We all know employee burnout to be a major problem, with reported rates of burnout up by as much as 34% from pre-pandemic levels. Oftentimes, though, these conversations seem to center less-senior employees, with millennials earning their own brand of burnout and most advice to leadership focusing solely on how to alleviate burnout among staff.
But what happens when it’s the leaders who’ve burned out?
Managers are just as, if not more, likely to experience burnout compared to individual contributors, one Gallup survey found. And given the conditions they’ve had to perform in during the pandemic, striving to create stability for direct reports where it mostly hasn’t existed, today’s managers are exhausted. What will remedy that, and what does it look like to bounce back from burning out at a particularly competitive point in your career?
We heard from senior company leaders and executives who’ve burned out at work before about the steps they took to overcome that, as well as the ways they ward off burnout today.
How to Bounce Back from Burnout as an Executive
1. Switch up your work-day structure.
Burnout exists, as Tyler Davis, a CPA with Simplify LLC, put it, “at all levels of a company.” That’s been true of his experience.
“Too often, people think only younger employees experience burnout, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “Older employees who’ve been working for years doing the same thing can easily experience it, as well.”
To keep monotony from feeding into your sense of burnout, try making adjustments to your daily routine, Davis advised.
“Take more breaks during the day, as getting away from your desk can help keep you fresh and make you more productive,” he said. “And rather than getting in at the same time each day that you have for 15 years, mix it up. Get in later and work later, or vice versa.”
2. Prioritize your mental health by speaking to a professional.
When Craig Miller, co-founder of Academia Labs, burned out from pandemic-fed work pressures, talking to mental health professionals helped him find the tools for recovery.
“I had to consult a psychiatrist first, and he suggested that I undergo behavioral therapy to recover my positive outlook on life,” Miller said. “Since he also suggested that I take a break, I took a three-day leave and went for a vacation, alone. I needed alone time… When I came back, I felt a lot better and was able to get back to work with a happier mindset.”
You should consider speaking to your MD, too, to see if any other health issues could be at play. After experiencing burnout last year, Scott Hasting, Co-founder of BetWorthy LLC, saw a doctor about his fatigue.
“He told me to get tested for my hormones, as feeling intense fatigue can be caused by hormonal imbalance,” Hasting said. “When the tests came back normal, he asked me to take some time off from work and re-evaluate why I was feeling this way.”
3. Find a new hobby.
For Hasting, starting a new hobby that allowed him to work with his hands after hours spent on a screen proved therapeutic. He picked up resin projects, making plenty of paperweights and coasters along the way.
“This has diverted my stress and burnout into something useful and beautiful,” he said. “I love that I can see the product of my work, as it’s tangible. It makes me focus more on the present instead of worrying about the future, which greatly causes work burnout.”
For Robert Johnson, founder of Sawinery, his burnout-recovery hobby has been the piano, an instrument he hadn’t touched in years.
“Challenges at work are never ending, and I almost spiralled into a deep abyss of depression a few months back when the COVID surge hit my company hard,” Johnson said. “I personally coped by continuing my passion for music and playing the piano. It calmed my nerves and let me think clearly. Even if muscle memory was the only thing that allowed me to play again, it became my escape, if just for a few minutes every day.”
4. Unplug like you mean it.
As a small business owner accustomed to doing the work of many, Alex Wan, co-founder of Vinpit, says he’s experienced burnout “several times.”
“Every time I’ve been hit, I’ve tried the best I could to disconnect from my job,” Wan said. “Take a break from your everyday roles and hand them over to someone you trust. Consider abandoning the use of computers completely. Grab your favorite book and read a few chapters.”
Doing a complete “digital detox” proved pivotal to Alina Clark, Co-founder of CocoDoc, too. Last year, while onboarding employees to remote working, Clark says she experienced “the most debilitating burnout.”
“I didn’t even see the burnout coming, but once it hit, it really took me out,” she said. “Taking time off may be the most immediate option after burning out, but ‘time off’ isn’t really time off if you’re a manager. You tend to receive emails and phone calls about your job even when you’re out.”
To truly take some time for yourself, Clark recommends ditching your devices.
“Switch off the laptop and phone,” she said. “Better yet, leave them at home and take a couple of days without emails and work notifications sucking you back into the burnout blackhole.”
5. Get comfortable with saying “no.”
Sherry Morgan, founder of Petsolino, says a few things have helped her recover from burnout, including making time for exercise, eating a good diet and getting enough sleep each night. Something else that’s been hugely instrumental? Saying “no.”
“Cut back on your commitments,” Morgan recommended. “Learn to say ‘no.’ Start with your most important tasks first before accepting others… if your tasks keep piling up, that will make you feel that you’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done in limited time. This is very stressful, and can get in your head. So prioritize well, and don’t be too kind. You’re not your company’s only employee.”
6. Take a good look at your thought patterns.
When you’re exhausted, it’s “easy to fall into a negative thought pattern,” Gerrid Smith, CEO of Property Tax Loan Pros, said.
“Over time, this kind of negative thinking just becomes worse,” Smith said. “Affirmations, which are optimistic comments about the future, can help. The practice of positive thinking can be difficult to acquire when you’re recovering from burnout, which is why it’s critical to take baby steps. Before you get out of bed in the morning, try to think of something pleasant, or at the end of the day, reflect on a noteworthy accomplishment you achieved… Even the smallest victories are worth celebrating.”
7. Get creative with the way you take breaks.
Recovering from burnout, pretty simply, can’t be done without taking a serious break — and then incorporating better breaks into your day-to-day life, Ethan Howell, Co-Owner of Florida Environmental, said.
“Be sure to take frequent breaks throughout the day, like leg stretches, phone conversations with loved ones, a walk in the park, or anything else you can think of,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get you away from your computer and refocus your thoughts. Don’t be afraid to take time off after completing a difficult assignment, even if you have other ones lined up.”
And if you find yourself too-easily sucked back into tasks without having built breaks into them, try using the Pomodoro Technique, Howell advised.
“Use a Pomodoro timer to help you focus and review your efforts by splitting your work into 25-minute work sessions broken by 5-minute intervals,” he said. “It’s a wonderful way to automatically incorporate breaks into your work and let your brain stretch.”
Find more burnout advice on the blog.