How to recover from burnout

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By Joyce Chong


Everyone knows what burnout feels like (see this article on The Telltale Signs of Burnout)  but what exactly is burnout?  Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stress on the job, and it's characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation or detaching from work so as to prevent further distress, and reduced achievement [1].  In this article we'll look at what causes burnout (Personality? Work? Lifestyle factors?), and how can you recover from burnout.


Who is affected by burnout? 

Whilst burnout is experienced by many, high achievers are particularly prone to experiencing burnout. But, who exactly are these high achievers?

One way of studying at high achievers is to examine certain occupations that society associates with success and excellence due to the degree of competition it takes to get into, and succeed, in these professions. For example, a review of studies examining burnout in medical doctors in the UK showed emotional exhaustion to affect 30-50% of those surveyed. [2] And it’s also been suggested that lawyers experience the highest level of burnout in a study of different professionals. [3]

However, this is a narrow definition of achievement, and it’s evident that high achievers can be found in any area – they’re the ones excelling amongst their peers, or even leaders in their field. That is, the best student, the best apprentice, the best salesperson, the best manager - one of the reasons why such leaders emerge is thought to reflect personality characteristics, and we’ll talk more about in a bit.

What leads to burnout?

There are various factors that lead to burnout – both from within and also from the environment. How many of these sound familiar?


Personal factors in burnout

  • Perfectionism, or the desire to do everything ‘just right’, irrespective of whether it comes at a cost to other areas of your life. This typically leads to spending excessive amounts of time devoted to a task.

  • The inability to say no – whether it’s to others’ requests, or about you setting your own boundaries volunteering to take on even more yourself because you’re the one who knows how to do it properly.

  • Competition, be it with yourself or competition/social comparison with others

  • Pessimism or the tendency to see things negatively

  • An inability to engage in appropriate self-care (sleep, nutrition, exercise)

  • Negative thinking styles including black and white thinking, a tendency to personalise setbacks

  • Ineffective coping mechanisms whether it is a focus on ‘vegging out’ or avoidance more generally


Work factors in burnout

  • Heavy workload particularly if there are restructures and people being made redundant.

  • Poor job control particularly when your role evolves and you take on tasks that aren't part of your job description.

  • Degree of job satisfaction not just with the work that you do, but also with your team environment.

  • Conflict at work can lead to an unhealthy work environment.

Burnout - signs, symptoms, and costs

Signs and symptoms of burnout

One way to think about burnout symptoms is to look at how it impacts on four types of symptoms - emotional (how you feel, including your motivation levels), cognitive (the way that you think, your capacity to think), physical (health, sleep, appetite), and behavioural symptoms (drinking more alcohol, avoiding friends and family). Be sure to grab our summary tip sheet (see below) for a more detailed list of symptoms.


Costs of burnout

Because of the significant costs associated with burnout we are firm believers in the approach that prevention is far better than cure. Clinically, the costs of burnout that we see are: 

  • Prolonged time off work

  • Loss of confidence and potentially affected self-esteem, particularly when faced with returning to work after time off

  • Lack of ‘work conditioning/hardiness’

  • Potential relationship difficulties

  • Financial stress (either through loss of income or using up of sick leave leading to use of unpaid leave).

So what’s the solution? The thing is, recovering from burnout is highly individualised depending on your personal circumstances and your work role (job, personal commitments, mindset), however we've put together some general guidelines.

How to recover from burnout

Prioritise your health

You cannot recover on an empty tank, so focus on getting the basics right – that’s getting enough sleep both from a quantity and quality perspective,  exercise, and getting proper nutrition. While it sounds like a simple enough strategy for recovering from burnout, you'd be surprised as to what a difference it makes for your energy levels, your ability to think clearly, and how you react to daily hassles.


Check your mindset

Okay, so as psychologists we may be a bit biased, but we really believe that mindset makes all the difference when it comes to:

  • Unrealistic expectations that you hold that push you to do too much

  • Unattainable goals that you may set yourself (based on your expectations) that set you up to fail

  • Unhelpful interpretations and unhelpful thinking styles that turn molehills into mountains and cause you far more distress than is necessary.

Need help? Check out this article on how to review, reset, and refocus your mindset as a starting point.


Build your resilience

Remember, prevention is better than cure, so consider building in a buffer when it comes to your stress levels. You can find out how to boost your resilience in our article on PERMA: The ingredients for resilience and wellbeing.

Or...let us do the work for you and join our FREE 14-day Wellbeing Challenge filled with tips to boost the body, mind, and heart.


Keen for the summary tip sheet on How to Recover from Burnout? Grab it right here.

Tips on how to recover from burnout by The Skill Collective, psychologists in Subiaco Perth

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[1] Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W.B., & Leither, M.P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual review in psychology, 52, 397-422.

[2] Imo, U. (2017). Burnout and psychiatric morbidity among doctors in the UK: A systematic literature review of prevalence and associated factors. British Journal of Psychological Bulletin, 41, 197-204; doi: 10.1192/pb.bp.116.054247

[3] Otey, B.S. (2015). Buffering burnout: Preparing the Online Generation for the occupational hazards of the legal profession. Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal, 24, 147-202.