Recovering from Burnout:  Three Ways to Handle Setbacks

by Brent Roy


"Burnout is nature's way of telling you, you've been going through the motions and your soul has departed; you're a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system." ~ Sam Keen

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in 1974. He described it as an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense of professional ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

In December of 2017, I hit a wall, experiencing those symptoms completely. Diagnosed with extreme clinical burnout, I followed my doctor's advice which included taking an extended period of rest. After several months, I returned to the position that burned me out, albeit with new boundaries to prevent another collapse. This included a gradual return to fiull-time hours and an incremental buildup of responsibilities. It also meant taking breaks during the day, getting away from the office at lunchtime, refrainoing from staying late or working weekends and not checking emails or the cellphone after hours. Despite my determination to always respect these newly-imposed limits, some habits die hard. 

About three months into my return, I had found my groove and my creativity had returned, giving me the false hope that I could easily add to my tasks, thinking I had fully recovered. Instead, I found myself working weekends to catch up even though the amount of work I was attempting to catch up on was a mere fraction of my pre-burnout workload. It was becoming clear that my cognitive abilities were not as sharp as they had been before. My capacity to juggle multiple projects had diminished. To possess the attention span of a goldfish seemed something to aspire towards! It was extremely frustrating.

The precise prescription and progression of burnout recovery are mysteries. One can roll along quite well and experience gradual successes, only to be confronted with unexpected stumbling blocks.Photo by Ronaldo de Oliveira on Unsplash

"Just a minor setback," my doctor reassured me. "Now that you know your limits, you won't exceed them again."

I took it as a lesson and here is what I learned about reintegrating back into work during the recovery phase of burnout and facing possible relapse:

  1. Admit it to yourself. It's counter-productive and completely pointless to believe I can just push through this. Remember, this is the sort of thinking that landed me in burnout-ville before. The toughest step is admitting I might be headed for such familiar yet unfriendly territory. I had to be honest with myself and remember the warnings my doctor had given me about the serious health consequences of not dealing with burnout.  

  2. Acknowledge it to your organization. The next tough step was to admit to my employer that increasing my workload by too much too soon is catapulting me down the same road with the proverbial wall waiting at the other end. I had to swallow my pride and admit that I needed a more realist list of tasks with the appropriate time to complete them in this new paradigm. 

  3. Adjust accordingly. I worked with the organization to lessen the steepness of the angle toward an increasing workload. We were able to come up with a plan that was satisfactory to both parties, with a more gradual escalation of responsibilities and workload.

Honesty and open communication are key. I am still learning about burnout myself; I should not expect my employer to understand it. I have found that regular employee/employer discussions and the willingness to make minor modifications are far, far better than attempting to carry the full load myself.

How much to communicate and with whom is a topic I will address next time. In the meantime, I hope you're doing OK with maintaining your balance. If you're not sure, download my balance assessment to see.

I really enjoy reading your comments and insights from your own experiences, so please feel to leave them under the article on LinkedIn or my Facebook page. If you have questions about burnout and how to restore balance in your life, reply to this email or message me. 

Brent is a life and leadership coach with a goal to help exhausted leaders reclaim their balance so their family life and careers bring equal amounts of joy most of the time.

Brent Roy
Brent Roy Coaching and Consulting