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Exhausted business woman working late

Can you recover from burnout without leaving your job?

No one wants to leave a job they love because of burnout. Yet sometimes this feels like the only way out, despite the risks to career and finances. However, some people do recover - and do so while staying in their roles. For those that don’t succumb to burnout, how do they manage this and what advice can others take from this experience?

Earlier this year I completed some research in partnership with Coventry University, where I interviewed six people, from different backgrounds, in depth about their burnout recovery experience.

They had all fully recovered over a 2 year period and didn’t leave their careers (although some did take some time off). This may seem like a small number of people, but for in depth qualitative research, this is a robust sample size.


What causes burnout?

Burnout is characterised in three elements, emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and lack of achievement (this could be real or perceived). In moderate levels of burnout people are still functioning, but basically running on empty and unable to successfully recharge, in high levels of burnout people experience all three, this is called adrenal burnout and is basically an entire psychophysical breakdown.

It is very scary and confusing if this happens but as burnout creeps up slowly, sometimes over many years, it can take people by surprise - sometimes to the point of denial. We covered this in our earlier blog ‘The denial phase of burnout that no-one talks about’.


Strategies for recovery

When people burnout, the most common recommendation is to leave their job. It’s true that by the time people burnout they are usually pretty depleted and a new start may seem like the best option. However, in my work I was aware that some people are able to successfully recover without having to give up a job they previously loved and without the financial anxiety of having to find work. I was curious about what these people did to successfully recover.

The research yielded three main strategies these successful people engaged to recover:


Broadening Horizons

Once the initial period of exhaustion has passed, all participants found activities to stimulate them outside of the world of work. Often research cites rest and relaxation as a key recovery strategy but for this group quickly reengaged with the world in a way that broadened their horizons. A contributory factor for burnout is the compulsion to work, work becomes everything (even if you hate it). It’s where you find value, meaning, and validation.

The participants very quickly decided to go find that elsewhere, being it in studying, joining a choir, reading, drawing, or volunteering. Many of them were advised against engaging in activities and encouraged to rest but they all stated that this engagement really helped their recovery.


Social support or reconnection with social support

Social support, both inside and outside the workplace, is well researched as a factor in recovery from burnout. However, this study found that the quality of social support mattered in their recovery. Where they were understood, listened to, and respected, it helped their recovery. Where they were dismissed, preached to, or misunderstood, it hindered their recovery.

The surprise for many of the participants was that they found support came from a surprising place, it was not necessarily their partners or family that were the greatest support, but friends and co workers who were more objective and perhaps less involved.


Reconnect to self

When people burnout they ignore the signals from their body and all participants found that learning to listen to their body and find self care routines that worked for them were an important part of their recovery. There is the standard suggestion like yoga and meditation, and some people used those and still do to this day, but for some it was simply getting out into nature more, taking a rest when they needed it, living at a more sustainable pace.

Everyone is different and it seems that learning to listen to your mind and body and knowing how to interpret the signals, is an important part of recovery from burnout, and I would suggest prevention.


Conclusion

Burnout is slow to build up so the first stage to recovery is to recognise that it’s happening. This isn’t easy, especially when the compulsion is to work even harder as we search for validation. However, this same drive can help focus on activities to help re-engage which can be more beneficial than relaxation alone. Support helps too - but often from those who can take an objective view. And while being listened to matters, recovery is also about listening to ourselves.


For further information

Burnout may come from the pressure of delivery which impacts both output and mental health. We’ve brought together a range of employee wellbeing programmes to support organisations build a healthy and more productive workplace.

For further information on burnout prevention strategies, you may find our blog article of help…3 Life hacks to keep your energy up and avoid burnout.


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