What can you do? It's tempting to tell an employee to just take some time off. And sure enough, rest will reduce the symptoms — temporarily. But 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 problems.
How to recover from burnout
When Spill's therapists speak to the men and women who send us their furtively-typed cries for help, these people never talk about taking time off. They talk about the causes of their predicament: 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 rest and taking a break (the necessary bandaid), but then goes on to help people dig into the root causes of their burnout and how they can be addressed.
In short, the question that should haunt you the minute you discover Tom's burnout is why Tom became burned out in the first place. What systemic shortcoming in your organisation caused him to get to this extreme state?
The first step is to address the symptoms of burnout — fatigue, negativity and poor performance — and to address them quickly. This means taking time off work. As the Dalai Lama puts it, "if you feel burnout setting in, if you feel demoralised and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself." It's important to do this sooner rather than later, as prolonged periods of burnout risk turning into depression, which can be a lot trickier to recover from.
Short-term recovery plan
In the short term, address burnout symptoms by ensuring the employee takes at least a week off work to restore the pillars of mental wellness.
The World Health Organisation outlines five pillars for mental wellness. As guiding principles for how to get the most out of time off work, they're as good a place as any to start.
- Connect 👯♀️— as burnout can make a person feel disconnected and numb, spending quality time with close friends and family can help restore a sense of meaning and engagement.
- Be active 🏃♀️— try doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise every other day, which helps promote mood regulation and higher energy levels. And ideally do it outdoors: people who spend more time in green spaces see an improvement in their mental health.
- Keep learning 🧠— as tempting as it can be to do nothing at all during time off for burnout, it's important to re-find a sense of joy and accomplishment by engaging in fun activities, whether that's reading, playing games or something else.
- Give ❤️— perhaps counterintuitively, one of the best ways to feel better is to focus on helping others. Spending money on other people has been shown to improve a person's mental health more than spending it on themselves.
- Take notice 👁️— Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize-winning psychologist, coined the distinction between the 'remembering self' and the 'experiencing self'. When we're not feeling great, the remembering self often retells our memories through a negative lens. Focusing on the experiencing self — by bringing more attention and awareness to the present moment, such as through mindfulness or meditation practice — can help to lift our mood.
As a manager or leader, make it psychologically easier for the employee to take time off by putting their mind at rest.
Taking time off is often easier said than done. A lot of the time, it's fear and worry that stops people taking a break from work. 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 suggest it: you need to take active steps to put Tom's mind at rest as well.
- "I'm worried I'll be seen as a slacker" 😧— make sure senior people in the company (and especially Tom's manager) are setting a good example by taking time off themselves. Consider putting in place minimum quarterly holiday allowance for everyone.
- "I'm worried I'll miss out on stuff" 😧— ensure work progress and socials are documented in Slack, so that everything can be caught up on quickly and easily when Tom returns. Offer to check in a couple of times over text message during Tom's time off, and reassure him nothing too exciting is happening in his absence.
- "I'm worried I won't be put on good projects when I get back" 😧— ensure that Tom is considered in any upcoming work allocation discussions, and make sure his preferences have been discussed before he leaves the office.
- "I'm worried I'll create more workload and stress for my colleagues" 😧— push back work (instead of reallocating it) wherever possible. Reassure Tom by making a clear plan for how the work will get done without causing undue stress for others.
Long-term recovery plan
The aim of taking time off 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 not 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.
Once back to work, identify the root causes of burnout and make tangible work-life changes to ensure they don't happen again.
In this section, we'll look at changes that can be made at the individual employee or manager level following a period of burnout. In the next section, which looks at prevention, we'll talk about company-wide initiatives that can be put in place.
In areas of the Burnout causes test where 'strongly agree' has been ticked, we've suggested a manager- or employee-focused objective for combating burnout, and given a specific example of an idea (an action or behaviour) that might help achieve this objective. In the space provided, think up some other specific actions or behaviours that might work.
|🤔 Problem||🎯 Objective||💡 Ideas|
|Workload is too much to handle||Get to a manageable place||Delegate tasks; |
Manager takes on some
|Goalposts for success keep moving||Be clearer about success||Weekly + monthly OKRs; |
Link to company mission
|Not enough autonomy||Set own goals||Co-goal setting; |
|Don't feel like I'm mastering new skills||Find chances for mastery||Job swap/shadow 20% day|
|Rewards + workload feel unevenly distributed||More transparency + documentation||Daily to-do on Slack; |
|Toxic + unsupportive work culture||More connection touch points||Buddy system; |
More 1 on 1s
|Contrast between what my manager says + how it is||Manager + employee realignment||Moderated 1 on 1; |
|Contrast between what the company says + how it is||Company + employee realignment||1 on 1 with senior management|
|Requirements of the job don't fit with my personality + strengths||Find role that does||Chat with other employees in role; |
Job shadow 1 day
|Requirements of the job don't fit with my values + dreams||Find role or company that does||Career counselling on Spill; |
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