Can You Recover From Burnout While Still Working?
Do you ever let a text sit on your phone for days on end without opening it? How about telling yourself you’ll mail that letter or make that call next week? (Or the week after, or maybe the week after that.) If you ever spend days, weeks, even months putting off a simple task that would only take a few minutes to complete, you’re probably dealing with burnout.
“Burnout is a state of exhaustion that stems from prolonged stress,” says Rhia Batchelder, burnout expert and founder of Rebuild with Rhia Coaching and Consulting.
When we think burnout, we usually think work—long hours, unforgiving work loads, bosses who just don’t get it. But that prolonged state of stress usually stems from multiple places. Maybe you’re working long hours and working through a difficult relationship in your personal life, or struggling to make connections at work and taking care of a sick loved one. That could put you on the fast track to burning out—losing your motivation for simple tasks, or feeling uninspired by what used to light your soul on fire.
The first step to healing burnout is, of course, identifying it, which is easier said than done. Batchelder says hardworking folks, especially in our work-obsessed culture, have trouble identifying when their work ethic has landed them in burnout territory—but she has a few tips for figuring it out.
How to identify burnout
Firstly: exhaustion. Not that feeling when you went to bed too late last night, but rather that exhaustion deep in your bones when you can’t bring yourself to complete a single task that isn’t absolutely necessary. “Maybe you’re starting to plop down on the couch right at 5 p.m. and have no energy to cook yourself dinner,” says Batchelder.
She adds brain fog, irritability, and struggling to get out of bed in the morning to the list of common burnout red flags, too. If you find yourself making silly little mistakes, snapping at coworkers or loved ones unexpectedly, or feeling unmotivated about projects that used to excite you, you’re probably at the point of burnout.
What can cause burnout?
Your workload alone isn’t always your only source of burnout, explains Batchelder. “Feeling like you don’t fit into the corporate world can be a stressor, as well,” she says, noting that she sees women of color, neurodivergent folks, and anyone navigating a disability experience burnout at higher rates. Caretakers have higher rates of burnout, too, along with folks prone to perfectionism or who have a harsh inner critic.
“Women of color, neurodivergent folks, and anyone navigating a disability experience burnout at higher rates.”
“They’re doing a work project but beating themselves up along the way,” says Batchelder, “making it ten times more stressful than it should be.”
The stress that leads to burnout can happen at a societal level, too, says Batchelder, like feeling anxious about inflation or climate change. Or maybe you’re dealing with a one-sided friendship or you don’t have a solid community of folk around you.
“Essentially, stress can come from many, many different areas,” says Batchelder.
How to heal burnout without quitting
The fact of the matter, says Batchelder? “Most people can’t just quit and go lay on a beach for three months, unfortunately.” When quitting your job isn’t an option, Batchelder still has an arsenal of tools she helps her clients utilize to get their burnout under control. “One of the things I do with my clients is a burnout audit where we look at the biggest stressors at work and beyond,” she says, adding that reducing someone’s stressors by 10 to 15 percent is often enough to get them out of the burnout phase where they feel like they’re running on empty. Read on for more of her top tips on recovering from burnout while still working.
1. Work with management to shift your workload
Feeling overwhelmed at work? A couple of tweaks might bring you back to a healthy spot. For example, Batchelder says that one of her clients, a director at a nonprofit, found one particular work task super stressful—so she simply switched tasks with her colleague. Identify one or two factors at work that make you super stressed so that when you go in to talk with your supervisor, you have solutions ready to go. Maybe you need to take on work that feels a bit more meaningful, or maybe you need help delegating or prioritizing tasks during your busy days.
2. Identify stressors at home or in your personal life
“Look at your personal life and see what you can offload.”
When Batchelder was dealing with burnout from working long hours as a commercial litigator, ordering Blue Apron helped her take just a bit of stress off her plate when she didn’t have to grocery shop every week. Look at your personal life and see what you can offload—maybe you can send your laundry out, or maybe Chat GTP can create a meal plan for your family every week. Sometimes it’s easier to shift things around at home than at work, says Batchelder.
3. Learn effective stress management tools
“Bringing some tools into your day that help you move through the stress response is crucial,” says Batchelder. Her top tips include not hopping on your phone the minute you wake up, incorporating 20 to 60 minutes of movement into your day, and meditating to get your body out of that prolonged stress response—just a few minutes a day can save you from entering that burnout state.
Calling a friend to chat for 15 minutes, playing a board game with loved ones, or doodling can all help you manage stress, too. Laughter, crying, affection, and creating are all simple, accessible tools to help you move through stress, says Batchelder.
4. Know when to leave a bad situation
“When your work issues include a lack of support or respect from management, and nothing changes after a conversation or two, it may be time to go.”
We can’t all just up and quit our jobs—but knowing when enough is enough can save you a lifetime of burnout fodder. “If a client comes to me and says their manager is disrespectful, coworkers are toxic,” says Batchelder, “that is a very big red flag that you’re going to stay burned out if you’re in that role.”
When your work issues include a lack of support or respect from management, and nothing changes after a conversation or two, it may be time to go. Understanding when it’s time to look for a new position, and asking the right questions in your next interview to ensure the situation doesn’t repeat, are sometimes your only true burnout-busting options.
5. Remember that healing won’t come overnight
While burnout can feel scary, “it always gets better,” says Batchelder.
Recognizing when you’re burned out and need to make a change is half the battle—as long as you check in with yourself and actively work to reduce your stressors, you’re breaking that burnout cycle. “Start with really small shifts,” she says, “and be gentle and kind to yourself along the way.”
Natalie Gale is a Boston-based freelance journalist. When she’s not writing about art, food, or sustainability, you can find her biking to the farmers’ market, baking, sewing, or planning her next Halloween costume. Say hi on Instagram!