That fear of missing out, the fear that you might have made the wrong decision, adds to burnout. We have access all the information in the world in our pocket. A quick search on the internet turns up millions of hits every time. We can learn anything at any time.

It is exhausting. And that is just one aspect of life. Think about everything else you do. Every project you are trying to push forward. Everything you’re hoping for.

What can you set down? Leave it to the side. You might come back for it in the future. But for now, you need to set it aside and forget about it. What can you stop?

Non-essential does not mean unimportant

If you have ever taken care of a rose bush, apple tree, or any other flowering tree or shrub, you know you need to prune them. Sometimes it is easy and some branches are dead or broken. Those are easy to cut away.

But sometimes you need to cut away a branch that still has flowers on it. But by cutting those branches, you allow the plant to bloom better on the other branches. It is for the good of the plant and allows it to thrive. 2

Sometimes we have to cut back, cut, or post-pone projects. Not because those projects are unimportant or not valuable, but because there is something else that needs our attention more. To have traction in our lives, we need to be selective about what gets priority. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Strategy 3. Ask for help

Asking for help and getting an outside perspective (strategy 4, below) are similar. They both recruit others to help you recover from burnout. Let’s take a loot at two areas in your life you may want or need to ask for help.

At work

Do you have too many projects or tasks at work? Keep track of what you do in a week and bring that to your supervisor or boss. Ask them what they think of where you have been focusing. Are you doing things that simply don’t need to be done? Are there tasks that would belong better with someone else?

If you are the boss, are you delegating enough? Are you trying to do someone else’s job? This may involve talking with someone you report to, or to the people who report to you. It may be time to review what your department is doing. Ensure that the work being done needs to be done and that the work is distributed fairly.

At home

Did you know that in most homes, everyone assumes they do more than half the work? We often don’t see what other people do. A good place to start would be to share this short article from Gretchen Rubin on Shared Work.

If you are financially able, consider hiring out some tasks – especially for the stuff no one wants to do.

Or perhaps it is time to look into a minimalist lifestyle. You don’t need to clean as much if you have less stuff to clean.

There are many options here. But it starts with a conversation. If you live with other people, talk with them. If you live alone, journal it out or talk through it with a friend.

Strategy 4. Get an outside perspective

Journal and talk with a trusted friend or a mental health worker (therapist, counsellor, or psychologist). Journaling will start to help you see your thoughts more clearly, but if you are in the thick of things, you’ll also need to get the perspective of someone else. Someone you trust either because they know you well and have your best interests in mind or someone who has the training to help people like you.

When you see a professional, they can start to tease out whether you have burnout or a mental health condition or both. They can also help you recover from burnout quicker. They’ll give you more specific advice than you’ll get from any article or book.

Burnout is different from anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. But if you already have a mental health condition, stress or burnout will make it worse. So seeing your mental health provider would be a good step.

By talking through what you have going on with a friend, they can reassure you that you do actually have a lot going on. They can reassure you that you are not weak. You are simply trying to carry too much. Sometimes it takes a second opinion to see what you need to cut or where your focus would have the greatest impact.

Strategy 5. Ensure you are fueling your body well.

Now, to be clear: You cannot treat burnout by eating “better”. But if you are not eating well, your body won’t have as much energy and you’ll also be more likely to be sick. Plus if you try to start here, you’ll just be adding another task to your already overloaded to-do list. However, if cooking and making meal plans are “play” to you, then it could be part of strategy 1.

As you start to have more capacity by trying some of the other strategies, you may want to take a look at how you are eating. Even small differences can make a difference in how you feel.

  • Make half your plate veggies at lunch and dinner.
  • Drink plenty of water and make water your drink of choice
  • Ensure you have snacks available – nuts are a great choice as they are easy to carry with you, keep well, and are a good source of protein, fibre, and healthy fats. Add in some fruit for a sweet boost that gives your body nutrition as well. 🙂
  • Eat about every 4-6 hours, depending on your hunger and fullness levels. If you eat small meals, you’ll want to eat more often, if you eat larger meals, you’ll be full longer. It all depends on your preference and what you make available.

These are good simple places to start. Cooking at home from basic ingredients is another great step, once you have the capacity for it.

Strategy 6. Get your blood pumping

When you are active, you’ll get a lot of benefits that will help you in your burnout recovery. But similarly to eating well, you may not want this to be your first step (unless it fits in with strategy 1 as a form of play to you).

Being active can help you by:

  • Improving sleep
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Increasing energy
  • Providing an outlet3
  • Giving you a sense of growth or mastery 4

Strategy 7. Recognizing when you need rest and when you need to push through discomfort

It is sometimes hard to see why you are avoiding something.

It could be because it is hard and uncomfortable and you just need to do it. In this case, avoiding it will make it harder and more uncomfortable. Chances are when you do it, you’ll find it isn’t as bad as you thought it was.

Or it could be because you are exhausted and you need a break. In this case, it will be as hard as you imagine. You have no energy left and you need a break.

But when you are in the moment, especially when you are burned out, it is hard to tell which it is. Especially because you need more rest now than you needed before you were in this state of burnout.

Your options here include

  1. Go with your gut. Do the thing or take a break. But do not feel guilty either way.
  2. Flip a coin and do what the coin tells you.
  3. Set a timer for 15 minutes and do the thing. Stop when the timer goes off and take a break.
  4. Set a timer for 15 minutes and take a break. Then do the thing.
  5. Consider how you felt and what you did recently

Let’s dive deeper into #5. Let’s say you felt really good yesterday and did more than you’ve done all week. Your body is giving you a sign to take it easy today.

Have you been exhausted for a few days? Then you may need some more downtime – guilt-free – and an early bedtime tonight. And you may need several days of rest before you are ready to get shit done again.

If you find yourself getting to this point often, then you’ll need some more strategies to prevent burnout. You may also consider putting as much as possible on hold. Wait until you feel like getting stuff done. And if you’re unsure about this step – it is time for an outside opinion.

How to prevent burnout from happening again

Congratulations! You got out of burnout. You have energy and you are back to your old self. Now is the time to take some steps to help prevent it from happening again.

Think back to when you first started feeling burnout. If you have a regular journal practise, look back in there. You’ll likely see the signs in your writing long before you were consciously aware of it.

What factors caused your burnout?

What was happening at that time? Can you identify what caused you to spiral into burnout?

Burnout might be as “simple” as trying to do too much. But it could also be doing things that go against your values. It could be from not taking time for hobbies or connecting with people you care about. It could be from not taking care of your body through eating well, being active, and getting enough sleep. It could be from spending too much time with people who bring you down.

There are many reasons why a person could experience burnout. But there are likely a couple of very specific things that caused you to burnout. Knowing your triggers will help you create boundaries and avoid another burnout.

What does burnout look like for you?

Knowing what burnout looked like for you will help you identify sooner if you start to go down that path again. Because there is a large variety of what burnout could look like, it is important to remember what it was like for you. Especially if you can make note of the early stages. This will give you a shortlist of warning signs. If you can intervene sooner, you will have a much shorter recovery time.

Bottom Line

As you can see, burnout is very individual. It looks different for different people. There are several strategies that you can use to identify, prevent, or get out of burnout.

Knowing yourself is one of the biggest keys to this whole puzzle. It is a superpower. From there, you can choose your adventure by using the strategies that work best for you:

  • Taking time for yourself and rest
  • Cutting non-essential tasks and projects
  • Asking for help
  • Getting an outside perspective
  • Fueling your body well
  • Getting your blood pumping
  • Recognizing when to rest and when to push

Until next time, be good.5

You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.

If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.

  1. Sign up for the Newsletter and get access to the library for your copy
  2. Hat tip to James Clear who was the first person I saw using this analogy.
  3. For aggression, frustration, or nervous energy, especially when you do an intense form of exercise or you are pushing your limits.
  4. By learning a new skill or sport you’ll feel like you are growing and have momentum in your life. Or by practicing a skill or sport you are already good at, you’ll feel that sense of mastery which boosts your confidence
  5. I was a teenager when I first remember my mom saying, “Be good,” when I left the house. When I left for university, and to this day, she ends most of our conversations in the same way.
    Yes, she meant, ‘I love you’ and ‘stay out of trouble.’ But she also meant, ‘do what’s right.’ Follow what you know to be true for you. Learn from life and how to do things better.
    Now that I’m trying to understand and evolve my philosophy of life; Now that I’m trying to help other people strive toward living the good life; I want to share that phrase, “Be good,” with you. Be good. Live the good life in whatever way you define that for yourself.

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