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How to Bounce Back From Burnout

This career coach says there are four phases to the journey


It’s been over three years since I burned out. At the time, I wasn’t sure I would ever feel “normal” again.

But today, I am happy, thriving and in no danger of relapsing.

Let me tell you how and why I burned out and, more importantly, how I bounced back — so you can follow my road to recovery and get 2015 off to a better start if you find yourself worn down by work.

(MORE: How to Recognize and Survive Burnout)

How I Burned Out

As a career coach, I had started a second business in 2009, delivering career development programs to university alumni associations. For over two years, I spent 90 percent of my time on this second business, creating and delivering webinars and workshops to over 2,000 alumni in 20 countries and coordinating the work of half a dozen subcontractors. In the end, none of this effort was enough to fix a poor business model and it caused serious burnout.

I had no idea what it would take to “come back.” My focus at the time was just getting through another day.

How I Recovered From Burnout

So how did I recover? In hindsight, my journey consisted of four phases that align with approaches I’ve taken to get my clients unstuck in their careers. If you’re trying to recover from burnout, knowing these phases can normalize what you are feeling, focus you on what matters at the right time and take the pressure off the expectation of coming back to “normal” quickly.

(MORE: 5 Ways to Avoid Small Business Burnout)

The 4 Phases of Burnout Recovery

Here are the four phases of burnout and my suggestions for succeeding in each:

PHASE 1: STOP REACHING FOR WHATEVER YOU'VE BEEN REACHING FOR

In my case, the university alumni business was seductive. I had customers, universities needed my services and the alumni were happy with my programs. There was just one big problem: I couldn’t make a living at it.

The margins were thin and I hadn’t figured out how to make it up in volume. On an hourly basis, I was probably making less than when I graduated from college, more than 20 years ago. It clearly wasn’t enough to support my family of four.

In my head, I equated a failed business with death (literally). I became aware of this assumption when I told a friend about my dad, whose dream of running a Chinese restaurant ended in bankruptcy, and six years later died of cancer. This assumption fueled my fear, which drove me to work harder and faster. 

But no matter how hard I worked or how quickly my mind solved the problem of the day, I didn’t feel like I was making progress.  

We all have patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that don’t serve us. Your fear may be different than mine. You may fear financial ruin or have a fear of letting someone down. Like me, the triggering thought may be something you are unaware of.

These patterns are so dominant that you urge yourself to continue on, even if you’re running on empty.

The first order of business is to interrupt the pattern. Once you stop the pattern of thoughts and feelings that got you to burnout, that’s when recovery begins.

Three questions to ask yourself:

  • What have I been obsessed with that feels unreachable? 
  • What is my biggest fear if I stop reaching?
  • What would it look like to surrender?  

Share your answers with someone who has your best interest at heart, as a reality check (a friend, a spouse, a partner or a paid professional). Then, listen carefully to what he or she has to say.

(MORE: How to Combat the 7 Signs of Career Distress)

For me, a mentor gave me the reality check I needed. After telling her of my woes with the business, I asked her: “Do I sound confused?” She replied: “No, you sound tired.” At that point, I broke down in tears. In my gut, I knew that if I didn’t stop, my health would suffer.

It took nearly two months to completely shut down the business because I was stubborn. Initially, I thought if I stopped for a month, things would be better. They weren’t. Then, I thought if someone I trusted could carry on my duties, I could keep the business going. That didn’t work either.

Finally, I changed my perception of failure, from something to be avoided at all costs to an opportunity for learning. This allowed me to surrender — to acknowledge that the business was a failure and that I would be okay.

I then stopped trying to save the business. I notified collaborators and sponsors of upcoming events that I’d no longer be able to participate. I cancelled sales calls with university alumni directors, appointments that had taken me months to get. I pulled the plug on future plans for the business. 

You’re ready to move on to Phase 2 when you have faced your demons and realized that no matter what happens when you stop reaching, you will be okay. You have options. You can recover.
 
PHASE 2: FILL UP YOUR GAS TANK

Whenever I suspect someone of being in burnout, I ask this question: “If people have gas tanks like cars do, on average, where is your gas tank at?”

If the answer is ¼ or less, the person is likely experiencing symptoms of burnout. Two factors are at play — the rate of depletion and the rate of renewal. In an ideal world, the rate of renewal is greater than the rate of depletion. In the world of burnout, it’s the opposite.

Phase 1 is designed to stem depletion. Phase 2 is all about renewal. When you hit burnout, you become numb to the world; it’s difficult to feel joy and gratitude, the emotions that keep you fueled in the face of life challenges. So filling up the gas tank is not only about getting adequate rest. It’s also time to bring joy back to your life.  

For me, that meant reading humorous books (like Bossypants by Tina Fey), watching movies and visiting my local botanical gardens. For others, it might be trying out a new restaurant, picking up an old hobby or taking a road trip. Whatever fills up your tank, do it.

A couple of notes on this:

Do things that make you happy, rather than things that lead to a sense of achievement. The former is about feeding your soul. The latter is about feeding your ego. 

Get an accountability partner. He or she should encourage you to follow your impulses and do whatever makes you feel alive. And, just as important, your accountability partner can give you the permission to “do nothing.”

I had a friend who, upon realizing I was in burnout from a casual email, replied with “CALL ME!” This friend became my accountability partner on a weekly call. It was helpful to talk to someone who’d been in my shoes a year before and knew the long road ahead of me.

Once you feel more joy in your life, you’ll notice that you have more energy on a daily basis. You’ll then be ready to move to Phase 3, when you can say that on any given day, your gas tank gauge reads between ½ and ¾.

Be prepared for Phase 2 to take months, not weeks. It took me six months before I was ready to move to Phase 3.

PHASE 3: REWIRE YOUR INTERNAL WORLD

Phase 3 is about rewiring your brain, so new neural pathways are formed to replace old habits of thinking. This step is critical, because thoughts lead to emotions, which lead to behavior.

While my behavior is what led to my burnout (continuing to work on a business, at all costs, despite the results), the triggers had come from my thoughts.
I had to rewrite the script in my head that came from a part of me I lovingly named Racehorse, the part that hurries to fix problems quickly, whether they needed fixing or not. My ego tells me that a racing mind is a good thing, that I haven’t done enough before the day’s end and that I need to achieve results quickly. Racehorse made sure that my focus was on doing rather than on being. It also reveled in the struggle that I’d set up for myself. 

Changing your thought pattern to more positive, constructive thoughts is like upgrading your “operating system.” And just like a computer, when you do that, everything runs more smoothly. 

This is work that can take a lifetime. Here are five things that I believe can help you with Phase 3:

1. Keep a daily journal. Notice the repeating thoughts that feel heavy and make you anxious. (Meditation can serve the same purpose.) Become aware of the types of thoughts your mind is generating, continuously.

2. On a daily basis, at the end of the day, list 10 things you’re grateful for. Gratitude is one of the quickest ways to shift your internal world.

3. Let go of your victim story. We all have one. Become aware of yours and remind yourself that you no longer want to be a victim.

4. Choose your beliefs and then test them in the world daily. In the video, Celebrate What’s Right With the World, a photographer for National Geographic gives examples of how his beliefs influenced what he was able to see, and thus capture in photos. He calls this: “Believing is seeing.” Put another way, as Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't — you're right.”

5. Believe in something bigger than yourself. Before hitting bottom, I thought it was all up to me to make the business work. I did not look to a higher power to assist because I didn’t believe there was one. Faith in a higher power is the antidote to two symptoms of burnout — helplessness and hopelessness. 

You’ll be ready for Phase 4 when you regularly experience the connection between your inner thoughts and your outer results in a positive way.  It took me six months before I moved into Phase 4.

PHASE 4: REBUILD YOUR WORKLIFE

Congratulations! Once you’ve made it through the first three phases of bouncing back from burnout, you’re ready to create the next chapter of your work and life, building upon a stronger foundation.

Whether you want to find a job, build a business or just figure out what you really want to do (instead of what you’ve done for the last 20 years), the outcome will be dependent on your self-awareness, energy and attitude. All those are the results of Phases 1, 2 and 3.  

Note: It’s seductive to want to jump straight to Phase 4 after you hit bottom. But without doing the work of the previous phases, you’re likely to be disappointed. Success in Phase 4 is built on the success of the previous three phases. I discovered this when I tried rebuilding my worklife after Phase 2.  Nothing seemed to stick. It wasn’t until I finished Phase 3, a good 14 months after hitting bottom, that I gained traction rebuilding my professional life. 

My three suggestions for your Phase 4:

1. If you are looking to make a career change, a wonderful (work)book is Body of Work by Pamela Slim. In it, she provides plenty of exercises and advice for professionals who want to know they are on the right path.

2. If you are building a business or looking for your next job, anchor your motivation for the work you want to do. Tell the story of how you got to be so good at what you do and use this as the summary for your LinkedIn profile or your About Me page on your website.

3. Work with a pro to help you reach your goals for Phase 4. To start your search for the right professional, ask friends or colleagues for recommendations. Since my goal for Phase 4 was to rebuild my coaching business, which had suffered from neglect, I hired a business coach. Over the course of nine months, I revamped my sales and marketing process, rewrote my story, clarified my purpose, rebranded the business with a fresh logo and tagline and hired a web designer to develop a new site.

The results from Phase 4 can be dramatic. They were for me. I am now earning more, without the struggle I felt before. Instead of doing good work, I am doing great work, with my ideal clients. I am enjoying my life and filled with gratitude each day. 

Bouncing back from burnout is a process that takes time and can’t be rushed. Just as no one can tell you how long it will take to grieve the loss of a loved one, there is no exact timeframe. What I can tell you is this: I recovered, and so will you.

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