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burnout recovery cozy relax

When I ran my 10-Day Intentional Living Challenge in August, the #1 question I got from participants was “How do I recover from burnout?”  

Burnout is on a lot of our minds right now. And, it’s even worse for women.  According to a recent study done by McKinsey, 42% of women and 35% of men report feeling burned out often or almost always in 2021.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t truly empathize with what most women are going through right now. But, I can try to imagine it. I truly appreciated hearing from a number of moms last week about why things were extra stressful right now because of the pandemic. 

If you are a parent of young kids, skip this list. You are living it. If you are not, this stuff might be as illuminating to you as it was to me. 

Things adding stress right now include:

  • No Vaccines Yet for Kids: Parents are worried about their kids getting sick, getting long COVID, or even dying. And, they are also concerned about their kids getting a nonsymptomatic case of COVID and passing it along to someone vulnerable (like their grandparents). But, do these risks outweigh the benefits of human interaction? Who knows? But, these are the thoughts going through their heads every second of every day. 
  • Schedules going awry: Yes, most kids are back in school or daycare, but there are still many ways schedules go awry. Now, every time a kid has a stuffy nose (or was potentially exposed to someone with COVID), they have to get tested and stay home from school or daycare until they get their results. This is causing so much disruption. I mean… it’s fall… who doesn’t have a stuffy nose right now? On top of schedules going awry, there are few structural supports for parents related to childcare, paid time off, etc. Many are faced with trying to both take care of a sick, cranky kid and work at the same time. 
  • Lack of Support from Existing Social Networks: Many parents had previously gotten a lot of support from family and friends. The pandemic has eliminated a lot of this support as our social networks have gotten smaller and smaller. For a long time (and still for people who are older or immunocompromised), it wasn’t safe to have friend, family, or even a babysitter visit in person. So, more of the responsibilities that used to be shared among friends and family are falling onto the shoulders of parents.  

This isn’t even all of the reasons, but I’m exhausted just thinking about it. I truly can’t imagine trying to live it. 

But, even if you are childless like me, it’s important to look for the signs of burnout. 

Early last week, I realized I was feeling super overwhelmed. It was only partially because there were too many tasks on my plate. I’m also preparing for the first indoor events that I’ll be going to of the pandemic. I have an upcoming wedding and bachelorette party. Everyone will be vaccinated, but I still need to work through the anxiety and the overthinking. Clearly, my anxiety is nowhere close to what parents, teachers, healthcare, and other frontline workers must be feeling right now. But, it’s still real, and I still need to manage it. 

Luckily, I know the signs of burnout and strategies to help me recover.

In 2018, I was so severely burned out from a toxic job that I started experiencing debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. It was so bad, in fact, that I needed to take 6 months off of work to recover. During that time, I learned a lot about managing anxiety and also recovering from burnout.  

What makes my situation different from what many people are experiencing today is that I had the agency to change my situation. That is not necessarily the case for everyone, especially parents during this pandemic.  

Even though we don’t all have the agency to change things, I still believe there are things we can do to help our minds and bodies recover from burnout. There are things we can do to become resilient in the face of challenges.  

What is Burnout? 

Before we get into strategies to recover from burnout, I first want to define burnout and share more about what causes it. 

woman exhausted burned out

According to Psychology Today, burnout is “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” 

Here’s how we become burned out. When we experience stress, our brains trigger a fight or flight response to protect us. When this stress continues for a prolonged period, our immune system kicks into overdrive to help prevent illness.  

The problem is that our bodies are not designed to sustain this “overdrive” for long. When we do, it leads to exhaustion. Our bodies and minds burn out.  

As a result, mental and physical health issues could arise such as chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, headaches, ulcers, other gastrointestinal issues, and insomnia. In extreme cases, burnout could even cause heart attack, cancer, or death.  

Causes of Burnout 

Usually, people think that long hours and juggling too many tasks causes burnout. In reality, burnout is usually a result of too much to do plus something else

  • Lack of control 
  • Expectations that don’t match the reality of what’s possible 
  • A values mismatch (i.e. when you need to do something that’s in conflict with your values or sense of self) 
  • Unfair treatment (e.g. if you feel taken for granted, unappreciated, or treated poorly) 
  • When you lack the support and/or skills needed to carry out your responsibilities 
  • Never getting a break 

When I experienced burnout in 2018, there was a myriad of causes: 

  • I had more work than any one person should be expected to do. Case in point, after I left that job, they split my responsibilities up between four people.  
  • I felt like I was being asked to do things that conflicted with my personal values. Or, in some cases, I was unable to carry out my work in the way I wanted to because I was so exhausted. I just didn’t have the energy to care, and that made me feel even worse. 
  • I worked in a toxic environment with several people who knew exactly what buttons to push to manipulate me into getting exactly what they wanted.  

If you are experiencing burnout, your causes will probably be different from mine.  

How To Know If You Are Suffering From Burnout 

Another question a lot of people are asking right now is, “How do I know if I’m burned out?” If you are asking that question, you are probably already burned out or on your way there. 

I think of this as analogous to dehydration. Once you start feeling thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Once you start feeling burned out, you are probably already there. This is why it’s important to recognize the signs. 

I recently read an article that shared a way to more empirically tell if you are suffering from burnout. Answer these 4 questions on a scale from 1-4 (1 being never, 2 being sometimes, 3 often, and 4 always).

  1. How often are you tired or lacking the energy to go to work in the morning? (My addition: Or to do other non-work responsibilities?) 
  2. How often do you feel physically drained, like your batteries are dead? 
  3. How often is your thinking process sluggish or your concentration impaired? 
  4. How often do you feel emotionally detached from co-workers (or customers) and unable to be sensitive to their needs? (My addition: or friends and family) 

Add up all of your points. Here is what they mean: 

  • 9 or less – Hooray! You aren’t suffering from burnout (although the practices below could still be beneficial). 
  • 10 to 12 – You are on the verge of burnout, so it’s time to start taking action. 
  • 13+ – RED FLAG ALERT – Take action now.

To be clear, this is only one way to assess whether you are burned out. If you don’t feel like this simple test was accurate for you, try something else.  You could try these self-tests from Mind Tools or Psychology Today (which has different self-tests for service professionals and non-service professionals). 

6 Strategies to Recover From Burnout 

To be clear, I don’t think that the blame for burnout falls on the individual. Therefore, individual solutions are not sufficient. 

There are certainly times where we take on too much, don’t set firm enough boundaries, and push ourselves too hard. However, I believe there would be a lot less burnout if there were more structural supports in place, such as (but not limited to):

  • Childcare Support and Subsidies 
  • Sufficient Paid Time Off 
  • Paid Family Leave 
  • Workplace Flexibility Programs (and company cultures that support them)

I absolutely think that we should advocate for these societal and workplace policy shifts. In the meantime, though, we can also take steps to support ourselves and become more resilient. I am a huge proponent of both/and approaches, especially when discussing burnout.  

Let’s talk about the steps that we can take to recover from burnout and become more resilient.  

1. Try to Determine the Cause of Your Burnout 

What is contributing to your burnout? Let’s refer back to the list above: 

  • Long hours and juggling too many tasks
  • Lack of control 
  • Expectations that don’t match the reality of what’s possible 
  • A values mismatch (i.e. when you need to do something that’s in conflict with your values or sense of self) 
  • Unfair treatment (e.g. if you feel taken for granted, unappreciated, or treated poorly) 
  • When you lack the support and/or skills needed to carry out your responsibilities 
  • Never getting a break 

Depending on the cause, you might be able to take specific steps to improve or get out of the situation. For example, my burnout was caused by a toxic job. Because I had F-You Money (and disability insurance), I was able to take a leave of absence and eventually quit the job. 

But, you don’t necessarily need to quit. 

There are other options. There are so many people I know who took sabbaticals or reduced their hours for a period of time. If there’s one particular part of your job that’s bringing you down, you could even request to have your job responsibilities shift. In my last job, I requested not to do conflict mediation because it just took too much out of me. If I had kept doing it, I would have burned out quickly.  

Ultimately, if you can do something about it, do it! Please don’t rely on self-care alone. That’s what I did in 2018. I tried to self-care my way through a toxic job. But, it only delayed the inevitable. 

Sometimes, the causes of burnout are not within your control. There may be no specific actions you can take to change your situation. While taking care of yourself and building your resilience is important for everyone, it’s even more important when you are in a stressful situation that’s beyond your control.  

2. Find a Therapist 

If you are experiencing burnout, I would recommend finding a therapist. Burnout and fatigue can often cause feelings of depression or anxiety, and a therapist will be able to help you work through all of it. 

They’ll provide a listening ear to help you assess what’s within and outside of your control and provide you with tools and resources to manage it. I’ve gone to therapy off and on for the last eleven years. I credit therapy (in combination with anti-depressants) that helped me recover from burnout and learn to manage my anxiety.

Even in times like now, when I feel like I’m managing my anxiety well (and feeling joyful and content much of the time), I still go to therapy every other week. It’s incredibly helpful to know I have a place to check in with myself about how I’m feeling and discuss challenges and difficult emotions. 

If you’d like to find a therapist, I’d recommend using the directory on Psychology Today. You can filter therapists by location, types of therapy, and insurance carrier. 

3. Create Self-Care Checklist

When I think about self-care, I think about two types:

  1. Things that might not necessarily make me feel good. But, if I don’t do them, I will definitely feel bad. 
  2. Things that will make me feel good (e.g. boost my energy or my mood).

I have a list of self-care items that I know will make me feel bad if I don’t do them. If I start to feel bad, usually the first step is to review this list.  

The things on my list include:

  • Am I treating physical illness and pain? 
  • Am I eating healthy and enough? 
  • Have I been eating/drinking anything that I know makes me feel bad? (For me, this is coffee, too much alcohol, eggs, too much dairy, etc.) 
  • Am I getting enough sleep? (I operate best with more than 8 hours of sleep) 
  • Have I been getting outside (even if only for a short daily walk)? 
  • Have I been moving my body on a regular basis? 
  • Am I spending too much time on my phone?
  • Am I consistently planning my days/weeks so that I don’t get overwhelmed? 
  • Have I been pushing myself to keep going when I’m exhausted? Or am I giving myself breaks?

When I review this list, I can often pinpoint things that are contributing to my mood. Then, my first step is to address these baseline self-care needs. 

For example, I realized in September that I was feeling a bit depleted. I went through this list and realized there were 2 things I wanted to address. 

  1. My foot pain was acting up, so I decided to book an appointment with my orthopedic surgeon to see if there was anything they could do. I also booked an appointment with a new type of physical therapy. I’ve been following the particular method for some time and doing daily exercises. While it helped significantly, I feel like I’ve plateaued and could benefit from expert support.  
  2. I decided to give myself and break. For Q4 this year, I decided to take a day off every other Thursday to focus on self-care and recovery.  

Once baseline self-care needs are taken care of, you can also create a list of things that make you feel good. If helpful, you can also categorize them by the level of activation energy it takes to get started. This way if you are feeling very depleted, you can choose something from the low activation energy list. 

For example, here are a few things on my list:

  • Low Activation Energy: Walking the dog, meditation, reading, yoga, stretching, making myself a cup of (decaf) coffee or tea
  • High Activation Energy: Going for a walk in a park that I need to drive to, going for a hike or bike ride, playing a board game 

4. Get Clear (and Specific) About How You Are Actually Feeling 

Listening to our emotions can also be described as becoming more mindful. Becoming more mindful is perhaps the kindest thing we can do for ourselves. 

Many people think that mindfulness and meditation are the same. They aren’t. 

Mindfulness means that we are fully aware of the present moment. Being mindful allows us to accept our thought, emotions, and feelings (physical sensations) without judgment. 

Mindfulness allows us to get specific about what we are feeling. Before I started practicing mindfulness regularly, I used to just feel “bad” or “busy.” And, sometimes, I wouldn’t notice it right away. It would sneak up on me and become critical before I recognized it.  

Now, instead of feeling “bad” or “busy,” I can identify specific things like:

  • My chest feels tight. The tightness is extending to my shoulders, back, and neck. What am I feeling stressed out about? 
  • My mind is racing. I have a situation going over and over in my head. Am I afraid of something? Or do I feel shame or guilt for a particular reason? 
  • I’m feeling [fear, anger, boredom, anxiety, etc.]. What is this emotion telling me? Is there some sort of action I can take?

Mindfulness helps us to not get so wrapped up in the feelings and emotions so that we can understand what they are telling us. 

emojis mindfulness emotions

There are a few ways to build your mindfulness skills. I do all three of these on a regular basis. I’d definitely encourage you to give them a try. 

  • Meditation: I have used the Headspace meditation app for the last 3 years, and I must say I’ve gotten my money’s worth. As of the time I’m writing this, I’ve used the app for 12,109 minutes (907 sessions over 202 hours!). I’ve found guided meditation incredibly valuable in building mindfulness skills. Headspace offers a free trial, and I’d encourage you to check it out today.  
  • Journaling: Even spending as little as 5 minutes each day writing down your thoughts and feelings can be incredibly valuable. I start each day with a simple question: how am I feeling today? 
  • Emoji Check-ins: Ask yourself, “How am I feeling right now?” throughout the day. If you want to get really specific, you can find the emoji on your phone that best corresponds to how you are feeling. I do this at the beginning of every group coaching session because it helps us to build our mindfulness skills and get really specific about how we are feeling.  

5. Do An Energy Audit 

When we are in the throes of burnout, it can be really hard to know what activities make our burnout worse and which ones actually help us recover. Everything feels hard and exhausting.  

This is why I recommend doing an energy audit. I worked with a coach a couple of years ago who used the analogy of a gas tank. She had me track my time over the course of a few weeks and note the things that:

  • Depleted the gas tank (i.e. drained my energy) 
  • Added gas to the tank (i.e. activities where I felt a little more energized when I was done) 
  • Coasted on neutral (i.e. activities that were neither draining nor energizing)  

If you do this, I’d recommend writing down the activities that you do during the day, and using a “+” for things that added gas to the tank, “-” for things that deplete your energy, and “=” for things that have no effect.  

At the end of each week, you can then take a look at your list and organize them into +, -, or =. This will allow you to reflect on your week and see if you can:

  • Do fewer things that deplete your energy
  • Do more things that help you recover energy 

Another benefit is that this will help you become more mindful of your experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Everything will stop blurring together and simply feeling bad. You’ll be able to point to moments where you felt good. And, you’ll be able to take action to reduce or eliminate energy-draining activities in the moment, where possible. 

Finally, if you know you have an energy-draining activity coming up, this allows you to prepare for it. You can ensure you are taking care of your physical and mental health and you could even schedule recovery time before and/or after the event.  

If you want to do your own energy audit, I’d encourage you to download this worksheet to help you.  

FREE Worksheet

Subscribe to receive our FREE Burnout Recovery Worksheet
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6. Re-Prioritize What You Truly Need to Do

When I’m feeling really busy and overwhelmed, sometimes the best thing to do is decide what I’m not going to do. What can I deprioritize so that I can have more time for things that are important to me?  

When this happens, I tend to write everything down and categorize them into 4 quadrants based on their level of importance and my desire/interest in doing them.  

matrix importance desire

Once I categorize them, it gives me a good sense of what actions I could take to reduce my load. Re-prioritizing projects or activities in each category looks different.  

matrix importance desire

Here’s a quick summary of each quadrant:

  • Quadrant 1 (Have-to-dos): Figure out how to automate things, be more efficient, delegate, or outsource 
  • Quadrant 2 (Want-to-dos): Take care of yourself, be fully present, set boundaries, and let go of perfection 
  • Quadrant 3 (Desires or Passion Projects): Decide which bring you the most joy and focus on those 
  • Quadrant 4 (Stuff you don’t want or need to do): Just say “No”! How can you quit or minimize those things immediately? 

If you want to learn more about this matrix, I’d encourage you to check out this post I wrote that goes into greater detail. If you want to create your own matrix, I’ve created downloadable worksheets.  

FREE Worksheet

Subscribe to receive our FREE Burnout Recovery Worksheet
DOWNLOAD

Solving Burnout Requires Both/And Approaches

Burnout is so pervasive in our world right now. This is why we must take both/and approaches to solve it. Let’s support government policies and structural changes in our workplaces that provide people with the support they need. 

And, let’s also take steps to keep ourselves mentally and physically healthy and become more resilient.  

Are you experiencing burnout right now? Which of these strategies was most helpful for you?

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