As talk of burnout — its signs and symptoms, its prevalence within different professions, generations, and walks of life — reaches a critical mass, a widening hole in media coverage is becoming impossible to ignore. We are gravely lacking in good examples of what thriving after burnout actually looks like.
Most people who burn out can’t just quit and move to a tropical island — they have to continue working and living their lives. But how? Even Buzzfeed‘s Anne Helen Petersen, the author of a recent viral essay on millennial burnout, concluded that after her own bout of burnout, “I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good,” she writes.
Two-thirds of the full-time American workforce suffers from burnout, the three main symptoms of which are exhaustion (mental and physical fatigue), a sense of being ineffective no matter how hard you’re working, and cynicism, according to experts. We at Thrive talk a lot about the importance of going upstream and making the changes (both individual and systemic) that will help prevent burnout in the first place.
But all too frequently, burnout happens — which is why Thrive spoke to four people who rebuilt their lives after experiencing it about how they were able to move forward and heal. It’s worth noting that two of the four asked to remain anonymous because they feared negative professional consequences related to the stigma that surrounds burnout. “You don’t want anyone to think you can’t handle it,” Joan, profiled below, told us. (All four also happen to be women — studies bear out that women experience burnout more frequently than men.)
In the interest of busting those stigmas and giving people hope, here are four “life after burnout” stories from real people — and their best tips for how you, too, can return to a thriving life.
Krista Rizzo, a 46-year-old former sales executive based in New York City, finally reached her breaking point on her 13th wedding anniversary. Her husband, a television executive, walked through the door with flowers and pecked her on the cheek. She fell apart. “I just started crying. I literally broke down on the bedroom floor,” she says, “He was like, ‘I don’t understand.’”
What he didn’t understand was that Rizzo was thoroughly spent. She had been managing their 8-year-old and 2-year-old’s evening routines solo to accommodate her husband’s late night work in a newsroom. She was maintaining the house — cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, organizing, paying the bills — largely on her own. She was stressed out by the diminishing and derogatory remarks flung at her by an inappropriate co-worker and her company’s anemic response to her complaints. And her anxiety was spiking due to the crumbling morale and stress in the office ahead of a major reorganization and mass layoffs.
An overly taxing workload, a lack of fairness, and a disconnect between the company’s and an employee’s value system all help manifest burnout. Rizzo says her company failed on all of these fronts.
And until she finally lost it, she had never asked her husband, whom she describes as “the easiest going guy on the planet,” for any help with the tasks that were maxing her out. She didn’t even trouble him about the creepy guy at work whom she says brought her to the brink. “I was like, ‘I got this. I can totally do all this. I am superwoman,’” she says.
Here’s how she healed and how you can, too:
Ask for help
After she broke down and asked for help, Rizzo’s husband immediately took on more household responsibilities and changed his schedule so he could work from home and help more with the kids. Four months later, Rizzo quit her job to pursue her passion as a life coach. “Until then, I didn’t realize I couldn’t do it on my own,” she says, “but once I did it changed my entire life — and improved my relationship with my husband and children because I could be more present.”
Today, she runs her own business as a life coach, and, she adds, “I manage my family with my family.” After burning out, she made a pact with herself that she would always prioritize her self-care going forward. “I learned that if I’m taking care of me then I can take care of everyone else in a more calm and organized way,” she says.
“I found mindfulness in the form of daily meditation and journaling,” Rizzo says. A recent study shows that journaling can boost overall well-being, particularly in people suffering from anxiety. Research shows that meditators perceive less stress and negative mental health than those who don’t meditate.
Tap into gratitude
Rizzo also turned gratitude into a daily practice. “Every night my kids and I say what we’re grateful for before bed,” she says. Several studies show the health benefits of gratitude, including improved self-esteem and empathy, as well as increased hope and happiness.
LeAnn (not her real name), a 30-year-old former digital writer at a major publication in New York City, couldn’t keep up with the dizzying volume of stories her editor expected her to churn out at a rapid clip each day. “The expectations were impossible,” she says. To boot, her editor regularly belittled and vetoed her ideas, so she rarely got to bring her own creative vision to life. Despite what she calls an “around-the-clock commitment” to her job and generating the bulk of stories that drove traffic, she was overlooked for a promotion — and then her boss started finding fault with her output. “It got so bad at one point I called a suicide hotline,” she says. “That’s when I knew, ‘I just can’t anymore.’”
Here’s how she healed and how you can, too:
Don’t be afraid to start anew
A longtime book lover, LeAnn quit her digital writing role and decided to take a job as a bookstore events manager — a change she’s thrilled with. “I feel great! I make barely over half my old salary and yet I’m so much happier,” she says.
Prioritize your passions
Along with freelancing — “writing stories I actually love and want to write,” she says — she’s also working on a book proposal and workshopping podcast ideas. A new study published in the Harvard Business Review finds that “time affluence,” (i.e. having more of one’s own time to do as one wishes) boosts people’s happiness more than making more money — or getting a promotion for that matter.
The factors that brought on burnout for 30-year-old Kay Fabella, a California-born brand strategist who lives in Spain, include a long history of overachieving.
Groomed from early childhood to push herself to ever-soaring heights (she learned to read at 2!), she maxed herself out on AP classes in high school, finished a double major in international relations and economics in a just three years, and, in 2008, amid the Great Recession, felt so lucky to have found a job that she took on far more than she could handle to prove herself, aiming for and reaching herculean levels of productivity.
“Along with my actual job as a program manager at an educational institution, I took on a project that should have had an army of 10,” Fabella tells Thrive. On top of an insurmountable volume of work, she didn’t feel “connected to the purpose and the why of the company,” she says.
Then, on a sunny day a year into her post, the 22-year-old hit a wall. She started crying and couldn’t stop for four hours straight. She promptly quit her job and decamped for the love and comfort of family in Los Angeles, where she was diagnosed with clinical depression (some experts argue the the line between burnout and depression is blurry).
Here’s how she healed and how you can, too:
Change your environment
“I’m a literal world away from where I was then,” she says. After recovering from a year-long battle with depression, she moved to Spain to teach English. “I only intended to stay a year,” she says, but settled in permanently once she fell in love with and married a Spaniard in 2010. Today, she operates her own branding business and sets boundaries with herself and her clients.
Check in with yourself
“I do regular assessments of my mental state,” Fabella says, to make sure she’s effectively managing her self-care. When she feels she’s slipping back into burnout, she’ll ask herself what’s causing her increasing stress levels — lack of sleep, too many commitments — and make adjustments. For example, she’ll extend her meditation routine from 10 minutes to 30 minutes if she’s extra stressed or go for a walk if it’s nice out. If it’s not, she’ll do yoga.
“I didn’t know no was a full sentence,” she says. “I though taking on more was better, a form of proving myself.” These days, the self-described people pleaser has no problem turning down social engagements or declining projects if her plate’s too full. “I definitely shave off responsibilities so I can to honor my commitment to myself,” she notes
Fabella dedicates every Wednesday evening to date nights with her husband and Sundays to managing household chores and calls to her family in California. “I have my entire week planned out with budgeted time for work and joy,” she says, which helps keep her balanced and grounded, as does starting each day with meditation and journaling, she says.
Don’t feel like you have to be available 24/7
While her roster of clients span every time zone, she lets them know when she will and will not be reachable. “I don’t answer phone calls or Voxer (a walkie-talkie-like app) around the clock,” she emphasizes. “Yes, theoretically my clients can be connected to me at all times, but they’re not going to get an answer from me on a Friday night, nor over the weekend,” she says.
Joan (not her real name), a 42-year-old mother of one, dreaded returning to work from maternity leave. Before she left — and upon her return — the high-level executive of a multi-billion dollar company had been working (throughout her pregnancy and after) into the early morning hours to accommodate an ever-expanding list of responsibilities. She’d also been enduring daily struggles with a staff installed by her predecessor that didn’t respect her authority. “There was no break from the pressure and stress, not even at home,” she says.
When she returned to her family in the evening, she endured a nightly tug-of-war between her and her husband, a busy lawyer, over who was and was not doing their share of the household chores and baby duties. “Other than my baby, the bulk of my day was a constant struggle and joyless. I had no time for the pleasures that sustain me — reading, exercising, visiting museums, going to talks, socializing with friends,” she says. “I kept fantasizing about winning the lottery so I could quit,” she jokes. Something — many things — had to change, but she couldn’t afford to leave her well-paying job.
Here’s how she healed and you can, too:
Buy more time
“I was sick of fighting my husband over chores,” she says, so the duo hired a cleaning lady and established a clearly delineated chart of duties each of them was responsible for — he does the trash (a nightly ritual with a newborn) and she does the dishes. They also send out their laundry, which has freed up their weekends a pinch. While not everyone can afford all these luxuries, a 2017 study found that people’s happiness quotient increases when they spend money on time-saving purchases.
Strengthen your relationship
Part of the tension between Joan and her husband stemmed from not having enough time for each other. To mitigate that, they now prioritize two date nights a month to reconnect over fun activities like going to the movies or trying a new restaurant. “We still get prickly with each other,” Joan admits, “but I feel like we’re making memories as a couple again,” she says.
Get rid of what doesn’t work
Luckily, Joan had a good manager who signed off on the steps she eventually took to encourage her staff to align with her vision. Those who continued to thwart her efforts were dismissed and replaced with new hires. “It’s horrible to fire someone, under any circumstances,” she says, “but my new team is enthusiastic and hardworking and make my job a lot easier and less stressful.”
Define your own limits
Joan explained to her boss that the hours she was working were no longer sustainable with a small child to look after. “He has three kids so he totally got that,” she says. Going forward, they agreed she’d work 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., unless imminent deadlines demanded otherwise.
“If one doesn’t set limits, nobody will do that for him or her,” Stela Salminen, a doctoral student at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland who’s authored studies on burnout and recovery, tells Thrive. So define your own parameters. And keep in mind: It’s possible that your boss, who’s probably equally overwhelmed and stretched thin, isn’t aware of your workload. One way to elegantly communicate your mounting tasks is to keep them abreast of what you’re working on a daily basis, which will help them better manage your priorities.
Take your lunch break
“This has changed my life,” Joan enthuses. Sometimes, she’ll take part of the hour to bond with a co-worker, but only if they agree not to talk about work. “Swearing off work-related conversations for those few minutes totally unclogs your brain,” she says. U.C. Berkeley’s pioneering burnout scholar Christina Maslach says forging workplace friendships can help stave off burnout: “When there isn’t trust or collegiality, who do you turn to when you need some advice or some help?” People may not like aspects of their job, but those bonds can make up for the less desirable parts of their jobs.
Incorporate small pleasures back into your life
Long before Joan took on her biggest professional role to date and had her first child, she regularly visited New York City’s many world-renowned museums — an activity she enjoys to do alone. After burnout, she started doing so again. “I’m finding new ways to bring back those little things that make me happy or feel well-rounded,” she explains. On that front, the last thing she does before she goes to sleep is read fiction, a long-enduring passion, which several studies have shown fosters our capacity for empathy. “It doesn’t matter if I can only get through one paragraph!” she jokes, “It’s soul food.”
Start moving more
“I used to get to work early to work, now I go to the gym in my building at least twice a week before work,” she says. “It makes me feel good about myself, like I’m taking care of me,” she stresses. A large body of research shows the many benefits Joan stands to gain from working out, including a boost to her self-esteem and energy levels.
While her life after burnout “isn’t perfect — nothing ever is,” Joan says, “I keep the conversations going at work and at home so I don’t unravel like I almost did.”
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