How to Recover from Burnout

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Workplace burnout is a concern facing many employees today. It's usually caused by stress on the job, though lifestyle, relationships, and personality can also be factors. Learn what burnout is, how to address its causes, and tips for a healthy recovery.

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Everyone deals with stress in their lives, but too much of it without the proper coping mechanisms can lead to burnout. Stress at work is often a leading cause, but school, family, and lifestyle can also contribute. 

If you choose not to address burnout, it could affect your ability to handle day-to-day tasks. It could even lead to more serious mental and physical issues. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to recover from burnout. Start by identifying your stressors and making the necessary lifestyle changes that address those mental burdens. Let’s take a look at what burnout is, what causes it, and what you can do to avoid it.  

What is burnout?

According to WebMD, Burnout is a form of extreme exhaustion that is brought on by stress and that interferes with your ability to perform day-to-day tasks [1]. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an official medical diagnosis [2]. It can lead to mental and physical health problems if it's not addressed. 

Anything that causes stress in your life can cause burnout, but work-related stress is usually one of the main culprits. Up to 7 percent of people who work may experience burnout at any given time, according to an Austrian study published in 2018 [3]. Psychology Today even called it a "chronic workplace crisis [4]."  Teachers, health care workers, and social workers are more prone to burnout, but it can occur in any field. 

Burnout can be broken down into three groups: neglect burnout, overload burnout, and under-challenged burnout. Neglect burnout is when you feel helpless or doubt your abilities and talents. Overload burnout is when you work so hard to achieve your goals, that it affects other aspects of your life. Under-challenged burnout is when you grow bored with your job and feel it doesn't improve your life in any way.  

Signs of burnout

Burnout can cause mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. It can leave you feeling out of control and overwhelmed. If you aren't sure if this is something you're experiencing, take a look at some more of the most common signs:  

  • Forgetfulness

  • Frustration 

  • Irritability 

  • Trouble concentrating 

  • Loss of pride and interest in work 

  • Losing sight of goals and the bigger picture 

  • Trouble that spills into relationships outside of work 

  • Negativity towards work 

  • Inability to cope  

  • Inability to accomplish minor tasks  

However, burnout can cause more than just symptoms that affect you mentally. It can also cause physical symptoms like:  

  • Feeling tired all the time 

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Changes in appetite

  • Headaches and muscle pain 

  • Stomach aches and digestive problems 

  • Frequent illnesses

  • Developing problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease 

You might even see negative changes in your behavior. These could include:  

  • Procrastinating or avoiding responsibilities at work and at home

  • Isolating yourself from other people

  • Taking out anger and frustration on other people

  • Skipping work

  • Turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol 

Common causes of burnout

Stress is the main cause of burnout, but experiencing stress at work and suffering from burnout are not the same thing. When you're stressed, you can still cope. You can handle it by taking a day off or going home and enjoying a relaxed evening. Burnout runs much deeper and requires more than just a quick fix. The first step is understanding what causes it. Here are some of the most common causes of burnout:  

  • You have a workload that is unmanageable or feels unmanageable 

  • You feel like you're being treated unfairly by your boss 

  • You're confused about or don't understand parts of your job 

  • You're on tight deadlines 

  • You feel like your bosses and employees don't communicate well or support you 

  • You feel underappreciated or bored at work, or you aren't challenged enough 

  • You feel incompetent 

Burnout at work isn't always caused by something that specifically happens at work. Your lifestyle and personality can actually contribute to workplace burnout. It might be that you: 

  • Don't get enough sleep 

  • Work too much and don't make time for relaxing or socializing 

  • Don't have supportive people in your life who can help you cope with workplace stress 

  • Take on too much without allowing others to help you 

  • Are a perfectionist

  • Don't like to relinquish control of certain tasks 

  • Are a pessimist   

Identifying your stressors

If you know the common causes of burnout and think you suffer from it, it’s important to identify your specific stressors. That can be more difficult than it sounds. The best place to start is by evaluating your job. Which aspect of it is making you feel the way you do? What one thing would you change if you could? It may be helpful to talk through things with a trusted friend or family member. 

You may also want to examine your life beyond your career. Are you also in school with a difficult schedule? Are you overloaded with responsibility at home? Maybe you're a single parent, or you're caring for a parent who has a disability or illness. Take a look at your relationships, too. All of these outside factors can contribute to workplace burnout.  

The best way to handle burnout is to prevent it in the first place. If you are finding that you're stressed out more often than not, take steps to reduce it. That might mean forcing yourself to take time off, asking for help, or even considering a new job or position. 

Making lifestyle changes can help, too. Make sure you're exercising, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of sleep. Surround yourself with loved ones who are supportive and willing to listen when you have a problem.  

Recovering from burnout

Every case of workplace burnout is different, and there is no one right or wrong way to address it. The good news is that you do have options, and you won't have to deal with this forever. The sooner you work towards recovery, the quicker you’ll be back to feeling like yourself.  

If you're already suffering from burnout, and you've identified the cause, it's time to take action.  Consider taking some time off. A vacation isn't going to cure everything, especially if you're returning to the exact same environment. However, spending time away from your workplace can help you see things more clearly and gain perspective. While you're away, take time to think about why you chose your job in the first place and whether or not it's time to move on.

If you want to stay where you are and fix your situation, you'll need to take time to understand your limits. You'll need to understand that it's okay to say "no" on occasion. 

On a day-to-day basis, there are small tasks you can do that may help with your burnout or even prevent future burnout. These can be especially helpful if you have a job that will always have a heavy workload:  

  • Keep your workspace organized. 

  • Take little mental breaks throughout the workday.

  • Set aside time every day to focus on something fun.

  • Try to turn your mind off of work tasks when you're not at work.  

  • Prioritize your work tasks.

  • Delegate the things you can't do.  

  • Set boundaries with your boss and coworkers. 

  • Change your scenery if you can by working outdoors or spending some time working from home.

  • Communicate with your boss or someone in HR if your frustration feels beyond your control.  

If you feel like your burnout is out of control and nothing you do will help your mental health, consider seeing a professional therapist or counselor. Your employer doesn't have to know why you're there or even that you're there. Sometimes, a third party can help you just by offering unbiased insight. 

Communicating your needs at work

If you do decide that you want to keep your job and make some changes, communication will be key going forward, or you'll likely end up right back in the same situation. If you feel like you can talk to your boss directly, that's great. If not, consider going to HR. As mentioned, burnout has become quite common in the workplace, and they may even have a way to address it.  

Either way, make sure you have a plan. Decide what you want to say before heading into the meeting. That means you'll need to try to pinpoint what's causing your burnout and maybe even brainstorm a few solutions. Options could include taking time off, working from home, or stepping back from a certain project or duty. This proves you are taking your situation seriously and are willing to do what it takes to be the best possible employee.  

Next steps 

If you're suffering from burnout at work, especially under-challenged burnout, a new career might be in order. Visit Coursera today to look at some of the degrees and courses offered by some of the top educational institutions in the world. You never know where they might take you.  

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Article sources

1. WebMD. “Burnout: 3 Signs to Look For, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs."  Accessed February 11, 2022.

2. World Health Organization. “Burnout, https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en#/http://id.who.int/icd/entity/129180281." Accessed February 11, 2022

3. BioMed Central. “Subtypes in Clinical Burnout Patients Enrolled in an Employee Rehabilitation Program, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5773035/." Accessed February 11, 2022.

4. Psychology Today. “The Surprising Difference between Stress and Burnout, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-right-mindset/202011/the-surprising-difference-between-stress-and-burnout." Accessed February 11, 2022.

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