How to recover from burnout: 5 survivors share their stories, struggles, and strategies

There are tons of resources out there on how to identify, avoid, and even recover from burnout at work. But anyone who’s ever truly felt overwhelmed knows that basic tips and one-size-fits-all solutions don’t work.

Burnout is fast becoming a global epidemic. According to the latest statistics, 50% of US workers have or are currently experiencing burnout.

Yet burnout is also immensely personal. When we feel overwhelmed and disconnected from work it’s hard to accept it as anything other than our own failings. 

As designer Frank Chimero explains in Creative Boom

“Fatigue happens to your body, but burnout exhausts your soul.

“Long hours of wasteful drudgery rub up against the belief that anything is possible. What can you do with that other than collapse?”

To truly understand how to recover from burnout we put a call out for people to share their stories: what led them to burnout, how they dealt with it (or didn’t), and what they wished they knew earlier. 

Want to learn more about the symptoms of burnout syndrome and how to protect yourself? Check out our full Guide to Overcoming Burnout.  

Hire a virtual assistant to get rid of busywork

One of the most common sources of burnout is simply taking on too much work. But when you’re a freelancer or solopreneur who runs all aspects of your business it’s almost impossible to get the support you need. 

This is the position Melanie, a freelance web designer, found herself in. With mounting responsibilities and a lack of clear processes in place, she felt herself losing motivation, procrastinating “to an exponential level” and, worst of all, struggling with creative burnout. 

For Melanie, the solution for how to recover from burnout started with discovering how she was currently working and finding opportunities to outsource tasks to a virtual assistant. Here’s how her process works:

  1. Find out where she was spending (and wasting) time each day
  2. Hire a virtual assistant to get some of those menial or repetitive tasks off her plate
  3. Document all her processes to make them more efficient and repeatable (and easier for her VA to take on)
RescueTime is a powerful tool for tracking and analyzing where your time goes each day so you can become more productive (without working more). Find out more and start your free 14-day trial today.

Audit your opportunities (and fight back FOMO)

If it’s still unclear somehow, we’re all obsessed with being busy

Despite our outspoken desire for more work-life balance, downtime, and rest, we’re working longer hours than ever, answering emails and messages at all hours, and taking our work home with us. 

Yet in most cases, this level of extreme busyness is self-imposed. As Glenn, an individual contributor with a rising public profile discovered: 

“I was addicted to the validation of being asked to take on all the major (but voluntary) opportunities. I would agree to do things for fear of missing out on an opportunity only to have multiple deadlines collide with travel.”  

Eventually, he realized he needed a break before his workload broke him.

To slow things down, Glenn started to decline outside opportunities and instead, focus on clearing out and prioritizing his backlog of tasks at a more sustainable pace. 

In the end, taking on less didn’t impact his standing at work or his rising star. 

“It turned out [my work] didn’t value these things as much as the wider community did. So when I pulled back it didn’t make much difference to my boss.” 

Make sure your support grows at the same pace as the company

If your job actively contributes to your company’s growth then there’s no better feeling than seeing that curve go up. Unfortunately, your support and resources rarely keep up with the expectations and needs of a fast-growing company. 

This is the spot Chet found himself in as he helped grow his company from ~$5 million to $10 million in sales. Yet despite the rapid pace of growth, he was still the only person running their back office. 

“The company owner didn’t realize how much his company had grown. They expected me to ‘keep wearing the same shoes’ even though the ‘size of the shoes’ had doubled.” 

In these cases, it can feel like you’re trapped in a cage of your own creation. But an excessive workload shouldn’t be the reward for properly doing your job. In Chet’s case, it took multiple conversations to convince his boss that he needed more support. 

"An excessive workload shouldn't be the reward for properly doing your job. "Learn how these 5 professionals bounced back from burnout. Click To Tweet

If you’re in a similar position, it’s important to clearly show how you’re currently overloaded. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Share your to-do list and explain how your workload is beyond your scope
  • Explain that taking on more now means de-prioritizing other work
  • Do a time audit and show how your days are being spent

Give yourself time to play (instead of obsessing over being “constantly productive”)

How you spend your off-work hours can be just as much a source of burnout as your workday. Especially when you can’t disconnect from work or you feel guilty about taking time off.   

This is what’s called “productivity shame”—when we constantly feel like we could be doing something more productive with our time.

For Kat, a general manager at a quickly expanding family business, her off-work hours were often spent working on a series of webcomics.

This was supposed to be her time to relax. But as work responsibilities grew, resources got tight, and her time got stretched, she found her off-work time becoming just as much of a source of stress as how she was spending her days.

After hitting bouts of insomnia and panic, she learned to let go of her need to constantly be productive.

“I’ve stepped back on the creative work and have been trying to just ‘play’. This means letting myself work on what I want to or even just veg out on video games instead of feeling like I must use every second of my time for ‘Important Things’.”

Research has shown that both moments of ‘play’ can help reduce stress, lower changes of burnout, and increase your satisfaction both at work and in life.

If that’s not enough to convince you, letting yourself relax can also increase your productivity when you’re back at work. As Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, writes: 

“When you learn how to balance work and rest, you can sustain a higher level of productivity and creativity.”

Find (and stick to) your productivity ceiling

For many of the people we spoke to, burnout didn’t come from a sudden burst of extra work, but from a slow and steady increase to the point of being overwhelmed. In other words, they didn’t know what “enough” was for them. 

Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into this position. Saying no to tasks, managers, or clients is never easy. And it’s even harder when you don’t have a clear and realistic picture of what you can actually get done in a day. 

For Kat, one solution for how to recover from burnout was to keep a daily list of tasks she completed each day.

“I’ve started keeping a daily list of things I actually get done, both to measure more accurately how much I can get done (so I can become more realistic about my workload) and to combat the constant, debilitating feeling that I am ‘lazy’ and that it’s my fault I’m behind on work because if I just did more I could catch up.” 

“It turns out the number of discrete tasks I can get done in a day is pretty much a constant, regardless of the complexity. And if I go over that number, I will pay with a day or a few days of low productivity.” 

We only have a set amount of productive time each day, which, according to psychologist Ron Friedman, is only about 3 hours. To combat burnout, you need to be realistic about your own limited resources and find a way to work within them. 

Take back control of your time and beat burnout with RescueTime. Find out more and start your free 14-day trial. 

If all else fails, ask for help

While burnout impacts 50% or more of people, few ever ask for help.

Even out of the people we spoke to—who were openly discussing burnout—only ⅓ of them said they had asked for time off from work to deal with their feelings.

There’s still a stigma around burnout where people believe it comes from a lack of personal effort instead of being overloaded, overwhelmed, and overworked. As one of the survey respondents told us:

“I wish I could’ve talked to my teammates more about my workload more frequently. I’m very bad at asking for help despite how often I offer to help others. I should have emphasized more strongly early on that I struggled to get everything done in a regular 40-hour week.”

If you feel yourself becoming burnt out, talk about it. The earlier you can bring up these issues, the more likely you’ll be able to counter them before it’s too late. 

More resources on how to recover from burnout:

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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