May 1, 2017

The Journey Back: 4 Simple Steps to Recover from Burnout

  • Do you walk into work and feel instantly besieged with the number of projects and people that need your attention, social, and emotional support?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed by the decisions you have to make and responsibilities associated with your current position?
  • Has this left you feeling incompetent and overextended to where you feel emotionally and physically depleted?
  • Do you resent your subordinates or your organization because they do not give you recognition for the work you do?
  • Has this fatigue and under appreciation caused you to begin to have a “to hell with this job” mentality?
  • Have you begun to emotionally and mentally withdraw?
  • Are you, currently, thinking of leaving your organization?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you could be experiencing the symptoms of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment (Laschinger, Borgogni, Consiglio, & Read, 2015; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Because of the tremendous demands placed on leaders, burnout eventually results in lower productivity, performance, and motivation, as well as increased levels of depression and anxiety (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007; Baltes & Clark, 2009; Laschinger et al., 2015; Maslach et al., 2001). Some of the best evidence-based cures for burnout are modifications to the work environment, for example, redesigning work to increase motivation and work engagement. Examples include implementing flexible work hours to promote work-family balance or decreasing your workload. Other suggestions include enhancing the comfort of the workspace by adjusting temperature, noise, and crowding (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007; Laschinger et al., 2015; Reuter & Schwarzer, 2009).

But what if you don’t have the power to put those changes in place? Leaders with limited resources, such as those in the non-profit sector or smaller businesses, often cannot take advantage of these evidence-based strategies because they require dramatic changes to the organization. However, one thing everyone can do is engage in a recovery process. The recovery process centers on disengagement, defined as a separation from the emotional, mental and physical stresses of work. You can think of the recovery process as building up a temporary wall between you and your job. Doing so entails the four simple steps of psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control (Sonnentag, Mojza, Demerouti, & Bakker, 2012; Fritz, & Sonnentag, 2005). Each step has easy-to-use strategies to combat burnout.

These four strategies may seem like common sense, but these techniques are under-utilized. Why? For the very reason that people do not engage in recovery activities – they believe it is a waste of time, they are too tired at the end of their work day, or simply don’t feel they have enough energy. However, very much like exercise, if you use these techniques even for a short duration of time over increasing longer periods, you will begin to see the benefits.

  1. Psychological detachment requires you to be physically and mentally “away” from work when at home or anywhere outside of the office; similar to taking a vacation from work. Being mentally away from work and actively engaging in non-work related activities allows for the replenishment of your resources. You will return to work invigorated. To achieve psychological detachment, you can actively decide not to engage with work, work-related tasks, and workplace intrapersonal conflicts. Instead, focus on activities that will pull your attention toward the enjoyment of the here and now, such as playing with your children, watching television, or going out with friends. The process of deciding to detach psychologically allows you to erect barriers that keep work out during off-work hours. HINT: Put down the smartphone!
  1. Related to psychological detachment is the second aspect, relaxation. Look for activities outside of work that you enjoy, but that demand little effort from you. The aim is to decrease your tension and anxiety. Strategies include relaxation techniques such as practicing controlled breathing, meditation, reading a book, or going for a stroll. Ultimately, the activities can be whatever you find relaxing, so find what works best for you.
  1. The third step of the recovery process is mastery. As with the first two aspects of the recovery process, the idea is to disconnect from work by engaging in non-job activities mentally. Detaching and relaxing are one thing, but mastery calls for activities that are not only absorbing but also provide challenging learning experiences. For instance, you can learn a new software package, foreign language, or how to play an instrument. These learning experiences can increase your knowledge, skills, and abilities, which will then transfer to your job and act as new job resources that replace or augment your old ones. As with the previous techniques, any activities that interest you and provide an opportunity for growth can perform this role.
  1. The last piece of the recovery process is control. Broadly speaking, if you feel you lack control at work, you should seek autonomy and power in other aspects of your life. If your job is highly regulated, stressful, and prevents you from completing the work in the manner you see as most appropriate or expressing your true feelings then you should use this technique. Control then manifests in how you choose to spend your time off work, whether socializing with friends, spending time with family, or spending a quiet night in and reading a book. Because you make these decisions, you should be left feeling more confident and competent. It’s not important what the activity is; only that you freely choose it.

In sum, the recovery process is an effective way to overcome burnout because it allows disengagement from work to replenish vital resources. With your resources recovered, you can divert that energy back into your job to continue to manage the organization and achieve organizational goals effectively. The more you engage in the recovery process then, the less time it will take for you to recover each subsequent time and the less likely you will suffer from burnout.

About the Author

Ague Mae Manongsong is an Evaluation Associate at LeAD Labs and an MA student in Organizational Behavior and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University. She is interested in leadership development, extra-role behaviors leaders engage in (such as social support), and the evaluation of developmental programs. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with family and friends.

Related Research

Baltes, B.B., & Clark, M.A. (2009). Achieve work-family balance through individual and organizational strategies. In E. A. Locke (2nd Eds.), Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior (1-17). United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.

Fritz, C., & Sonnentag, S. (2005). Recovery, health, and job performance: Effects of weekend experiences. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10(2), 189-199.

Laschinger, H.K., Borgogni, L., Consiglio, C. & Read, E. (2015). The effects of authentic leadership, six areas of worklife, and occupational coping self-efficacy on new graduate nurses’ burnout and mental health: A cross-sectional study. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 52(6), 1080-1089.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W.B., & Leiter, M.P. (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.

Reuter, T., & Schwarzer, R. (2009). Manages stress at work through preventive and proactive coping. In E. A. Locke (2nd Eds.), Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behavior (1-17). United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.

Sonnentag, S., Mojza, E.J., Demerouti, E., & Bakker, A.B. (2012). Reciprocal relations between recovery and work engagement: The moderating role of job stressors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(4), 842-853.