Burnout is not your fault, and you CAN do something about it!

This blog post was written by written by Debbie Sorensen, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of ACT for Burnout: Recharge, Reconnect, and Transform Burnout with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

I am a psychologist who has experienced burnout. Years ago, when I was working on a medical team in a hospital, I went through a months-long experience of exhaustion and detachment from the work I usually love. It took me a surprisingly long time to recognize that I was burned out, but once I did, that awareness helped me. I was able to make some changes and get to a better place.

As I came out of my burnout experience and back to my normal self, I became curious about burnout. What is it, and how do people get there? What causes burnout? And what (if anything) can we do about it? I started talking to friends and colleagues with burnout, and reading everything I could about it. Eventually I started to specialize in chronic stress and burnout in my private therapy practice. Not long after that, Covid hit, and burnout was everywhere. My practice was inundated with stressed-out, burned-out clients, from all walks of life.

I’ve learned a lot about burnout over the years that I’ve been doing this work. I’ve come to understand that burnout is complex and multifaceted — no two burnout stories are exactly alike. But if I “zoom out” on everything I’ve learned about burnout, there are a few key takeaways that I think are important to share with you.

The Three Main Things I Want You to Know About Burnout

1. If you are experiencing burnout, you are not alone

Unfortunately, burnout is all-too common these days. We live and work in a world where chronic stress is widespread, and few people are spared its impact. Burnout has been called an “epidemic” in recent years because so many of us face extreme and prolonged stress in the workplace and the world.

When I experienced burnout, I kept my exhaustion and disconnection to myself for a long time. I’ve found that many people, like me, feel that they are the only one experiencing the toll of chronic stress. It can seem to people as if everyone around them is doing fine, and it might not occur to them to ask for help or get support. They suffer in silence. And this, of course, can exacerbate the cycle of stress and burnout.

If you are experiencing burnout, please know that you are not alone. Knowing this can help you tap into a sense “common humanity” and feel less isolated with your suffering. And of course, getting social support can be beneficial for coping with burnout. If you are experiencing burnout, I encourage you to reach out to someone —perhaps a coworker, friend or family member, or even a professional like me — who will understand what you are going through and respond with care and support.  

2. Burnout is not your fault

I find that people with burnout often blame themselves for struggling the way they are, thinking that if they could just catch up on everything, or handle stress better, they would be okay.

But burnout always, by definition, happens in the context of chronic work stress that doesn’t ease up over time. And many of us live in a world where chronic stress is unavoidable. Overwork has become the norm and expectation, and many of us work in environments and systems in which workers have too many demands and not enough resources. Generally speaking, we are working in stressful environments and at a pace that is unsustainable in the long-term. No wonder so many of us are exhausted!

If you are experiencing burnout, try not to blame yourself for feeling the way that you do. It makes sense that you are exhausted, it’s a normal and expected human reaction to prolonged stress. Blaming yourself just adds fuel to the burnout fire. Instead, try being kind to yourself and acknowledging the situational factors that have contributed to your chronic stress and burnout.

3. Even though burnout is not your fault, you can do something about it

While the “epidemic of burnout” is best addressed at the level of cultural and systemic change (like improved working conditions), people with burnout are suffering now. I feel strongly that burnout must be addressed at ALL levels, including help for people who are struggling with burnout. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help yourself make it through burnout and get to a better place, like I did.

Sometimes the changes you need are internal ones, invisible to others. Psychological flexibility skills — like awareness, perspective taking, openness to your emotions, and self-compassion — can help you get out of the burnout cycle. Ultimately, burnout is a condition of disengagement, and psychological flexibility can help you to reengage with the meaningful aspects of your work and/or your life.

Other times, getting out of burnout requires a visible, external change to your circumstances or your behavior patterns. For instance, it might help to speak up for yourself, and set better boundaries with people or with your work. You may want to consider making a big change, like a career or job change, or a smaller change, like a change to your daily habits. You might benefit from a time management change, or from redistributing your workload. Depending on your situation, these types of changes might help you to recharge and care for yourself in the midst of chronic stress.  

It’s important to understand the unique aspects of your own burnout experience, in order to get unstuck and move forward. Start by asking yourself what situational factors are contributing to your burnout, and what changes might help you. While changes like these can be difficult, they might be necessary to help you move forward. You can read more about both internal and external changes that might help you with burnout in ACT for Burnout: Recharge, Reconnect, and Transform Burnout with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

From Burnout to New Growth

I once went horseback riding near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where I live, through an area that had been burned the previous year by a forest fire. It was sad to see the dead trees and colorless landscape from a distance. But up close, as I rode into a burned area, I was struck by the little bright green plants pushing through the charred earth. After the original landscape was burned, it left scorched earth behind, but it also created space for new growth to thrive.

Although I do not wish burnout on anyone, burnout can provide an opportunity for new growth, whatever that means for you. What new growth can rise from the ashes of your own burnout experience?

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