How long to recover from burnout isn’t a one-size-fits-all question. The short answer is ‘it depends’. For some people, a short break from work is enough and, for others, it can take months of recovery.
Burnout is far more than just feeling tired or a little overwhelmed occasionally. Symptoms can include exhaustion, feelings of loneliness, depression, stress, and even imposter syndrome. At the very least, you might need a break from whatever is causing the problem and, at worst, burnout can lead to mental and physical problems that can take a year or more to resolve.
What is burnout?
In Burnout: A Review of Theory and Measurement, the authors describe the condition as “an occupational phenomenon that results from chronic stress in the workplace.” Note the term ‘chronic’. Burnout isn’t something that happens overnight.
Burnout forms from being stressed over a long period of time, leading to exhaustion. If you’ve ever dreaded going to work or felt overwhelmed at how much you have to do, you’re probably stressed. If that’s been going on for months, you could be heading for burnout.
You might have poor concentration, high stress levels, and a lack of focus. Physical symptoms might include tension in your body, headaches, and physical pain.
Burnout is an increasing problem. From the Employee Burnout Report: COVID-19’s Impact and 3 Strategies to Curb It: “Employee burnout has only gotten worse over the last year: more than half (52%) of respondents are feeling burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic.”
While this study relates to the pandemic, Harvard Business Review was talking about increasing burnout in 2016:
“…compared with roughly 20 years ago, people are twice as likely to report that they are always exhausted. Close to 50% of people say they are often or always exhausted due to work. This is a shockingly high statistic — and it’s a 32% increase from two decades ago.”
It’s not just us mortals who suffer from burnout. Even A-listers and celebrities do too. Hilary Duff once said, “It’s the type of exhaustion that one night of sleep doesn’t fix.” YouTube star Lilly Singh went further: “I am mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. I could be mentally healthier. There’s a lot that I need to address, and I’m not able to [when I am] constantly pumping out content.”
This condition isn’t going away, but the good news is that burnout can be overcome. You can start to feel good again and reduce your stress levels.
What are the recovery stages of burnout?
The initial stage of recovery is to acknowledge that you have a problem. That in itself is a huge step in the right direction.
You then need to go through the recovery stages:
1) Psychological detachment
Here you need to be able to separate yourself from your job and stop thinking about work in your downtime. Easier said than done, perhaps, but really important for your mental health.
Set clear boundaries and be firm about when you are done for the day. Switch off your phone, step away from the laptop and do things for yourself. Just because you can work from anywhere doesn’t mean you should.
Try to learn to focus on the present and on enjoying your hobbies and time with friends and family. It might not come easily at first, but you will get better with practice.
Find the things that relax you outside of work. It’s important that you have things that are just for you as well as time with other people. Why not take up a hobby you’ve always wanted to try?
Try yoga and meditation techniques to help you mentally step away and let go.
Later in your recovery, you’ll feel up to more challenging things again. The idea is to continue ensuring you have a lot to focus on outside work, but here it’s about getting fully absorbed in what you’re doing as well as being challenged. Enjoy things like learning a language, learning to draw or sculpt, or learning new software.
This last one can be a tricky one as you may not have a lot of control at work. Where you can, find ways to increase your control, perhaps over your own space or how you manage your workload. Where it’s not possible, look at the things you can control outside of work.
Choose yourself. Choose how you spend your free time. Focus on what you need.
It’s about distancing yourself from work and giving yourself the mental space to rest and recover whilst away.
How long to recover from burnout?
How long to recover from burnout varies from person to person. It also depends on the reasons for burnout.
If you’re studying for exams, for example, you might put in a lot of extra hours on top of work to study. You’ll have the stress of extra work and the stress of knowing you have exams coming up. It may be that once you’ve taken your last exam, you hit a wall and need to stop.
In this case, you’ll be suffering from short-term burnout due to a particular stressor that has an endpoint. Once you are done with your exams, you can rest and recover quite quickly. Burnout recovery could be a matter of a few days just to give yourself mental space and the chance to rest.
However, chronic burnout built up from months or years of stress in your job with no clear end in sight can take far longer to recover from. It can take as long to recover as it took to become burnt out in the first place. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
The main thing to note is that burnout will not go away on its own. You can’t ignore it and assume you’ll just get over it. It takes time and space, and often a reassessment of your life.
You can’t rush this. There are no shortcuts. You have to take the time that you need.
How to recover from burnout
Parade interviewed Queen Latifah about her burnout and one important point she made was that she had no problem getting help from a professional if she needed to. She also emphasized the importance of spending time with her friends and family.
What helps her feel better is “Just taking a walk every day is one of the things that can help with that, but also just taking a break. Checking in, seeing how you feel, emotionally, seeing how you feel, physically.”
That’s good advice and a good starting point on the road to recovery.
Your first step is to understand why you are burnt out and what is causing these feelings? Are you taking too much on at work? Is your work/life balance off?
One thing that might help is to start a journal. You can write down your symptoms, both physical and emotional, and explore why you are burnt out. Really dig into this because it’s the key to your recovery.
Once you know why you have burnout, you can then start to do something about it. Don’t be afraid to talk to your boss and let them know how you feel. They can’t help if they don’t know what’s going on with you.
You may be able to have some time off or reduce your hours temporarily. Perhaps you could get help and learn to delegate more. You may even find that, ultimately, your career isn’t making you happy and it’s time for a change.
Do whatever you need to do to get better. That includes learning to say ‘no’ to people and putting yourself first.
You also need to learn to relax. One of the worst things about burnout is feeling like you never stop thinking about work. Find ways to switch off and give yourself a mental break.
Do the things that you love outside of work, but slowly, at a pace that suits where you are right now. I’m not suggesting you run a marathon when you’re already exhausted. Just pick things you enjoy that won’t stress you out.
Listen to your body and to how you feel. Don’t push to do too much until you know you’re ready.
I’m not dispensing medical advice here, but if you have physical symptoms that include headaches and heart palpitations, go see your medical practitioner. Get yourself checked out.
If you need help, don’t be afraid to see a professional. You might benefit from counseling or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
If you’re suffering from burnout, don’t give up. You’re not on your own and you can and will beat this. Take your time, take care of yourself, and do what you need to do to get yourself back on track.