Your Burnout Is Unique. Your Recovery Will Be, Too.

While it’s up to employers to provide a working environment that prevents burnout as much as possible, new research suggests that addressing burnout once you’re suffering from it is a little more complicated. There are steps that organizations can (and should) take to support their employees, but the most effective measures to counteract burnout are generally driven by the individual. Specifically, employees should start by identifying the source or sources of their burnout, and should then take action by focusing on self-care, acts of kindness towards others, or some combination of the two. Most importantly, the authors stress that compassion — whether towards yourself or your colleagues — is a muscle that can be trained, and that developing and practicing compassion is the key to combatting burnout.


Research has definitively shown that burnout is an organizational problem, not an individual one. But while responsibility for preventing employee burnout rests squarely on the shoulders of employers, remedying burnout once you’re suffering from it is much less straightforward. Studies show that external efforts to pull someone out of burnout — no matter how well intentioned — often fail. While this by no means recuses employers from taking accountability for supporting the mental health of their employees, our recent research suggests that when you’re feeling burned out, the best person to help you recover may be yourself.


Specifically, we conducted several studies exploring the most effective strategies for recovering from burnout, and identified a number of common trends:


What Is Causing You to Feel Burned Out?


First, our research confirmed the established finding that burnout is not a monolithic phenomenon, but rather, it can present as any combination of three distinct symptoms: exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness), and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for oneself). To recover from burnout, you must identify which of these resources has been depleted and take action to replenish those resources.


For example, when exhaustion is the primary source of burnout, we found that re-energizing acts of self-care are the most effective tool for recovery. In one study, we measured the impact of small acts of self-compassion among a sample of business school students during their highly stressful 10-day midterms period — a time in which both mental and physical exhaustion are common. Each morning, we gave participants one task for the day: on some mornings, we asked them to notice a challenge they would face that day and then treat themselves with compassion, while on other mornings, we asked them to think about and demonstrate compassion for another person. We found that engaging in self-care activities (such as a 10-minute meditation session, cooking a nice meal, or even taking a nap) correlated strongly with reduced levels of reported burnout the following day. These findings support the notion that self-care is not self-indulgent; on the contrary, taking a break and focusing on yourself is one of the best ways to combat exhaustion and burnout.


On the other hand, when burnout is due to cynicism, self-care may not be the most effective strategy. When feeling alienated, focusing on yourself may lead you to withdraw further, while being kind to others can help you regain a sense of connectedness and belonging in your community. In our study, we found that when participants were instructed to focus on alleviating others’ challenges, they did things like offering words of encouragement or taking a coworker out to lunch, and then reported lower levels of cynicism the next day. Even just taking a few minutes to comfort a colleague or listen to their concerns led to a reduction in burnout associated with cynicism.


Finally, when employees struggled with feelings of inefficacy, our research showed that acts focused on bolstering their positive sense of self were the most impactful. Interestingly, this can mean either self-compassion or compassion for others — the key is simply to accomplish something that will validate your own sense of personal value. For example, we found that external acts such as comforting a coworker led to increased self-esteem (especially if the coworker expressed gratitude), but so did internally-focused achievements, such as completing a workout session or finishing a project.


Agency Is Restorative


In addition, our research illustrated the fact that agency is essential. To effectively overcome burnout, employees must feel empowered to take control over their own lives and decisions. For example, if an employee is feeling burned out because of a lack of social connections, there are steps managers can take to alleviate that — but past research has shown that such interventions are tricky to execute: They’re often ineffective, and they may even increase the burden on your already burned out employees. Our work suggests that a more effective approach in these cases is for employees to reaffirm their own social networks. Rather than having bosses organize endless happy hours to artificially foster connections or herd burned-out employees into forced team-building activities, real recovery comes when managers give employees the space to pursue their own restorative opportunities — whether that’s explicitly encouraging them to take personal time to check in with a colleague, providing resources to build a mentoring network, or even just showing by example that the organization values self-care.


Of course, even in the most supportive work environment, compassion (for yourself or for others) doesn’t always come easily. In a second study, we surveyed social service workers — a population prone to chronic burnout — over three years. We found that those who were already suffering from burnout had a harder time engaging in acts of self- or other-care, but that those who were able to muster the energy to practice compassion showed significant reductions in burnout. This suggests that compassion is a like a muscle: it can be exhausted, but it can also be trained. In fact, researchers have found that compassion meditation training can actually rewire neural systems in the brain, and breath training, appreciation exercises, yoga, and movement practices have also been shown to be effective tools to cultivate compassion. The key is to recognize that anyone can learn to be more kind to themselves and to others, and that those small, compassionate acts (alongside other mental health practices) can help you begin to break free of burnout.


It can’t be stressed enough that the best cure for burnout is prevention. It’s on managers and organizations to protect their employees from becoming resource-depleted in the first place, and it’s also on the employer to provide the resources necessary to support employees’ mental health. That said, no matter how much effort an organization puts into combatting burnout, there will always be a need for employees to understand where their burnout is coming from and to develop strategies to help pull themselves out. Through self-reflection, employees can begin to identify the sources of their burnout, and then proactively determine the actions they can take that will be most effective for their recovery — whether that’s self-compassion, acts of kindness, or some combination of the two.

 


Yu Tse Heng is a doctoral candidate in management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. Her research uncovers ways to humanize workplaces, with a focus on employee suffering and the promise of compassion as an effective antidote.

Kira Schabram is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. She studies the challenges faced by employees who want to “make the world a better place” through their work.


Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. 

 

 

 

 

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