Workplace burnout is surprisingly common, affecting people in all types of jobs and positions, from minimum-wage service-industry workers to CEOs. More than half of U.S. workers report experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, according to a recent report conducted by insurance company Aflac. And, according to a 2022 study conducted by software company Slack, 42 percent of the global workforce reports feeling burned out.
Burnout can afflict those laboring outside the conventional workplace, too, such as those caring for a chronically ill family member, or those raising children while holding down demanding jobs.
Paradoxically, burnout can’t occur without caring; what often begins with a deep desire to do a job well turns into a form of numbness. It resembles depression, but unlike depression, there’s traditionally been no diagnosis to spur people to take action.
Some healthcare providers and mental-health experts, however, are now taking a proactive approach to treating burnout.
“There are two general categories for when people feel burnout,” explains psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, director of the Center for Mind–Body Medicine and author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. “There are those doing work that they actually really want to be doing, but who are overwhelmed by the stress and the workload. Then there’s another group simply doing work that is deeply unsatisfying to them.”
To battle burnout, Gordon and other experts believe it’s important to summon a sense of hope — because the situation is workable.
“The first thing to understand is that it is possible to deal with burnout,” Gordon says. “As somebody who has worked with thousands of people who have gone through it, I have seen these people make the change.”
The shift starts with small steps to rebuild the body and spirit. These are some of the components of a successful transition:
1. Prioritize sleep.
The lack of sleep can contribute to many aspects of burnout, including brain fog. One study, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that sleep-deprived subjects were as judgment-impaired as an intoxicated person. Sufficient sleep, meanwhile, gives the body the time it needs to perform vital repair functions.
Salzberg suggests carving out specific times for mental rest as well, along with mindfulness practices and journaling. These can help you gain perspective on your situation and approach it with a fresh eye.
2. Seek ways to “complete the stress cycle.”
When early humans faced stress, it usually corresponded to a mortal threat — like a predator. If they successfully avoided death, they celebrated with their community, eating, dancing, then sleeping. All of this triggered their parasympathetic “rest and digest” systems and allowed them to complete the stress response that kicked in when that lion first started chasing them.
Today, however — and especially in burnout situations, when one tends to be stressed around the clock — we rarely complete the cycle, or resolve the stress reactions within the body. The Nagoskis strongly recommend finding ways to bring stress full circle so the alarm system can turn off.
Begin by doing “literally anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply,” they suggest. That could be as simple as 10 jumping jacks, a brisk walk around the block, or a three-minute dance party. Once you’re back in your body, find ways to connect with others, ideally in ways that involve belly laughter and physical affection. Social engagement helps resolve the stress cycle and bring the body back into alignment.
3. Be social.
Emphasize friendships both at and outside of work, says O’Neill. She specifically suggests seeking chances to laugh with your colleagues on the job. Not only does this help release stress, but it also fosters the supportive bonds that improve working conditions.
4. Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing and mindfulness practices can calm a racing mind and slow down a churning nervous system. When you’re especially anxious, try the 4–7–8 breathing exercise, derived from yogic breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for seven beats, then exhale for a count of eight. This exercise helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
5. Consider your options.
When we’re burned out, it can be easy to succumb to feelings of helplessness. Although most of us probably can’t change a tough situation overnight, there may be steps we can take to improve things. Can you hire someone to help you care for your ill family member? Can you start a childcare trade with some other parent friends? Can you do more to steer clear of that toxic person at work? Can you start polishing up your résumé? Is there someone you can ask for help with any of the tasks weighing you down? Can you, if necessary, quit and work somewhere else?
6. Express yourself.
Find a creative outlet for your distress rather than just stuffing it or grousing to your friends or spouse. Recovery depends on breaking repetitive internal loops and finding new ways to view your situation, such as perceiving your challenges with more curiosity than rigidity.
To tap unconscious strategies, Gordon promotes techniques like writing out a dialogue with your job or drawing solutions to your feelings of being trapped. He also teaches mindfulness, soft-belly breathing, and uninhibited shaking and dancing. “After a couple of days or a couple of weeks, you can be in a place where there’s more balance,” he says. “Then you can use your imagination to explore what’s going on.”
7. Reshape your job.
Sometimes there’s room at work for changing your responsibilities so they align more closely with your strengths and talents — or just to give you a chance to play a less frustrating role. Collaborating with a supervisor to adjust your workload, consciously rearrange your work relationships, or redefine your job can, as the Harvard Business Review points out, “give companies a different way to motivate and retain their most talented employees.”
If you’re a family caregiver, is there someone else who’s sharing the load with you? Could you trade some tasks with that person so you’re both doing something new?
8. Take a sabbatical.
Does your job allow for a leave or time away? People in academic fields traditionally take sabbaticals to work on their research, but many companies have begun to recognize the wisdom of this approach. Creating distance from your current situation might enable you to come back recharged. (For more, see “Sabbatical Stories”.)
9. Find meaning.
In some cases, you may not be able to leave your job or relinquish a caretaking responsibility, whether because of financial necessity or physical impossibility. If you don’t provide care for your aging parent, for example, no one will.
In these cases, it might be helpful to reframe the situation in terms of your values. What larger values does this commitment serve? Who do you want to be and how does this allow you to be that person? Will this situation last forever or is there an end in sight — and how do you want to look back on this? In short, what is the meaning here?
This originally appeared as “Braving Burnout” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.