Can We Ever Really Recover From Burnout?

When a self-care weekend or week of digital detox just isn't cutting it.
Are you burned out?
Dusan Stankovic via Getty Images
Are you burned out?

You’re reading Life-Work Balance, a series aiming to redirect our total devotion to work into prioritising our personal lives.

“I’ve had splinters on my feet, I’m physically exhausted, I’ve had breakdowns. All the detox time in the world doesn’t change how burned out I am.”

This is the experience of Anthony*, a tech worker, 34, from London. After being asked to work weekends, weeks of late shifts, only then to be swapped onto earlies without warning, Anthony’s job has left him totally drained. So much so he’s quit his job without securing another. “I just can’t take anymore of this.”

Anthony isn’t alone in this state of mind. By the end of 2021, burnout was affecting more than 79% of UK workers, according to research by the HR tech company Ceridian, with 35% of people reporting high or extreme levels.

Nearly half (49%) of those surveyed in research cited an increased workload as a cause. The ongoing pandemic, post-Covid recovery, and the so-called Great Resignation, have left employers squeezing more out of their workers than ever before. And it’s causing a physical and mental health crisis.

Is there a chance of recovery? How long does it take to get over burnout?

We’ve seen buzzwords like self-care, wellness weekends and digital detox become the norm, but they risk ignoring the broader picture – that short stints of respite or relaxation don’t counteract the strenuous, back-breaking and brain-fogging nature of work under capitalism.

So what can we do? The obvious solution – if the Great Resignation is anything to go by – is to leave workplaces, even professions, that are bad for our health.

It’s what Lana*, 26, a social services worker in New York City, had to do to get some relief from her burnout.

“I quit working in the most toxic field possible in which I was forced to travel all over the city to unsafe locations. I got no support while dealing with people in extreme suffering/people who are dying. So I decided to get out of the field,” she tells HuffPost.

“Now I do my job and come home. No travel, no dying, I don’t stay late and I don’t take work home with me.

“My burnout was affecting me and my clients. I had to take a good hard look at myself and give myself the freedom to breathe again.”

Lana says she appreciates not everyone can leave their job immediately, especially given how expensive the cost of living is right now.

But if you are experiencing burnout, she says, it pays to make a change, rather than attempting simply to work through it.

“Finding new work definitely isn’t the only way to get over burnout, but you have to know when it’s time to take a break or reevaluate,” she says. “I feel like we owe it to ourselves.”

And while you might not completely be able to get over this block, there are some things you can do to mitigate burnout.

Jo Davison, a business strategist who predominantly mentors female entrepreneurs, says she sees burnout among her clients all too often.

Recognise when you’re being pushed too much, she says. “Acknowledge that burnout is a result of the body telling us to stop. But we choose to ignore it, and don’t listen,” she tells HuffPost. “Taking changes is important because going back into exactly the same situation will only ever delay the healing.”

So how long can you expect to take to recover? Well, there is no right answer as the journey isn’t so linear.

“Recovery from burnout is definitely affected by how long it has been going on and how the individual recognises they have it and how actively they want to overcome it. For some it may be 10-12 weeks, however for others it can take years.”

10 steps to dealing with burnout

Davison says there are ways you can aid your own recovery, whether that ultimately means leaving a job – or not. Here are some of those steps:

1. Acknowledge that it exists
2. Track stress levels (use an app, journal)
3. Identify the stressors and step away from these situations
4. Seek professional help. This is a strength not a weakness
5. Create a work life balance that includes time to have fun and rest
6. Change jobs if it is really badly affecting your mental health
7. Be kinder to yourself and keep a gratitude journal
8. Own it and believe that you can change it
9. Create a healthy sleep schedule and diet
10. Set boundaries.

While these are ways as individuals that we can ameliorate our conditions, remember that setting personal boundaries may not change the demands of your job wholesale.

This requires a company-wide push, or if you’ve got enough seniority in your role, a persistence in demands to change the wider work culture. Work should be a complementary part of our lives, not the thing that makes it unliveable.

*Names have been changed and surnames omitted to offer anonymity.

Life-Work Balance questions the status quo of work culture, its mental and physical impacts, and radically reimagines how we can change it to work for us.

HuffPost UK/ Isabella Carapella

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