The First Step to Take If You’re Burning Out

Baby steps walking away

As an expert in workplace burnout, I’m often asked:  “What should I do when I realize I’m burned out?” 

First of all, let me congratulate you on recognizing that you ARE burned out!  I’m not being flippant.  Denial is one of the key characteristics of the downward spiral to burnout.  So the fact that you have the courage (and, yes, it takes courage) to admit that you are burned out is your first step toward overcoming burnout. 

It takes COURAGE to admit that you’re burned out. 

Burnout is the über stress that affects you in a variety of ways.  You don’t need to experience all of these symptoms; depending on the degree, even one symptom can indicate that you are in the throes of burnout: 

  • Sleep problems:  sleeping too much or too little, having trouble falling or staying asleep – especially waking up at 2 or 3 AM on most nights
  • Increased feelings of anxiety:  ranging from general anxiousness to full panic attacks
  • Anger and frustration:  “suddenly” reacting with a short fuse or reactions that are more extreme than the stressor warrants
  • Changes in your sense of humor:  becoming more cynical or sarcastic, “forgetting” how to laugh
  • Body aches and pains:  headaches, tension, tight muscles
  • Gastrointestinal problems:  over- or under-eating, nausea, heartburn, diarrhea
  • Cardiovascular issues:  changes in blood pressure (especially if elevated) without any physical causes
  • A sense of dread or weariness:  feeling “spacey” or “out of it,” questioning “what’s the use?” 
  • Hating the thoughts of going to work

Based on my research, people generally deny that they are burning out until they begin to experience physical or emotional issues.  Until then, they usually deny the toxic nature of their workplace or the changes in their personality. 

So again, congratulations on courageously recognizing that you’ve burned out AND that you are ready to take proactive steps to move forward out of burnout! 

The first thing that you need to do is to step away from the stressor.  This requires deeply and as objectively as possible looking into what is contributing to your feelings of burnout. 

  • Is it a micromanaging boss who imposes unrealistic deadlines? 
  • Or is it work schedule that involves constant traveling and little downtime in order to recharge and regroup? 
  • Or maybe it’s your own over-achieving personality that places undue (and unneeded) stress on your own actions? 

While the symptoms of burnout may be similar, I’ve discovered that no two people burn out in exactly the same way.  There are simply too many factors contributing to their burnout:  from over-achieving people pleasing traits to an extremely stressful work environment. 

In order to know WHAT to step away from, you have to analyze your own particular situation in order to identify what your personal burnout triggers are.  You then need to objectively determine what stressors you can control…and what stressors you can’t. 

Understanding your span of control provides you with guard rails to help you acknowledge what you can and cannot change.

And yes, it is true that upon such self-reflection, many people may determine that they cannot overcome their burnout as long as they remain with their current employer. 

Based on my over 20 years of researching workplace burnout, well over 90% of the people whom I’ve interviewed left their current stress-producing employment situation.  Some went to work for a competitor.  Some believed that the stressors were characteristic of their industry and searched for employment in jobs that used their functional skills in a totally different industry.  Some made the ultimate decision that they needed to completely change careers for something that they believed would be less stressful. 

This may not be an easy decision.  For all of these individuals, it was still a very difficult, stressful decision – but one which they felt was the only way to fully recover from their burnout. 

Even if you can’t simply pick and leave your job, there is still hope. 

If your situation requires you to stay in your current job, then you need to learn how to set up psychological boundaries that will enable you to compartmentalize your work as a distinct component of your overall life. 

I’m not talking about presenteeism or “quiet quitting,” which require that you give the bare minimum at work. 

Many people who burn out are the over-achievers whose personalities pushes them to give the self-defeating 110% to everything that they do.  So to suddenly switch to not caring about the quality of your work can trigger feelings of cognitive dissonance when your action are not aligned with your beliefs and values. 

Rather than quietly quitting you job, set time boundaries as to when you will physically and psychologically leave work.  Don’t continue to check emails at night.  Don’t let your work suffocate your time to recharge on the weekends (if you work a traditional Monday through Friday schedule). 

Separate from the external workplace stressors that are contributing to your burnout by creating rituals and habits that will remind you when you are at work…and when you aren’t.

By giving yourself this space, you can begin to rekindle your interest in those things that give you joy – which sadly are often thrown to the wayside when you are in the throes of burnout.  Start small.  It will take time to fully disengage from the continuous barrage of self-talk that urges you to read just one more email. 

When you begin to feel more like yourself, take the time to engage in self-reflection so that you can begin to understand what led to your burnout.  This will enable you to understand exactly what combination of factors (both external in the workplace and internal in your own assumptions and beliefs) created the perfect storm that led to your burnout. 

Self-reflection also allows you to objectively look at how you responded to these stressors – without guilt or shame.  Remember:  burnout is NOT a maladaptive response to stress, but is instead the result of a cacophony of internal and external stressors that lead to physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual distress. 

Stepping away is the first step to begin your journey out of burnout.  Refocus your attention on finding resources that can help you.  Don’t judge yourself.  Instead, use these insights as a way out of burnout and the foundation for professional fulfillment as well as work-life balance. 

So if you believe that you are burned out, step away and self-reflect.  Don’t try to do too much at once.  And above all, don’t judge yourself unfairly.  Burnout showed you what doesn’t work for you at work; recovery from burnout allows you to reinforce the necessary boundaries to avoid burning out in the future. 

Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).

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