Burnout is the word of the hour, in 2021. How can we extinguish the fire and recover?
First Off, Thanks for the Inspiration
This blog post was inspired by a question that I received from a student regarding their own burnout and fatigue. Person who asked me this question, you know who you are—thank you for the question that inspired this post! I know you are not alone in feeling this way, as the word "burnout" is an exhausted sigh on the lips of so many people right now.
A Certain Vantage Point
Before I share these ideas for burnout recovery, I want to acknowledge their limitations. They are going to be strategies that individual people, families, or groups can experiment with together. However, let me be clear that this does not mean that burnout is the fault of these individual people, families, or groups.
Burnout is most often the human fallout of an unsustainable, impossible system. As a metaphor, if people are white water rafting, we attribute the difficulty of their predicament to the torrential horror of the waters they are in. We are astounded at the mercilessness of the current. We gasp in shock at the waterfalls they face, especially when they're forced to plummet them.
To extend the white water rafting metaphor—we do not point to the people themselves and tell them to cope better, blame them, dismiss their cries for help, or turn a blind eye to the dangerousness of the rapids. This is what an unhealthy system does to people who are suffering.
However—especially if we are part of that same system or suffering a similar burnout—we might be in the same white water rapids albeit in a different raft. This affords us a vantage point from which we might offer some tips and strategies that have been helpful for us, as fellow travelers. Naturally, this means we can learn by listening to others' perspective offered from their vantage point, as well. It's empowering for any of us to see the choices we do have within our dominion.
Unhealthy, short-sighted systems—whether they be nations, states, cities, organizations, or families—are unable to see the white water rapids. They miss the forest for the trees. They problematize isolated cases of exhausted people rather than reforming the unsustainable, impossible system. The change needs to be systemic, especially at an organizational and policy level.
There are further limitations to the burnout recovery ideas I share in this post. Different people/groups will have different circumstances in terms of their schedule, financial situation, relational commitments, and availability of options in their area. Some of these may be feasible whereas others may not.
For example, as I write this post in early May of 2021, India is being ravaged by COVID and is suffering a humanitarian catastrophe (as someone who is half Indian, I feel a connection to this country's suffering). In light of global realities, I recognize the feeble limitations of what I am sharing in this post. Sometimes people are just trying to survive the tsunami waves of human suffering; they don't have the luxury of considering burnout as a concept with which to reckon.
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There has been a lot of research on burnout in the past few decades. According to Maslach and Leither (2016), burnout is "a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job" with three main components:
feelings of cynicism and detachment from one's job
a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
Burnout is most often discussed as a phenomenon affecting people in "high-touch" professions, such as healthcare, mental health care, teaching, etc. The World Health Organization has included workplace burnout in the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), with the caveat that this is not a medical diagnosis and should only be applied in an occupational context.
Given the events of the past year or so, however, I hope this definition is expanded to recognize the burnout experienced by people within workplace roles and outside of them as well. Clearly, there are so many students, parents, marginalized folks—for example—who are suffering from burnout. I would imagine that burnout could be experienced by just about any human who is… burned out.
Burnout Symptoms Test
Wondering if you or other folks are burned out? There seem to be many informal burnout surveys on the interwebs these days. If you're looking for valid and reliable measures of burnout, check out these recommended surveys from the National Academy of Medicine.
How to Recover From Burnout
Now let's look at some burnout recovery strategies to try. These are ideas to experiment with—let these be examples that inspire your own process of discovery. What do you notice about what recharges you and what drains you?
For more ideas similar to those in this post—especially for those of you in helping professions—check out The Resilient Practitioner. This book has been helpful for me as a therapist and teacher over the years.
Get Into Flow Mode
Flow is a state in which we are completely absorbed in an activity, to the extent that we experience timelessness, the leveraging of our skillset, and the orchestration of our entire being. It feels like firing on all cylinders or being "in the zone."
Flow was suggested as an antidote to languishing in a recently popular NY Times article. Although the author characterizes languishing as neither depression nor burnout, perhaps flow can still be helpful for offsetting burnout. Where are the sweet spots in your life where you can enter a state of flow?
Get With Your People
Who are the people who walk in very similar shoes as you? These are the folks who have been in the same specific white water rapids as you and have an immediate, unspoken understanding of your lived reality. Circle up with them when you can, whether online or in-person, and band together for a sense of emotional solidarity. Whether you are suffering the effects of intergenerational racial trauma, a toxic work environment, or patients who have died, shared emotional understanding can be powerful.
Getting creative can involve creating something tangible with your hands, such as drawing, painting, calligraphy, woodworking, knitting, etc. It can involve cooking, songwriting, playing music, writing poetry, or creating memes.
Resist the temptation to say, "I'm not a creative person." I believe that all humans are creative at their core, although it can look profoundly different from person to person. Some people exude creativity in how they play a sport, lead a team, decorate their home, or design websites.
For many of us, we have been living a lockdown lifestyle for more than a year. If the public health guidelines in your area permit, get into the great outdoors. Get into wide open spaces and notice very mindfully the beauty that surrounds you. Notice what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell while in nature. If you're the adventurous type, seek out a new outdoor adventure.
Get Into Something Different
As you experiment with burnout recovery ideas, try to get outside the realm of what you usually do in the context of what burned you out (school, work, etc.). For example, if you work in a hospital setting, try to seek out an activity or focus that is entirely unrelated to the medical field. If you're a math teacher, try pottery. If you're a firefighter, try surfing. If your role requires a lot of reading, try listening to podcasts. You get the idea.
You can also apply this idea of "something different" to your actual job or studies. Maybe it means you try a different role, capacity, population, or approach within that job or field of study. Maybe it means you delegate pieces of your role.
Get Grind Culture Out of You
At least here in southern California, it's all about the grind and hustle. These are almost subconsciously treated as virtues; the busier you are, the more productive you are, the more commendable or important or successful you must be. Let me be blunt: this is making us sick and tired. Let's be sick and tired of grind culture instead.
Let's resist the riptide that says we need to be more—fitter, happier, faster, richer, smarter, more powerful, more efficient. This is the road to misery, paved with great intentions. Let's value paring down, focusing on the essentials in life, and simplifying. Let's value lessening.
Here are 68 coping skills to try for anxiety or depression today
Get Some Rest
I am a big believer that we are all created for rhythms of working and resting. If this is part of our DNA as humans, we would do well to develop disciplines of rest. It's a lot harder than it sounds but so profoundly worth it. Rest is a weapon.
Also, napping is a glorious thing. It requires trust and surrender. It gives you the experience that life carries on without you, without your hustle and bustle and striving and straining.
What would it look like for you to block off one day a week for rest and playfulness?
What would it look like for you to temporarily unplug from technology? I love technology, but sometimes we need a break.
You may need a rhythm of weekly rest. You may need a week-long vacation, if you are in a position to take one. You may need a slowed-down, restful season that lasts a month or a year.
In the broader scheme of things… If we have been living a quarantine lifestyle going on 14+ months, what makes us think that it will take anything less than 14+ months to recover from that season? We are not robots with a "get better now" switch.
Speaking of slowing down… I am becoming convinced that slowing down is somehow holy, or something. There is a newfound clarity, levity, presence, and peace to be found in slowing down. There is less of the waste and frayed edges that can be created by haste. Metaphorically, you notice so much more when you walk than when you run.
Going back to the white water rapids metaphor, I realize it sounds utterly absurd to recommend slowing down to people in white water rapids. I would suggest that—even in the most harrowing of circumstances—finding ways to slow down the pace of our inner life can be a profound exercise. An example is combat breathing, sometimes taught in the military or therapy.
In addition to rest, pay mindful attention to your exercise and eating habits. Try noticing what is energizing for your body—maybe that's gentle stretching, nourishing hydration, enjoying more fruits and vegetables, or the empowerment of kickboxing.
Here's one to try when you have a brief breather. Whether you are taking a break from your desk, going outside for a walk, or sitting at home, try attuning your awareness to your five senses in the moment.
What are you seeing? Hearing? Smelling? Tasting? Touching? This can help ground you in the present moment rather than getting too entrenched in the past or consumed by the future.
Get In Touch With a Deeper Why
Look at the areas of your life that have led to your burnout. Take a step back for a moment and reflect on your deeper why. What did you get into that job or career in the first place? Why did you have children? Why did you choose your current school and major? It might help to write down your why. Write or record it somewhere you can revisit when the going gets tough.
Of course, this process may lead you to re-evaluate your present roles and could even lead you to choose a modified or entirely different role instead. It could lead to tremendous change, but that change would hopefully resonate with you on a deep level.
Getting in touch with our deeper why touches upon our core sense of mission, purpose, vision, and values for our lives. I believe these are inherently spiritual aspects of our being because they are touchpoints for why we are here on earth, what our very existence is about. I also believe that we are all essentially spiritual beings, so getting in touch with the transcendent can help light our path through burnout over time.
Of course, this spiritual connectedness can take different forms for each of us. It might mean spending time in nature, playing and laughing with children, connecting with a faith community, studying scripture, praying, or worshipping a being far greater than ourselves. For me personally, my daily morning time of entering into God's presence and studying scripture are non-negotiables.
Get Jiggy With It
Sorry, I just couldn't resist ending this long list of "Gets" with this joke (for those of you who get the reference). Humor can help with burnout, too, by the way.
Here are 68 coping skills to try for anxiety or depression today
Dr. Parke is a licensed clinical psychologist located in southern California. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Vanguard University, and she also provides therapy to children, teenagers, and college-aged young adults in her private practice.
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