To escape the devastating effects of burnout, nearly all of these employees made the difficult decision to leave their employers. This was accomplished either literally by quitting their jobs or figuratively through acts of presenteeism (where they were physically at work, but their minds and energies were directed elsewhere).
But simply leaving the situation that caused burnout is not enough to overcome burnout – and the likelihood of another burnout during recovery is frighteningly high.
Most people are unaware of two important conditions in burnout recovery. First, while the descent into burnout is relatively quick, the recovery from burnout is lengthy – taking years rather than months. Second, the recovery period is fraught with opportunities to boomerang back into another full-blown burnout at any time.
In researching my B-DOC Model, I discovered that this “danger zone” easily exists for two years following the burned out worker’s separation from their jobs. During this time, burned out workers are extremely susceptible to a “boomerang” effect that I call residual burnout.
- Residual burnout occurs – often without warning – during the 2 years after an employee leaves the situation that caused their burnout.
- During this 2-year period, burned out workers are consciously trying to get rid of the lingering effects of burnout – including the frustration, anger, apathy, exhaustion, and chronic health problems.
- These recovering workers tend to be hypervigilant and highly sensitive to any situation, event, or interaction that triggers negative feelings that are similar to what they experienced when in full burnout.
- “Fight or flight” reactions to these similar situations are common – usually with a vehemence and emphatic cries of “hell, no!” that are often out of character.
Sadly, workers generally receive little support or empathy from those whom they trust during this difficult 2-year recovery period. Their logic is based on cause and effect: since we left our burnout-producing situation, our burnout should simply “disappear.”
But it doesn’t.
The Hidden Landmines in Burnout Recovery
When we remove ourselves from the burnout-producing situation, we expect that our feelings of burnout will substantially decrease or disappear.
But when our feelings of burnout don’t disappear, we begin questioning ourselves: “Why can’t I simply rebound back to my previous energetic self?! What am I doing wrong?! Is something wrong with me?!”
We tend to overlook the fact that recovery from burnout can take years rather than months.
This lengthy post-burnout recovery cycle is a treacherous part of the burnout phenomenon, but one that I believe has received little (if any) attention. The duration and highly charged emotions of the recovery period often take us by surprise.
But what’s even more surprising to us is how quickly we seem to get “sucked back” into the burnout that we thought we had overcome.
Any situation during the recovery period can trigger us back to any or all of the previous stages of our burnout (frustration, anger, apathy, and full-blown burnout). While the downward spiral to our initial burnout could have taken 6 to 12 months, this residual burnout can occur in just a few days.
Repeated experiences of residual burnout further lengthen our recovery.
To avoid another round of burnout, we tend to use the same coping mechanisms that we used when trying to avoid our previous burnout: not sleeping or over-sleeping, over-eating, drinking too much, avoidance, denial, depression.
The boomerang nature of residual burnout is eerily similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both PTSD and burnout sufferers are prone to flashbacks to the precipitating stress-producing situation. It is a frightening, emotionally charged, and potentially debilitating experience.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the flashbacks of residual burnout can cause lingering feelings of dissatisfaction, anger, apathy, and both physical and emotional exhaustion. When we feel like this, it is impossible for us harness our energy, enthusiasm, and motivation to move forward.
But despite these profound similarities, PTSD is a recognized disability that warrants reasonable accommodations by employers under the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act, while burnout does not.
Without this external support, it also feels like we are in a bottomless pit and that we will never fully “get over” our burnout.
Puleo’s Pointers: How to Avoid Residual Burnout
Residual burnout is a landmine that thwarts our forward progress to recovery after we have left our burnout-producing situation. While often ignored by researchers and practitioners, the similarities to PTSD make residual burnout a very real and foreseeable human reaction to the all-consuming feelings of distress experienced during burnout.
In my own experiences and when working with others, simply knowing that it can take two years to fully recover from burnout can be very helpful. Although it is frustrating to know that a full recovery is such a long process, it helps us to remember to be kind to ourselves and our emotionally raw reactions after burnout.
- We need to take the time and make the time for rest, exercise, and relaxation. “Being kind to ourselves” is something that we often “forget” to do when we are in the downward spiral toward burnout.
- We need to self-reflect (a critical stage in the recovery process) – but not necessarily on what we “did wrong” that caused our burnout, but on the interplay between what was going on in our lives, how others responded to us, and how we felt and reacted. The goal is not guilt, but a core knowledge and understanding of who we are, what we want, and how we react.
- We need to vigilantly observe what is going on around us – to be on the lookout for situations, events, and people that we believe are very similar to those found in our previous burnout-producing situation. Perception is reality. By identifying and categorizing these experiences, we are better able to move toward more proactive decision-making in regard to how we will (or will not) respond to these stressors.
- Finally, we need to specifically describe what it is that we expected to happen after burnout. Burnout often occurs when, despite our most diligent efforts, the reality does not meet our expectations. Therefore, it might be unrealistic to believe that we will be the exact same people that we were before we burned out. Burnout (like PTSD) is debilitating and demoralizing to its victims, so we cannot expect to view life the exact same way that we did before. But we can use the knowledge and insights gleaned from our recovery from burnout to help us move forward in a newer, healthier way.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is a change management/HR expert and the President of Change Management Solutions, Inc. A popular speaker at regional and national conferences, she can be reached at gpuleo@ChangeWithoutBurnout.com. You can watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.