It’s a terrible thing trying to lead a full life while running on empty. Here are 8 ways to recover from burnout.
There are few things worse than having the desire to live life to the best of your ability when your energy is absolutely sapped. When you know there are so many things you should or could be doing, but you’re just not able to do it like you used to.
It’s normal to go through times in your life where you get tired, especially if you’re doing a lot. Holidays, weekends, nights in, and regular relaxation are all normal ways of rehabilitating from the usual energy expenditure that modern life demands. But what do you do when you’ve done all those things and you’re still out of energy? When you leave work on Friday, rest up, and have even less energy when Monday morning rolls around? When it seems like every exercise, big and small, leaves you bone tired after?
You, my friend, may be a victim of burnout.
I know in my life I’ve gone through seasons of burnout, as well as being surrounded by a number of people who have been in that boat. I have run multiple teams and volunteer initiatives with a wide variety of people, mainly in large, high-pressure organisations and situations, and I have regularly assisted people in successfully negotiating through this season. I’ve found there are a number of things that can be done to assist in the process and usually determine whether a month of burnout turns into a lifetime of exhaustion or not.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are 8 ways to recover from burnout.
#1: Identify the needs that aren’t being met
I’ve discovered at the heart of every season of burnout is a need, or multiple needs, that aren’t being met. When needs are being met and looked after, energy bounces back fairly reasonably and you’re able to move forward with a measure of hope and strength.
We all have needs. Physical, spiritual, emotional, relational. I think it’s quite obvious if you’ve worked out too hard or been awake for too long that you’re going to burn out. But I think people are much less aware of their spiritual and emotional needs, and the great cost that this has on energy levels when these aren’t being met.
What are the needs in your life that aren’t being met? Perhaps you are doing things to the neglect of the things you need. Perhaps you are trying to dance around or cope with a lack of these needs being met, but the heart always knows, and you’ll eventually find the energy lacking. Identifying these will go a long way to having these needs met in a healthy way, which will kick start your recovery process.
#2: Don’t pull out of everything
“My heart isn’t in it any more” – this is a sentence I have heard so many times from people in the workplace and in the volunteer sphere when they feel they’re not able to continue any more with all the things they’re doing. It’s definitely true that many of us overcommit and take on too many things – in such situations, it can be wise to lessen the load and not to do so much.
However, I have observed the temptation when trying to recover from burnout is to pull out of everything. To stop seeing people, to drop all commitments, to spend every waking moment in bed or watching TV. You’d think that doing nothing would help you recover… but that’s not true, is it?
I can’t count the number of people I’ve known who have pulled out of everything in an attempt to recover from burnout, only to still be exhausted for months and even years, even though they’re not doing that much. This is because you and I are called to do certain things, and neglecting the things we should be doing is just as exhausting for the spirit as doing too much.
Burnout and lethargy feel the same way. You can wreck your body doing too much exercise, and you can also wreck it with a similar sensation by not doing enough. The key question here is: “What am I supposed to be doing in life?”. Being purposeless is utterly exhausting. If you focus on those things, you’ll much more easily avoid the energy sapping sensations of burnout and lethargy.
#3: Time to be honest
Tim Keller rightly said in the book The Meaning of Marriage, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial”. A burnt out spirit is a sure fire indicator of a lack of honesty – with ourselves, and especially with others. This superficiality of dishonesty means no one sees what’s underneath that’s wearing us out, and we don’t acknowledge it because we’re being dishonest with ourselves.
What is it that’s really going on with you? Are you actually okay with the way things are happening in life? Are you really keeping up with the pressures on you at the moment? Are you sure that you’re not still hurt by the way you’ve been treated?
A burnout spirit is one that is exhausted in the dark. It’s time to let a little light in. The psalmist David said that while he was silent, he wasted away. This is what silence and withholding of the truth does to the human spirit – it eats away at us until there’s nothing left. Allow yourself to be real with what’s going on, and let the right people in to help you (more on that later).
#4: Look for any holes in your bucket
There’s that old song by Harry Belafonte, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza… so fix it, dear Henry”. These simple words exemplify a common reality of burnout – your ability to retain strength is leaking.
Have you ever tried to fill a bucket or container with holes in it? It’s a fruitless, continual exercise, where even a constant stream of input would never be enough. What is very common here is the building of a spirit of resentment towards the people around you, because nothing they do is ever enough for you, because it all just leaks out of you. But it’s not their fault that they aren’t putting into you, is it? It’s that the bucket keeps leaking it out everywhere, and a few minutes are being filled, you’re empty again.
What are the holes in your bucket? Are there words being spoken to you that destroy your strength? Are you tolerating behaviour and lacking healthy boundaries to keep your inner peace and strength retained? Do you worry non-stop about the things outside of your control? Are you failing to correctly guard your heart?
If you can identify them, you can fix them. If you’re aren’t sure what the holes in your bucket could be, ask your friends. They often have a better perspective than us because they aren’t so emotionally involved. The people around us are a real gift for helping us be better.
#5: Find and commit to people who can add to you
The Hebrew proverbs tells us that plans fail for a lack of council, but in a multitude of counsellors they succeed. Many times, we are failing in life because of a lack of input, or a lack of the right input.
None of us are islands. As much as we might not like spending time with people or accepting help, our hearts are crying out for it. Like an organ that dries up and dies when it is disconnected from the body, so are we when we are removed from connection and input.
We live in an epidemic of loneliness, but the reality of this is that we are in control of who we do and don’t allow into our lives. As mentioned earlier, we need to allow the light into our lives in order to be strong people. You can keep suffering in the dark by yourself, or you could enrich your life with strong, wise people who can help you keep your levels topped up across all the seasons of life.
#6: What are you carrying that you shouldn’t?
I remember walking to work one day last year and realising that my bag had become much more heavy than I remember it being. Little by little, I had accumulated a whole bunch of random stuff that was taking up room and increasing the weight of my bag. I also had some cables and other things that I wasn’t using any more for my current job that I didn’t need to be bringing with me every day. After a bit of a review, I was able to return the weight to where it should have been.
I wonder if you’re carrying things that you shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s become impossible to recover from burnout because you’re still holding on to the things like resentment, unforgiveness, negative words that have been spoken over your life, insecurities from your childhood that have no bearing any more.
A classic singer called Michael Card writes an astute song about the freedom we find from the things we leave behind. What do you need to leave behind that you’ve been carrying for far too long?
#7: Ensure your input exceeds your output
This one seems simple, but I wonder if you’ve thought about how much you exert compared to how much you take in. If you exert yourself physically beyond the food and water you’ve eaten for the day, you’ll suffer the consequences of dehydration and low blood sugar levels, producing headaches, disorientation, and exhaustion.
The same symptoms happen in your spirit and emotions when those areas aren’t receiving more input that you’re exerting.
There are two solutions – do less, or receive more. I would like to challenge you to first focus on trying to receive more. Read more books, acquire more wisdom, find mentors and teachers to follow, spend time with God, make time for personal improvement. Your output is only going to be as good as your input.
#8: Look up
To go back to the Proverbs, another one says that hope deferred makes the heart sick. Hopelessness is one of the most exhausting things that any of us can experience.
All of us encounter things that cause our hope to be destroyed. People let us down, things don’t happen the way we expect, our dreams don’t look or feel like we thought they would be. And in those situations, we become so focussed on the immediate situation.
The truth is that none of us can see the full picture. We can’t see the future. We cripple ourselves with worry because of that, but perhaps we should be allowing our hearts to find hope in that. I love the singer Jeremy Camp, and he wrote in one of his songs that “There is more going on than what these eyes can see”.
There is a larger plan at work in your life. There is more to the situation than what you’ve experienced so far. I would encourage your weary heart to look up, to find solace in the hands of God that hold and sustain all things, and to embrace the reality that you have been made for so much more.
There are many causes of exhaustion, but I’m hoping there’s been some things here to help you recover from burnout. These things have certainly helped me and the leaders I have overseen over the years.
What about you? How do you recover from burnout?