In 2021, we talked extensively about burnout and other burnout-related issues, from what it is, to how it can impact parents or those managing chronic diseases. In short, burnout is long-term stress; the kind of stress that doesn’t go away even when a problem resolves, a big project is complete, that tight deadline passes or that daunting presentation is over. Because burnout accumulates, each stressor builds on the other, and this type of long-term stress takes its toll on the body and mind. That’s why it’s so important to be able to recognize the signs early and take action.
We spoke with Ashley Gilmore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Dallas, to get her insight on some strategies and tactics to recover from burnout once you’ve identified the signs and symptoms in yourself and your behaviors.
Finding the Source and Identifying Immediate Changes
No one person’s source for burnout is going to be the same as the next person. That being said, how can you examine what may be contributing to your feelings of burnout?
If you are concerned about burnout, ask yourself if you want to be at work. If the answer is no, explore why not. Some of the answers will be temporary stress events and some will clue you in to the overall work environment and your engagement in it.
The most immediate changes to help are often physical, Gilmore adds. Taking breaks, leaving your work area, taking time off, attending professional development, or lunch with a peer. These physical interventions will often produce mental and emotional support.
“Start by identifying, acknowledging and being honest with yourself about what stage you’re in. If you are already into the apathy stage, then a little self-care won’t bring you the big rewards it once did,” Gilmore explains. “The more you are struggling, the bigger your recovery response will need to be. However, since we are nearly two years into a pandemic and most of us are burned out or getting close, it’s time for big action. This may look like talking to a doctor and/or therapist if you suspect you have developed depression or anxiety.”
Trying to do too much on your own also creates an ideal environment for burnout to fester. Are there areas in your life where you can ask for help or relief?
Taking a Look at Your Options for Change in the Long-Run
After you’ve identified quick changes that can be made in the short term, what changes can you make for the long run, with a large-scale impact? But just as burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and oftentimes isn’t a straight path, making impactful long-run changes may not always seem easy to navigate.
Maybe your manager keeps piling on work even though you’ve signaled that you need help from coworkers or extra time to finish your current projects. Maybe your partner still refuses to help out with household tasks or childcare responsibilities, even though you’ve asked them for help multiple times; or maybe a particular friendship seems draining and one-sided. While quitting your job or cutting ties with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart can feel like a big task or something you don’t want to entertain yet, Gilmore says just knowing these options exist can go a long way in renewing hope and reminding you that you have the power to make a change.
Taking Back Control of Your Life & Setting Boundaries
Burnout can often make you feel powerless and out of control, especially if it’s been going on for a long time. Taking back some power often requires setting boundaries, delegating, working breaks and time off into our routines, improving sleep, reducing screen time and social media, getting exercise and movement into your day, and making doctor appointments to manage your health — physical or mental.
“An easy way to take back some feeling of control is to intentionally meet your needs and be firm about it,” Gilmore explains. “We often put our needs on the back burner in hopes that the workplace will slow down, or your family life will get easier once the semester is over, etc. The problem with depression and burnout is that they get worse over time, so just ‘grinning and bearing it’ is unlikely to improve the situation.”
Setting boundaries first comes with understanding your non-negotiables from your negotiables, and it won’t look the same for everyone. Author Nora Roberts famously said, “the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are made of plastic and some are made of glass.” Some will shatter when dropped and some will bounce. The non-negotiables of work and personal life are the glass balls that need extra care. The negotiables are the plastic balls, and even the glass balls, that can be caught by someone else. But they cannot ALL be glass.
Once you’ve identified your non-negotiables, set boundaries to protect them. To continue with the visualizations, Gilmore adds that boundaries are similar to a chain-link fence.
“People know it’s there, can see it easily, and can also see you through it. You are not hidden and can continue to engage but have clearly defined limits,” she explains. “If you are behind a brick wall to keep others away completely, an electric fence to punish people who try to overstep, or an open yard where people can walk in and out (and all over you), it’s time to rethink healthy limits.”
Oftentimes burnout can make you feel like a failure. It can make you feel like you can’t do anything right or achieve your goals. Moreover, if you struggle to maintain boundaries as you try to recover from burnout, it can push that narrative even further.
If you find your internal dialogue leaning on the more negative side of things, Gilmore suggests thinking of what you would say to a friend or loved one in the same position.
“Most people have an internal dialogue that they would never in a million years say to a loved one. We often hold a double standard that we can call ourselves lazy, stupid, and hopeless when we would not use these words with our peers or family,” Gilmore says. “Reframe to stop this double standard. If you wouldn’t say it to someone you care about, correct yourself when you start saying it to yourself. It may take some time to retrain your mind into standing up for yourself but treating yourself as someone you care about provides wellbeing rewards.”
Paying Attention to Your Needs and Then Honoring Them
When’s the last time you honored yourself, your time and your wellbeing, instead of focusing on what’s next, or that stressful email, or even the dishes in the sink you need to wash? IN an ideal world, as soon as you identify signs of burnout, you would immediately take time off, clear your schedule, and invest in some real rest and relaxation. But for the majority of people, that simply is not an option.
However, identify more manageable ways to make recharging easier, even if it may seem small. This can include:
- Making enough time for sleep.
- Balancing time with loved ones and time with yourself.
- Getting some physical activity in each day, even if it’s just a quick walk.
- Eating nutritious meals and staying hydrated.
- Reading a book, listening to a podcast or music, or watching a show.
Taking some time to release the demands might be hard at first but giving yourself even a small break from being “on” will equal big benefits down the line.
“Breaks reset our day, time away from work restores us, professional boundaries keep us in the field for longer, and self-care keeps us healthier,” says Gilmore. “Every one of these things improves our lives and makes us more of an asset to our relationships, home and workplace.”
Talking to a professional if you need extra support or guidance
If you are severely burned out, talking to a professional may be warranted. Just scheduling a well-check with your primary care doctor can make a huge difference, and they can connect you with mental health resources if it’s something you’d like to explore.
“Becoming aware of your overall health will make a difference in your ability to navigate through burnout and recovery,” Gilmore adds. “Just talking about it can make a huge difference, whether it’s to a professional or a loved one or a trusted peer.”
If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Health resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.