How to Recover from Burnout, According to Science

Macgill Davis

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. It emerges gradually, in response to chronic stressors at work. Over time, it takes a toll on your physical, emotional, and mental health. Before you know it, you find yourself Googling how to recover from burnout and wondering how on earth you ended up in a place of such exhaustion.

If it helps, be reassured that you’re not alone. A 2021 Indeed survey found that over 50% of American workers experienced burnout in the workplace. This is a warning sign that our way of working needs changing.

There are things you can do right now to begin burnout recovery. In this article, we'll help you assess how serious your burnout is and give ideas on how to bounce back.

What Is Burnout, and How Is It Different From Stress?

Burnout isn’t classified as a mental health condition. Rather, the World Health Organization defines it as “an occupational phenomenon, … a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Researchers speak about the three dimensions that characterize burnout: a sense of exhaustion, cynicism, and a perceived lack of accomplishment in the job. They can come all together, or one can be more prevalent than others.

It’s important to remember that burnout is very different from simply having a bad day once in a while. It also isn’t the same as being stressed — even though stress is a common cause of burnout. The main difference is that, with stress, you’re inclined to be hyperactive. Burnout, on the other hand, is often characterized by inactivity, dullness, and lack of motivation.

But not all burnout is the same. Depending on how long you’ve been overstretching yourself in your job, you’ll find yourself in one of the various stages of burnout.

5 Stages of Burnout and Their Symptoms

How to recover from burnout: man working and in deep thought

It’s helpful to understand burnout as a continuum. Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term in 1974, described 12 stages of burnout. Nowadays, a more common model is a simplified five-stage scale. Each stage is characterized by more and more severe signs of burnout.

  1. Honeymoon period: The main characteristic of the honeymoon period is enthusiasm. In this stage, you may feel that you’re doing great. You’re excited about work and are motivated to succeed. If you have perfectionist tendencies, they may fuel you through this stage.
  2. The onset of stress: The main characteristic of the onset of stress phase is stagnation. You may start to believe that what you’re doing at work isn’t enough. You don’t see the results; therefore, you extend your work hours or take on extra tasks. Emotional exhaustion and feelings of numbness may appear.
  3. Chronic stress: The main characteristic of the chronic stress phase is frustration. At this point, you’re experiencing excessive stress more often than not. Because your cortisol levels remain high, you may start feeling physical symptoms of burnout, such as sleeplessness, shortness of breath, or frequent headaches.
  4. Burnout: The main characteristic of the burnout phase is apathy. When you reach full-blown burnout, your attitude toward work changes. Here’s where you start being cynical toward your work and colleagues, and you may experience a growing sense of detachment and not caring for the job.
  5. Habitual burnout: The characteristics of the habitual burnout is a mix of all the above. This is the stage that often requires clinical intervention and isn’t easily reversed. The physical symptoms are strong, and on the emotional level, you may start feeling depressed.

The Most Common Causes of Burnout

Stress is the number-one cited cause of burnout. However, that stress can come from a host of different factors. It’s important to know which ones contributed to your condition, as this will make it easier to understand how to recover from burnout.

Sometimes, it can be counterintuitive which factors contribute to burnout. For example, it’s common for people who loved their jobs in the first place to end up burning out. How come? If you put your whole heart into something and don’t experience the results you counted on, you may become disillusioned, bitter, and eventually burned out.

Another common assumption is that working from home helps maintain a work-life balance. Turns out, it does just the opposite for most people. Working remotely actually increases the risk of burnout as it blurs the line between your work and personal life.

What are some other causes of burnout? According to a group of scientists led by Wolfgang Kaschka, they can be divided into internal and external ones.

Internal Reasons

Internal reasons for burnout stem from personality traits and past experiences an individual is carrying with them. Kaschka and colleagues pinpointed some of them as:

  • Perfectionist tendencies
  • Self-doubt and the need for external validation to alleviate it
  • Wanting to please others, even at the expense of one’s own needs
  • Feeling irreplaceable in the organization
  • A tendency to overestimate how much one can handle in a workday (and, as a result, working long hours)
  • No other meaningful activity in one’s life besides work.

External Reasons

These are the reasons for burnout that stem from the environment, rather than from the individual. Kaschka’s team compiled a list that includes:

  • Very demanding work environment (e.g. the requirement to multitask)
  • Problems with leadership and work culture
  • Contradictory instructions or demands
  • Not enough time to accomplish tasks
  • Lack of personal agency related to work
  • Not enough opportunities to participate
  • Poor communication within the organization
  • Administration issues
  • Constantly increasing demands within the same role
  • Insufficient financial or staff resources
  • Perceived lack of opportunities (for promotion, growth, learning, etc.)
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Absence of support from the team and superiors

As you can see, external factors can have an overwhelming impact on burnout. That’s why, sometimes, the best thing burned-out people can think of is to change their job.

But hopefully, you won’t need to go this far.

How to Recover From Burnout in 6 Steps

Two people talking to each other while walking up and down the stairse

Some researchers say that the opposite of burnout is “engagement.” From that perspective, the question of how to recover from burnout becomes a question of how to bring back engagement with your work.

Author and researcher Diane Bernier says that this process can take between one and three years, depending on the severity of burnout. In her work, Bernier identified the six stages of burnout recovery people typically go through.

Step 1: Admit There Is a Problem

You can’t tackle a problem unless you admit that you have one. With burnout, just like with any type of recovery, the first step is about coming to terms with the fact that things spiraled out of your control.

Look at the five stages of burnout in the earlier section, and see if there are any signs of burnout you can identify in yourself. Especially, look for the three main hallmarks of burnout: emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and feeling a lack of accomplishment.

It may also be helpful to look back at your workdays and see if the work you're doing translates into results and satisfaction. To become more aware of how you spend your time at work, you can use an intelligent time tracker like Rize.

Step 2: Take a Break From Work

To relieve some stressors immediately, consider taking a break from work. It may look very different depending on your situation and burnout stage. For some, it may be a weekend when they don’t plan anything. Others may need to take a vacation, go on sick leave, or even do something as drastic as leaving their job.

This time away from work is a chance to put helpful coping strategies in place to decrease stress levels. This may mean speaking to your loved ones to support you in the recovery process, catching up on sleeping, journaling, going on walks, and other types of self-care. Whatever you do, try to completely detach from work during this time.

Step 3: Take Care of Your Health

Now is the time to put more attention on restoring your health. Especially if you’ve been feeling burned out for a while, your body has long-neglected physical needs that require tending.

One of the best things you can do, especially in the beginning, is to get enough sleep and restore healthy sleep patterns. This way, your body will have a chance to recharge its batteries and start the process of recovery.

Other things you may want to invest in are a better diet and gentle but regular exercise. Physical activity helps regulate stress levels, improves circulation, and has myriad other benefits for restoring balance.

Step 4: Revise Your Work-Related Values

Now that your body and mind are somewhat rested, it’s time to reflect. Examine the ways you used to work that led you to burn out. Then, think about how you’d like to show up at work in the future.

A useful way to do this is by defining your work-related values. What’s important for you to feel good about your work? What factors contribute to your job satisfaction and healthy self-esteem? How would your ideal work environment and culture look? These are the types of questions you want to be asking.

A good framework for your reflection might be Martin Seligman’s PERMA model, which explains what elements people need to experience lasting well-being. Among them are positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement. You can take those elements and imagine how they would translate into a good, burnout-free working style.

Step 5: Explore Your Options

Now that you know what you want from your job, it’s time to brainstorm how to make it happen.

With an open mind, explore your options. Can you stay in your job by negotiating better work hours or pay? Is it that you need to set boundaries on your workload? Or maybe what you need is a change of job or even the industry you work in?

Don’t force yourself to decide anything in this step; simply explore the options you have to bring more of your values into your workplace.

Step 6: Make a Decision and Take Action

Finally, it’s time to decide what you’ll do about your job burnout. By now, you know that you can’t just continue business as usual, or you’ll relapse into burnout. The question is, what change are you going to make?

Depending on your situation, you may hire a coach or therapist to help you make and implement the decision. If not, you can also ask a friend or work colleague to keep you accountable to yourself.

Track Your Work Time to Recover From Burnout

Sometimes, the trickiest part of how to recover from burnout is admitting that you have a problem. For example, you may not fully realize how much time you actually spend working and how it’s eating away at your capacity to do other things.

To become more aware of how many hours you work and what exactly you do in that time, use a time tracker. Rize has built an app you can run on your desktop that seamlessly gathers data about your activity and then reports it back to you.

Want to give it a try? Download the Rize app and test it free of charge for 14 days. No credit card is required.