How to help employees with burnout — and stop it happening again
Taking time off will address the symptoms of workplace burnout, but treating the root causes — which stem from psychological working conditions — requires some concerted managerial effort.
As a leader or someone responsible for people and culture in an organisation, what can you do to support burnout recovery and prevent employee burnout from happening ahead of time? It's tempting to tell an employee to just take some time off and leave it at that. And sure enough, proper rest is needed as burnout treatment — but it only works temporarily. If someone in your team has already burnt out so badly that they have to take time off, that's a sign of deeper organisational issues that need to be rectified to prevent it happening again. Here, we’ll give you both the short-term and long-term burnout recovery strategies you need in order to tackle both the symptoms and the root causes of employee burnout.
When Spill's therapists speak to the men and women who send us their furtively-typed cries for help, these people don’t talk about needing a few days off. They talk about what we recognise as the root causes of occupational burnout: I feel like I'm on a speeding treadmill, I hate my boss, I'm tired of being bullied by my colleagues, I feel there's no future for me in this company, I feel the company has no future, I'm tired of politics, I feel cheated, I'm angry, I'm stuck. To get them back on track, Spill advises taking a break and getting some proper rest (the necessary plaster), but then we advise that what’s most needed is to dig into the root causes of their burnout and how these can be addressed at an organisational level. Otherwise, we are simply treating symptoms while ignoring the causes, meaning that cases of burnout will be likely to crop up again soon.
In short, the question that should haunt you the minute you discover an employee with burnout is why they became burned out in the first place. What systemic shortcoming in your organisation caused them to get to this extreme state of mental exhaustion?
The first step is to address the symptoms of burnout — fatigue, negativity and ineffectiveness — and to address them quickly. It's important to do this sooner rather than later, as prolonged periods of burnout risk turning into a more serious form of poor mental health, which could be a lot trickier to recover from. How long a person needs off work depends on which of the stages of burnout they are at and how severe their symptoms are, which we go into more detail on in the next section.
What are the best ways to recover from burnout in the short term? In a word: rest. This has to be the first priority, and has to come before a person starts trying to change their relationship with work or develop prevention strategies for the future. Think about what happens when you sprain your ankle, for example: the most important thing is to rest and let it heal. Only then can you start thinking about doing physiotherapy to strengthen it or to increase mobility. It’s exactly the same with our minds: when experiencing severe burnout, the mind needs time to recover first and foremost.
How much burnout time off work does a person need? That depends on how severe their symptoms are. The best way to assess this is by using our burnout symptoms test. With only moderate burnout symptoms, taking a few days off might be enough; if the symptoms are severe then that will probably need to be weeks rather than days.
What’s also important is how that time off is spent. The World Health Organisation outlines five pillars for mental wellness. As ways to get the most out of time off work, and as steps to recover from burnout, they're as good a place as any to start:
Taking time off work to recover from burnout is often easier said than done. A lot of the time, it's fear and worry that stops people taking a break from work, even if a manager has suggested it. As the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen puts it, you need to actively free a burnout sufferer of "the nervous compulsion to go on regardless". So it's not enough to just propose it: you need to take active steps to plan out when they will take the time off, and how you are going to help overcome the four common obstacles people have to taking time off for burnout:
The aim of taking time off to recover from mental exhaustion and concentrating on the pillars of mental wellness is to allow a person to get back into a state of mind where they can then productively address the root causes of their burnout.
There is currently no way of medically 'treating' burnout, because it's an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition. The use of antidepressants in treating burnout is considered "controversial" (read: pointless at best, dangerous at worst) by the medical community. As burnout is caused by work issues, and will continue to be caused by them until they're addressed, artificially suppressing the symptoms may be actively unhelpful. In the case of depression, a generalised condition which often has no specific cause, antidepressants can be invaluable. But as with so many of the body's physical symptoms — cough, fever, nausea — the emotional symptoms of burnout are there to tell us that something is wrong, and to help us react. Burnout symptoms are the canary in the coal mine, and we need to pay attention to them.
To help an employee recover fully from burnout, you need to (a) understand what the underlying work-related causes were for them burning out in the first place, and (b) make changes to stop those causes happening again. For the first point, the best thing to do is to ask the employee in question to fill out our burnout causes questionnaire.
This helps to bring some structure to a one-on-one conversation with the employee, which is the next thing that needs to happen. The employee should complete the questionnaire before the meeting and come ready to discuss the causes where they have responded with ‘strongly agree’. The manager can use our burnout long-term recovery framework document — which you can get access to below — to discuss objectives and ideas for each of the problem areas, which we’ve given suggestions and thought starters for. Each idea should be given a success metric and a date to be checked in on, to keep both people accountable to the plan.
Spill helps employees to recover from burnout quicker by giving them access to next-day therapy sessions with burnout specialists. Learn more about how Spill works.