Seven ways to reframe and heal from Burnout

Find new perspective when you feel stuck

Burning out at a job that that sustains us financially, emotionally, or ideally both, means you start to lose that certainty, that relationship to what you do.  It can lead to feelings of inefficacy, isolation, boredom, frustration, and even clinical anxiety and depression.  Before you know it you're hunting for a new job and all you are certain of is you want something new but you don't know what.

In order to get a handle on a situation that seems out of control us therapists like to use a skill called "Reframing" which lets us see our thoughts and experience in a new and more helpful light.  So to help you deal with any looming or present burnout, check out these seven reframes and see if any ring true for you.

1. Burnout as Boredom

You've grown but your organization has not.  There's no new challenges outside of showing up every day.  You used to experience flow on a regular basis but now your work brings no joy, in fact it feels mundane and oddly tiring.  You come home from a long day doing pretty much nothing and yet you still feel tired, but not in the good ol' accomplished sort of tired.  Your evenings and weekends aren't cutting it for getting you energized for the new week.  You're bored, but don't know what to do.

Tips for healing from boredom:

  • Identifying the specific type of challenge that you like.
  • Identify the work that bores you to tears.
  • Now find your voice and ask for what you want at work, you might just get it.

2. Burnout as Grieving

You lose your relationship to your work, your connection to a community, and even your connection to your source of income.  From all of this you lose a sense of direction.  The ensuing uncertainty piles up and leads to a longing of better days, of summer jobs as a kid or the early days when a job was new and exciting and not what it is now.  Grieving shows up in many ways: sadness, loneliness, fear, anger, disbelief, and physical symptoms such as upset sleep and fatigue.  You've lost your job even before you're gone, and that loss can leave us stunned.

Tips for healing from grieving:

  • Accept that there is no right amount of time to grieve.
  • Get support from friends, family, professionals.  
  • Take care of yourself, you always have the option to be kind to yourself, take it.

3. Burnout as Learned Helplessness

You don't feel your sense of agency anymore, but you choose to persist in a rough situation.  As things go from bad to worse at work you stay and slowly feel your control erode.  Giving up is reinforced by the work culture and your superiors.  Hope is lost for alternatives and eventually your stressful situation starts to feel like the norm, that it couldn't possibly be better anywhere else.  Bitterness is a sign of professional longevity.  Caring is seen as juvenile.  Your friends say you should do something but all you can feel is "Why bother?"  You've burned out and forgotten what's it like to feel any different.

Tips for healing from learned helplessness:

  • Find a therapist to help explore the roots of these feelings.
  • Forgive yourself for settling, you were just coping with what you had.
  • Know you're not alone, and that the potential for new energy is still within you.

4. Burnout as Oppression

It's not you, it's your job denying your humanity.  You've given up too much control and not been compensated adequately.  You are bullied, victimized, harassed, confused, yanked about, and all without any transparent purpose.  You've spoken up but been silenced, you've taken action but been punished, you've tried to create change from below but been thwarted from above.  You are sadly one of countless many employees that have been exploited for profit more than for cause.  You're burning out because the people in charge just don't care (most likely they're burned out themselves).  

Tips for healing from oppression:

  • Find connection with those who are suffering equally, and form mutual support.
  • Practice self-compassion regularly, knowing it's not your fault but that you have to heal from it.
  • Start exit-planning safely, leaving an abusive situation is the most dangerous part, but with trusted help you'll get there.
Kitten break!  Take breathers whenever dealing with the heavy stuff.

Kitten break!  Take breathers whenever dealing with the heavy stuff.

5. Burnout as Identity Loss

You started your job with a passion and a purpose.  You developed a sense of identity being good at what you did, and now that you're burning out you don't know who you are any more.  You miss who you were, but no longer see the point.  You have existential crises on a regular basis and feel unmoored.  You remember having dreams, goals, and visions of the future but find them hard to focus on.  Your burnout at your job has robbed you of the majority of your identity, and provided no directions on how to get back to it.

Tips for healing from identity loss:

  • Talk with friends, family, and coworkers to get insight on how things used to be.
  • Read something inspirational, like Man's Search for Meaning.
  • If you can, take time off and just let your mind fully quiet, your self will come back in time.

6. Burnout as Efficacy Loss

You want to be successful, proud, and efficient at work but more and more roadblocks get put in the way.  The system is broken and you just want to get work done.  Bureaucracy is death by a thousand paper cuts.  You cared about the work, but now you're burned out because you've been doing less and less real work and more and more pointless tasks.  You just want to feel accomplished, not hindered by piles of bullshit.

Tips for healing from efficacy loss:

  • Speak up to management and show your perspective on how the work has been negatively affected.
  • Get your needs met elsewhere through volunteering or creative hobbies.
  • Seek out the reasons why the bureaucracy exists, and why it might have a purpose (here's hoping!).

7. Burnout as Natural Career Progression

You are burning out because for better or worse it's time to move on to what's next.  You've reached a natural end to your career.  It might have come more suddenly than expected, or maybe you found surprising excitement at the thought of a different career entirely.  Every relationship that begins must end, and burning out can be the sign that it's time to transition.  You might not know what's next, but you're experiencing the normal discomfort of change.  It's all part of the process.

Tips for healing during change:

  • Normalize the difficulty of it, change is tough and uncertain, but we all get through it.
  • Find a career counselor you click with, and through them find some new direction.
  • Take stock of your skills, your experience, your past jobs, and start envisioning a bright future for yourself.

This article was inspired by the advice found at The Practice of the Practice, a blog and resource for counselors to develop their private practice.

Evan Edward Dumas is a mental health counselor in Portland, Oregon helping adults deal with the challenges of burnout and compassion fatigue.