Why Rest Won’t Solve Your Burnout

Why Rest Won’t Solve Your Burnout

Too often I hear managers, coaches, mentors, and “influencers” all tout the same line that to recover from burnout all you need to do is rest.

To say this annoys me is an understatement. It’s an oversimplification of what is actually quite a complex problem. Burnout is now recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon, characterised by three elements:

  • feelings of energy depletion/exhaustion

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy

Putting burnout into simple language:

  • You’re constantly exhausted

  • You’re hating work and/or life

  • You’re performing poorly or struggling to maintain performance (likely by working crazy hours)

The WHO described burnout as resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” – interestingly, they don’t allude to who hasn’t managed the stress well – is it the individual or the organisation? (But that’s a post for another day).

So, when you have “occupational burnout”, you’ve basically got super high levels of stress that have not been managed, you’re physically and mentally exhausted, you feel highly negative and cynical towards work/life, and you’re performing poorly or struggling to perform.

Now, it’s easy to see why the concept of “rest” gets so much attention when it comes to burnout. Rest will undoubtedly help your exhaustion levels and help to alleviate the high levels of cortisol likely to be flooding round your body. But, rest alone does not tackle the issues related to why you got into that state to begin with.

If you simply “rest” for six months without doing anything else, and go back into that exact same environment that got you burnt out to begin with…guess what… you’re going to be back burnt out pretty quick.

What actually needs to change

 

Recovering from burnout is not a passive activity. You can’t simply spend six months on the sofa, watching Netflix and expect to walk back into your business/career fully healed and ready to battle. There is work that needs to be done. You need to identify what drove your burnout, and usually that is a lot more complex than simply “too much work”. And when you’ve identified what drove your burnout, you need to develop a recovery plan to manage in the future.

Drivers for burnout will vary from person to person, some may be more obvious than others. A key driver for myself was my constant need for external validation. This came from feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self-worth. Whilst I was fully aware that I was your typical overachieving perfectionist, I was not consciously aware how damaging the effects were after years of behaving in this way. In desperation for approval and a sense of accomplishment I chased after false idols of success, lost all sense of my true values and what was actually important to me. It was not until I had completely burnt out that I realised it was this cyclical need for approval that had led me down a disastrous path.

This need for approval was not the sole reason I burnt out, but it drove particular behaviours (such as excessive working hours, highly negative self-talk, severe imposter syndrome etc.) all of which accumulated on top of already high levels of stress due to my role and responsibilities.

In understanding what drove your burnout, you will identify what needs to change. How much of what needs to change is within your control? This is an important question and distinction. If you work for a corporation, either private or public sector, there is likely to be elements organisationally that will have contributed to your burnout. How much of those elements are in your control will vary on role and position in the company. Discerning your sphere of control is important in developing a sound recovery plan.

Identifying the drivers for your burnout requires a great deal of reflection and introspection. It can be uncomfortable, and it can challenge beliefs you’ve held. At the start of my recovery I blamed my organisation. My burnout was the organisation’s fault demanding too much, with poor leadership and an even worse culture. But although some of that was true, and had most definitely contributed, it wasn’t the full story. I had personal responsibility that I had to take in how I’d reacted to situations, how I’d managed myself, and what actions I was undertaking. Organisations most definitely have a lot to answer for when it comes to burnout, but before we tackle them (and we need to) we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support ourselves first.

Making the change

 

By understanding what drove your burnout in the first place you will know what needs to change. Making that change is often the hardest part.

Knowing what your triggers are for certain behaviours you want to avoid (such as overworking, shame spirals, poor boundary setting etc.) can help you to insert a pause between thought and action. Identifying these triggers once again requires some reflection and deep work – journalling, counselling, coaching or speaking with trusted friends are all ways to explore this.

In making change, we need to focus on what we can directly control when we are recovering. As afore mentioned, there will undoubtedly be organisational factors at play, but unless you’re the CEO, you’re unlikely to have a wide-enough sphere of influence to try and change the whole organisation. So, focus on what is in your control. Start there with attempting to make change. And if all you have control over is yourself, then that’s where all your focus goes.

I personally found that it wasn’t until I was actually back in the workplace that the work to change really started. Whilst I was off work I spent a lot of time reflecting and planning how I would manage situations in the future, but it wasn’t until I was thrown back in that I had to really test out my new way of feeling, thinking, and acting. This is where having a clear recovery plan is super useful. My recovery plan included bespoke self-care strategies and tools for better managing my anxiety and stress. I had to lean back on this recovery plan multiple times, because the environment I walked back into was exactly the same one I had left, and this is likely to be the same for many people.

Rest is a short-term solution, recovery is a long-term plan

 

Rest is of course important when it comes to overcoming burnout. You will be exhausted, physically, mentally and emotionally. But rest will not solve your burnout on its own. You have to address the reasons as to why you became burnout, what caused it, what needs to change, and identify how you are going to make changes. All of these elements require you to do some deep inner work that is uncomfortable and will challenge you.

Getting over burnout is not a passive activity. You can’t “rest” your way out of it.

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