Burnout is used to describe everything nowadays: from too many Zoom meetings…to work-life imbalance…too the need for a good, long sleep.
The good news is that these scenarios in and of themselves do not necessarily mean that you’re burned out. REAL burnout is something much more profound and intense.
According to Maslach, burnout is comprised of 3 elements: low feelings of self-efficacy, high levels of fatigue, and high instances of cynicism or depersonalization. In other words, someone who is truly burned out:
- No longer believes that they are performing well
- Constantly feels exhausted (both physically and mentally)
- And is suddenly suspicious, paranoid, and cynical about the actions of others around them
Someone who is truly burned out becomes cognitively, physically, and emotionally unable to function. Everything is overwhelming – even those hobbies or people who used to provide them with joy.
Identifying that your feelings are symptoms of burnout is an important first step in recovery.
It takes courage to admit that you’re burned out.
And it takes even more courage to create the boundaries that are necessary to start the upward climb OUT of burnout.
Based on over 20 years of research on the issue of workplace burnout, I’ve learned that recovery is not something that can happen overnight. There are no “quick fixes” or “hacks” that will immediately bring you back to your pre-burnout self.
A full recovery from burnout takes time and effort. But the effort is well worth it: based on my research on women and burnout, the boundaries and self-awareness that came with their recovery process has led them toward the joyful, less stressful state of self-actualization (as found in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).
But how do you know if you’ve REALLY recovered from burnout?
The Hidden Trap on the Road to Burnout Recovery
As I mentioned before, a full recovery from burnout takes time – especially if you are in an intense burnout, it can easily take 2 years to fully recover. (But as I mentioned, the effort is well worth it for setting you to lead a more productive, happy, and less stressful life.)
On the road to burnout recovery, you may find immediate relief by making some kind of major change in your life. Perhaps is it quitting your job. Or it might be changing careers. Some of the people whom I’ve interviewed relocated to a completely different state or even country!
The problem is that burnout is the result of a combination of factors. So making one big change is rarely sufficient to create a sustainable recovery.
Many times people believe they’ve moved on after their burnout. They initially seem happier (often after sleeping A LOT after their initial major change).
But after a while, they begin to feel the same feelings of stress:
- They experience the same sleeping problems that plagued them during burnout: they are very familiar with suddenly waking up at 3:00 AM and struggling to fall back asleep.
- The headache that seemed to coexist with their burnout has unexpectedly returned.
- The sense of humor that they regained when they made the major change that they thought would be the cure for their burnout has suddenly disappeared (often being replaced with an all too familiar sense of cynicism).
In my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC), this “boomerang” burnout is something that I have labeled “residual burnout.”
Residual burnout is often overlooked in the burnout phenomenon – but it is what I believe keeps you stuck in an on-going cycle of burnout.
Residual burnout occurs during your attempts to recover or get out of a burnout-producing situation or experience. Even though you’ve left the situation, the unique symptoms of your burnout have returned – often more intensely than they were in your original burnout.
This boomerang effect is often triggered when something happens within your new workplace situation. While it may be a different company with different people, different products or services, and different clients, something happens that triggers all the negative memories of the stressors that led to your previous burnout.
- Does your new boss suddenly start questioning your every action the way your previous manager did?
- Are you surprised that there are defined “cliques” in the workplace – that you’re NOT a part of?
- Are your new employer’s claims that “work-life balance is a priority for us” NOT materializing for you?
- Do you feel bored OR overwhelmed in your new workplace?
Whatever your original burnout triggers were, any signs in your new work environment that remind you of those original triggers will quickly throw you back into the burnout cycle again.
Residual burnout can send you back into the feelings of frustration, anger, and apathy that preceded your prior burnout OR it can lead you back into the depths of despair and exhaustion that characterized that burnout.
Hopefully, you recognize these new symptoms and begin to take preventative action.
Be Patient: Burnout Recovery Can Take 2 Years…or More
Based on over 2 decades of research, the people whom I’ve interviewed acknowledged that it can easily take 2 years to feel fully recovered from burnout – that’s if they don’t engage in “false cures” that only temporarily make them feel better. Unfortunately, some are 5 years out of their original burnout, but admit to burning out at least once since then.
While the existence of residual burnout is not a very appealing thought, it can provide the catalyst for making the necessary changes to avoid future burnouts.
The question becomes: what precisely characterizes a full recovery from burnout?
Based on my original research that culminated in the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), recovery was defined as a revised psychological contract with work. What this means is that you have created a new set of rules that govern what you will and will not do in your job: in other words, “I will do this for the employer BUT I expect the employer to do this for me.” (It’s kind of like a tit for tat or quid pro quo redefinition of work – and it’s unique to each individual.)
While not particularly “sexy,” creating and maintaining a revised psychological contract with work is a powerful tool because it is based on YOUR priorities.
Taking the time to define your own psychological contract with work allows you to:
- Quickly determine what is important to you…and what isn’t
- Decide without guilt what you will give to your job and employer…and what you won’t
- Avoid being coerced into infringements upon your time by setting boundaries…and saying “no” easily and graciously
This level of self-reflection is critical in not only fully recovering from a burnout, but also avoiding residual and future burnouts.
So as you begin to recover from burnout, remember that residual burnout will be looming: you might feel like for every step you move forward, you take one or two steps back. But in the process, you’ll learn more precisely what unique combination of stressors will trigger burnout in you. (BTW: it’s different for everybody.)
That’s OK. It’s part of the process of self-reflection that enables you to continue to move out of burnout and into a life that is defined on YOUR terms.
And THAT is perhaps the most powerful tool to ensure that the threat of residual burnout does not become a reality.
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).