How to Recover from Burnout

Written by Coursera Staff • 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 and 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 to 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 one's 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. 

Burnout can be divided into three groups: neglect burnout, overload burnout, and under-challenged burnout. Neglect burnout occurs when you feel helpless or doubt your abilities and talents. Overload burnout happens when you work so hard to achieve your goals that it affects other aspects of your life. Under-challenged burnout transpires 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. You might get too little sleep. You might not have a support network to help you cope with stress. You might be a perfectionist. You might not like to relinquish control of certain tasks.

How to recover from burnout

Here's a list of actions you can take if you're feeling burnt out. Keep in mind that burnout looks different for everyone, so your recovery plan may look different from a friend or family member's.

1. Identify your stressors.

The best place to start is by evaluating your job. Which aspect of it is making you feel the way you do? Is there anything you can change in the short-term to make things better?

Examine beyond your career. Are you also in school with a difficult schedule? Are you overloaded with responsibility at home? Is a family member sick? Maybe your time and energy is already being zapped elsewhere.

Handling burnout starts with identifying the root cause. Determine what type of burnout you have, and whether the stressors start in your professional or personal life.

2. Communicate your needs at work.

Sometimes, an overloaded or under-challenged situation at work can be resolved by having several conversations with your manager. Decide whether your current situation could be improved before you decide you want to search for another job.

If you decide that you want to keep your job and make changes, communication is key. If you feel like you can talk to your boss directly, then consider coming up with a strategy and plan for what you'll say in the meeting. Have a proposed solution or ideas for how you can either contribute to more projects or lessen your workload and step back from a task (whichever is needed). If you don't have an open dialogue with your boss, ask your HR or People team if they have any solutions.

If you decide that you want to switch jobs, take time to look around and apply. Be careful not to overload yourself though, because applying for jobs (especially during an economic downturn) could add to your burnout.

3. Create your burnout recovery plan.

Each case of workplace burnout is different, so there's no silver bullet recovery plan. The first step is to admit that a problem exists and that you'll take several steps to address it. As a result, things may get worse before they get better.

Drafting a plan for how you'll deal with your burnout can help keep things tangible. Once you've identified the root cause, reflect on what types of recovery will help. For some, taking time off can help provide the perspective you need to be confident about your next steps.

Staying at your job and "fixing" your situation may require you to set better boundaries. What projects can you say "no" to? Push back on projects that won't help you grow. Delegate tasks, if possible. Consider seeing a professional therapist or counselor to provide additional insight, if it is affecting your mental health. Make sure you're exercising, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of sleep.

For some, quitting and taking a months-long break is a better solution. In this case, create a plan for how you'll spend your time.

4. Take steps toward recovery.

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:  

  • 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

Career success starts with Coursera

If you're suffering from burnout at work, especially under-challenged burnout, a new career might be in order. Consider enrolling in the University of Pennsylvania Wharton's Achieving Personal and Professional Success Specialization and get closer to achieving your career goals. Enroll today and start learning with a free 7-day trial of Coursera Plus.

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