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How to recover from burnout if you can’t change jobs or take time off

You can start by setting boundaries and not making work the most important thing in your life.

How to recover from burnout if you can’t change jobs or take time off
[Photo: Malte Mueller/Getty Images]

It seems like everyone is burning out from work. The backlash against hustle culture, the trend of “quiet quitting,” and the Great Resignation indicate that more and more employees are unwilling to make their careers the center of their lives.

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The pandemic caused many to reevaluate what they want out of life. Some started businesses, others took career breaks or pivoted to a different one altogether. Many also made drastic changes to their lifestyles, moving across the country or taking advantage of remote work by adopting a digital nomad lifestyle.

But not every burned-out employee can afford to make a drastic change—work- or lifestyle-wise. Whether it’s because of finances, family commitments, health issues, or other personal reasons, there are instances where the only feasible course of action is staying put in one’s job.

In the ideal world, you shouldn’t have to stay at a job that impedes your mental health. But if you don’t have a choice, there are things you can do while you recover from professional burnout.

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Identify professional burnout

Recovering from professional burnout starts with identifying that you have it in the first place. And it’s more than just being tired, according to Joe Grasso, a clinical psychologist and senior director of workforce transformation at mental-health services platform Lyra Health. He goes on to say, “‘Burnout’ is a term that many people use colloquially now to mean tired. And exhaustion is a component, but only one of three.”

The second component, says Grasso, is a “sense of cynicism.” This can manifest by individuals feeling like “their contributions at work don’t matter, [or] what their team or company does is not important.” They feel jaded with their job or company and might feel like their role serves little purpose.

The third component relates to a sense of misalignment. This is a component that isn’t much talked about, he says. “There is a profile of folks who struggle with burnout who really want to make an impact, and they’re highly engaged. But when there’s more than what they can handle, or their work isn’t aligned with their skills or intention around the impact they want to make, their ability to be effective is its own source of burnout.”

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Grasso says that you can identify professional burnout by paying attention to your mood and energy levels when you’re at work compared to when you’re not. Burnout can also manifest in psychological symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal issues, nausea, and sleep disturbance. Stress at work, he says, tends to “follow a natural ebb and flow.” When your level of stress stays the same or gets worse, even as your work situation improves, “that’s usually a sign that this isn’t normative stress,” he says. “It’s burnout.”

Map out your ideal situation

Like anything, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure for burnout, but Grasso says that individuals who recover from professional burnout are usually given the resources and time to do so—whether it’s taking time off or getting systemic support from the company at a team and organizational level.

While he acknowledges that not all workplaces will be so forthcoming, it’s worth considering what your ideal situation might look like “if you had a magic wand” and could change your circumstances to your ideal ones. “Sometimes, that can be a surprising exercise for folks,” says Grasso. You might discover, for example, that even with unlimited resources, you still don’t enjoy the core activities that are required of you in this role. That’s a sign that the job itself is not a good fit, he says.

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On the other hand, the exercise may make you realize that you like your job, but it’s your environment, arrangement, or actual burnout that’s causing you problems. Tara Jaye Frank, an equity strategist and author of The Waymakers: Clearing the Path to Workplace Equity with Competence and Confidence, says that the pandemic has made many underrepresented employees more acutely aware of the stress and microaggressions in the workplace. While working from home has its share of challenges, some employees found that it resulted in fewer workplace burdens, fewer microaggressions, and a reduced need to code-switch. Frank says that this realization made many employees see that, essentially, they’ve been “surviving” in their workplace, rather than thriving.

Learn to set boundaries

Once you figure out where the source of burnout comes from, the next step is to set appropriate boundaries to help you be at your best (or at least alleviate the source of your burnout). Frank calls this establishing “psychological contracts” with the relevant people at work.

Because such conversations are tricky and sensitive, Frank and Gasso recommend framing them as “this is what will help me perform at my best.” For example, if you’re struggling with your workload, you might want to tell your manager, “I can use support around prioritization with my work, so I know what to focus on and what to delegate. If I don’t have anyone to delegate to, I need you to help me make a decision on what work can wait.” This way, Grasso says, you’re not just dumping a problem on your manager’s lap, but also offering proposed solutions.

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If the actual job is causing you burnout (but you’re not in a position to seek new employment), then perhaps one boundary you can implement is to set aside time for mental breaks. “If we don’t carve out time for mental repair,” says Frank, “all those burdens compound over time, until we reach a breaking point.”

Look for a sense of meaning in your work, even if it’s small

When misalignment is the source of your burnout, even doing the bare minimum can feel impossible. But Grasso says that it’s possible to find a sense of purpose in your work, no matter how small that may be.

“It won’t always be ideal if [you’re] stuck in a role that’s not a strong fit,” he acknowledges, but approaching your work with a growth mindset can help. One way to do that is to focus on the aspect of your work that you enjoy (or at least don’t hate) and have control over, and invest your time doing those things. Another is to look for ways you can “get a sense of mastery” in your work, or paying attention in ways in which your work is contributing to a greater good—even if that just means helping your team meet its goals or contributing to your company meeting its objectives, says Grasso.

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Aim to detach your identity from your work

If all else fails, Grasso recommends learning how to detach your sense of identity from your work. This is especially important for high-achievers and perfectionists because they are at greater risk of hinging their emotional well-being and identity to how well things are going at work. For those individuals, Grasso recommends having an accountability buddy who can let you know when you might be “overinvesting in work” and starting to withdraw from aspects of your personal life.

At the end of the day, Grasso acknowledges that a job-related problem is as much a systemic organizational issue as it is an individual one. He says, “Employers have a legal responsibility to evaluate risks to an employee’s occupational health, but they’re not often examining mental health hazards and risks.”

“One of the best tools that employers can offer their employees is a risk-management program that includes proactive monitoring of different hazards and risks in the workplace, and being able to take action at the organizational level before you have employees who are already in a state of distress.”

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