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Two Paths of Burnout

For individuals, there are two common paths out of burnout.

The 1st path we heard in our research interviews was rest. After burning out (or getting close to it), people realised that they needed time out to recover. They commonly took 1 – 3 weeks out and shut off from work. Some people took as much as 6 months off:

“I took the maximum leave I could and went travelling. I stopped thinking about work completely and reengaged with so many positive things in my life. It felt wonderful.“

This was helpful. People noticed their energy and wellbeing improve. The problem was that they then had to return to work. And when they did, they realised that 'they' hadn’t changed and neither had the workplace.

“Within the first 2 days back, I could feel all of the tension and anxiety return. Within two weeks I was back in the abyss.”

Rest is an important ingredient in avoiding burnout. But once you are sliding into 2nd or 3rd degree burnout, it is not enough

Rest is necessary, but not sufficient.

Interviewees told us that organizational conditions played a big part in their burnout ( But they also decided that they needed to take action on the things they could control right now.

On the 2nd path, people decided that to get a new result, they had to make a change. They either had to:

· Change themselves

· Change their way of working, or

· Change their workplace

This is not simple. We all have existing commitments. We may wish to change, but we also feel committed to our:

· Beliefs: I am resilient, I should be able to handle this

· Family: They rely on me to work and pay the bills

· Workplace: My team needs me to deliver

· Reputation: What will people think about me?

So, the 2nd path is a deeper path. You need to think through how you'll balance the things you want to change and the existing commitments you need to meet (or adjust or let go of). It takes more time, but it leads to more sustainable solutions.

Specifically, people who took this 2nd path did 3 key things:

· They looked back: they reflected deeply on what factors had caused their burnout (this took weeks, or months)

· The looked forward: they thought deeply about the sort work and life they wanted next (this took weeks, or months)

· They sought help: they looked for and found people (counsellors, coaches, peers) who had walked this path and could offer guidance

Reflecting on the people we interviewed, the word that comes to mind is not exhausted or stressed. It is ‘stuck’. They'd become stuck in a loop, working hard, but running in circles. They needed a circuit breaker. They needed to break free. And then they burned out.

While burnout was an outcome, for many it was also a call to action.

The path out of burnout we uncovered in our interviews wasn’t rest alone - you can’t ‘rest’ your way out of stuckness. And on a deeper level it wasn’t even change.


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