How to recover from burnout title image. Animation shows the word burnout being burned, revealing a man holding his shirt open. Under the shirt is a cold, smoking heart. This is replaced by fire, which reignites the heart while the superimposed word "recovery" appears.

How to Recover from Burnout

As I mentioned in my earlier post, human learning and performance professionals should know better, but we sure do like to work in crazy, caustic work environments. Indeed, in my experience, learning and performance professionals are some of the worst culprits of contributing to workplace toxicity.

A few years ago, I experienced a burnout. I’m better now, but it’s not by accident. In fact, I’ve recently had some opportunities to work in one of the craziest, most unprofessionally caustic work environments I’ve encountered in my career. Because I’ve learned these hard lessons, I’ve decided to not allow myself to continue working in that kind of environment and have moved back to my role as a consultant and small business owner.

If nothing else, this latest experience taught me all of us are a step or two away from making bad choices which can lead to burnout.

Given how deadly serious burnout is, we need to be talking about this more, both as workplaces and as a culture. Learning and human performance professionals should be part of the conversation, especially given what seems to me a propensity for our profession to work caustically.

Speaking of the kinds of bad choices that can lead to a burnout, let’s review my sure-fire method of burnout generation.


  1. Work more than 60 hours a week.
  2. Never take a day off.
  3. Sleep less than seven hours a night.
  4. Say yes to everything.
  5. Don’t take a vacation and feel guilty for relaxing.
  6. Work in a caustic environment.
  7. Don’t share your miseries – or take time to mourn them.

Perhaps you’re still thinking that burnout is no big deal and perhaps you just need to hang in there or that people complaining about burnout are just losers without energy. Let me be clear: you’re dead wrong.

What Is Burnout and Why Is It So Dangerous?

The gentlemen in the above video is David Murray. I haven’t read his work yet, but I did buy a copy of his book Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture. I can’t recommend reading it yet, but I can say I completely agree with his premise, and from my skimming I feel I really like his 10 “repair bay” approach to recovering from burnout.

But what follows describes my own steps to recovery. I hope you find them helpful.


  1. Say no.
  2. Rest.
  3. Be gentle with yourself.
  4. Take a true vacation ASAP.
  5. Remember – Or Discover – Who You Are – and Who You Want to Be

1. Say No.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a certifiable vegetable. You’re burned out. It’s understandable. So let me make this simple.

You gotta do whatever it takes to say “I’ve had enough” and mean it. You have to say no and stick to your guns.

This means you need the means to say no. We’ll talk about this more in the next post, where we’ll discuss what it takes to have sustainable superior performance and avoid burnout altogether. Having your life organized to the point where you can set healthy boundaries for yourself and your loved ones is difficult. In fact, I’d say it’s the most difficult, but most worthwhile, aspect of your burnout recovery.

If you’re being overworked and are stressed at every level, chances are it’s specifically because you feel you can’t say no. If you say no, after all, that means you’ll be the next one laid off, you’ll be sure to miss the next promotion, and you’ll be unable to achieve your dreams.

But none of that’s necessarily true. What is true is that people will take whatever you give them and ask for more until you tell them your boundaries. It’s hard for a lot of people who have burned out to think in terms of equitable, win-win relationships, but positive change is unlikely to happen unless you speak up.

Feel like you can’t be successful by saying no? The opposite is true. Take courage from Warren Buffet, who’s purportedly renowned for saying, “Really successful people say no to almost everything.” Actually, I’m not sure what he actually said, as I can’t find the source for it (let me know if you have it!). A similar quote attributed to Mr. Buffet appears in this excellent article, and reads, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Need help saying no respectfully? I highly recommend this book.

2. Rest

Speaking of books, there’s one book in particular I think everyone in the human learning and performance community should read right now. It’s Peak Performance, by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness.

Everyone who deals with improving human performance needs to read this book.

In the next post I’m going to go over the highlights in this book and exactly why this should be required reading for everyone in the learning and performance science and technology community, or really anyone who wants to maintain sustainable, superior performance. For now, there’s one specific nugget I want to share with you.

Stress + Rest = Growth

Stulberg, Brad; Magness, Steve. Peak Performance (Kindle Location 2896). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.

After a stressful event (or stressful period) that leads to burnout, you need the time to rest and recuperate. How long? It depends on how long and intensely you experienced your stress. In other words, I don’t know how long it will take for you.

For me, I needed six months of “feather lifting” in order to recover. I quit my job where I had been working super-intensely for two years in part because I was afraid of burning out and I was given what seemed to be a safe part-time job – a way out.

I didn’t realize I was already way past the point of burnout. The second I went to rest and relax, my body completely shut down. I couldn’t concentrate on anything for long, my “superpower” of focus was nowhere to be found, and I became quite depressed.

Needless to say, I didn’t do to well at that part-time job and we soon parted ways – I hope in a somewhat amicable manner. However, I was able to land a few other gigs where they were absolutely delighted with my skills, even though I was only using a small percentage of my full capability.

In other words, I was lifting feathers. It was all I could do to lift those feathers, and I’m fortunate indeed to have found a happy client who was pleased with that level of work during my recovery period.

At every other opportunity I did nothing. I vegged out watching TV (mainly anime, I’m sure).

I slept. Like, a lot. Over eight hours a night. I also took naps.

3. Be Gentle with Yourself

When you are in full burnout mode, you feel hopeless. You are clumsy and awkward. You are irritable. You are far more likely to be isolated and pessimistic.

That pessimism and isolation, in particular, are signs of burnout, and it leads to some really unhealthy, condemnatory self-talk.

You will probably berate yourself for every mistake you make. For not being able to see that obvious spelling error. For not forgetting about a meeting time. For dropping the ball on an important project.

More than ever, you and the people around you need to understand the signs of burnout, and the whole lot of us, most especially you, need to be gentle with yourself during this time of healing.

In the same way you wouldn’t make fun of a person who was learning to walk again after being hospitalized for significant injury, don’t make fun of yourself.

When I get angry at myself for doing something stupid, which happens regularly, I now talk to myself in the third person as I would one of my children.

In other words, I don’t say, “EJ, you’re such an idiot! What an incompetent fool!” when I make a mistake.

Instead, I say something like, “Come on EJ. You can do this. Let’s dust off, figure out where we went wrong, and keep moving forward.”

Be patient and gentle with yourself, as you would almost certainly do for someone else you love going through something similar.

4. Take a True Vacation ASAP

I say true vacation because it seems most of our vacations are anything but vacations. We end up so busy and overwhelmed doing all the fun things we’d like to do on our vacations that we need a vacation from our vacation.

This is bonkers. When I say a true vacation, I mean you should do about as much activity as this guy did during his seven day water fast. Note I am not recommending a water fast. I am recommending doing as little as possible during your vacation. Note this means, much like the water fast guy, you’ll need support from others to help you with this.

Go to the beach. Go on a mountain retreat. Take a cruise, a train ride, or both. Stay at home. But whatever you do, avoid work and stress, and rest.

Yes, whatever you do, your goal during your vacation is to rest, rejuvenate, and connect with the ones you love.

5 . Remember – Or Discover – Who You Are – and Who You Want to Be

Yes, as always, I have more books to recommend. Again, they’re of the variety that should be required reading for every learning and performance professional.

The first is Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

If you’re like most people I’ve spoken with, you may have heard people speak about this book, or taken a course on it, or actually read it. But the vast majority of the people I encounter – perhaps especially the ones who have had the experiences I just listed – go glassy eyed when I reference it and how it relates to the whatever morass we’re wading through.

Don’t get me started on what people who should know better say about The Fifth Discipline and good ‘ol Peter Senge.

While you’re recovering, I highly recommend reading – or re-reading – The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and figure out how you can begin applying these habits in your life.

As you go through each habit, you’ll discover, or re-discover, all kinds of ways in which you can be the organized, effective, man or woman of integrity and character you’ve always wanted to be. Read it slowly, take notes, and reflect deeply on the principles The Seven Habits are based upon.

As soon as you finish reading The Seven Habits, follow this up with The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness.

One of the the many reasons I say this is because I love how Dr. Covey expresses “The Whole-Person Paradigm” in The Eighth Habit. You can see Covey’s illustration of this concept below.

The Whole Person Paradigm can be expressed in four parts - The Mind, Body, Heart, and Spirit.
Covey, Stephen R.. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (Figure 2.2, p. 21). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

Allow me to quote from Covey as he illustrates how an implication of this concept can be applied to discovering, or rediscovering, who you are.

“If you study all philosophy and religion, both Western and Eastern, from the beginning of recorded history, you’ll basically find the same four dimensions: the physical/economic, the mental, the social/emotional and the spiritual. Different words are often used, but they reflect the same four universal dimensions of life. They also represent the four basic needs and motivations of all people illustrated in the film in the first chapter: to live (survival), to love (relationships), to learn (growth and development) and to leave a legacy (meaning and contribution)—see figure 2.3.

Covey, Stephen R.. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (pp. 21-22). Free Press. Kindle Edition.
Covey, Stephen R.. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (Figure 2.3, p. 22). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

To summarize, Dr. Covey says the four basic needs of people are to:

  • Learn – to grow and develop.
  • Live – to survive.
  • Love – to connect in relationships.
  • Leave a Legacy – to live a life of meaning and contribution.

Personally, I’m a fan of Glasser’s Five Needs and Choice Theory. But, like Dr. Covey says, the concepts being conveyed here are the same – we all have needs and we need to meet them if we want to live effective lives.

But we cannot meet them in others if we cannot meet them in ourselves first. So, as you recover through rest and relaxation, use Dr. Covey’s Four Needs of People as a framework to determine you own needs.

Answer the following questions, at your own pace, and with the help of your loved ones.

  1. What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind when I die?
  2. How can I better connect to those around me, especially my family and loved ones?
  3. What do I need to learn in order to leave the legacy I aspire to?
  4. What do I need to do in order to pay the bills and survive while I work towards these goals?
  5. How can I survive, and perhaps even thrive, while working towards a life of meaning and contribution?

As you answer these questions, reflect how you can apply the answer to your questions to your life. You might feel overwhelmed with your answers.

If that’s the case, take a step back and remember to start small. In fact, keep all of your commitments as small and manageable as possible. Think of it as lifting feathers. Grow gradually during this season of life.

A Word on Growth Management

I like how Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, discusses growth management in terms of steep and gradual growth. She uses the following image to convey her growth management framework.

Kim Scott’s Growth Management Framework, Scott, Kim. Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (p. 48). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A steep growth trajectory, for a season, can be beneficial as it enables us to shine and help us grow. But this steep growth needs to be balanced by a period of rest and recovery, where we, in a gradual growth trajectory, can heal and enjoy stability.

But this requires changing the way we look at “stable” professionals on a gradual growth trajectory. Perhaps this even means that we need to change how we look at performance ourselves.

Consider the following, from Kim Scott.

A leader at Apple had a good way to think about different types of ambition that people on her team had so that she could be thoughtful about what roles to put people in. To keep a team cohesive, you need both rock stars and superstars, she explained. Rock stars are solid as a rock. Think the Rock of Gibraltar, not Bruce Springsteen. The rock stars love their work. They have found their groove. They don’t want the next job if it will take them away from their craft. Not all artists want to own a gallery; in fact, most don’t. If you honor and reward the rock stars, they’ll become the people you most rely on. If you promote them into roles they don’t want or aren’t suited for, however, you’ll lose them—or, even worse, wind up firing them. Superstars, on the other hand, need to be challenged and given new opportunities to grow constantly.

In order to distinguish between the two, you must let go of your judgments and your own ambitions, forget for a while what you need from people, and focus on getting to know each person as a human being. For many bosses, this means rethinking ambition.

If I say a person is “ambitious,” do you have a positive or a negative reaction? Do you assume the person is hell-bent on personal gain and slightly sinister, willing to trample others to achieve personal goals? Or do you assume that the person is responsible and gets things done, a force for positive change in the larger group?

If I say a person is “stable,” what is your “blink” reaction? That the person is a snooze whom you’d rather not sit next to at a dinner party? Or do you get a sense of relief and comfort and think that this is the sort of person you’d like to have more of in your life? If I say a person is “content,” what is your reaction? Do you admire that person? Would you like to be more that way yourself? Or do you assume this is someone who is going nowhere?

Now, let go of all these reactions and judgments. Look at the following two columns of words and think about positive examples of people you’ve worked with who would fall into each column. Think about teams you’ve worked on that have needed some of each and what the right ratio would be. Then think about times in your life when you’ve been in each of the columns and why. Ideally, the choice would have been yours and not your boss’s.

Scott, Kim. Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity (p. 44). St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

We need, and we need to be, stable, gradual growth trajectory rock stars, and, at other times, steep growth trajectory superstars. Be we should not expect to be one of these for our entire careers.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. In The Screwtape Letters, an elder demon, Screwtape, writes to his nephew Wormwood on how to best go about vexing his human “patient.” In his eighth letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood how to vex humans by distorting the “Law of Undulation.”

Has no one ever told you about the law of Undulation?

Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.) As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.

Lewis, C. S.. The C. S. Lewis Collection: Signature Classics and Other Major Works: The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Don’t allow Screwtape (or anyone else) to screw with your recovery. Rest through this season of recovery as you manage your growth. Trust there will be brighter days and more periods of growth ahead.

For stress + rest = growth.


I sincerely hope you find this helpful as you deal with your burnout. Hang in there; with rest and relaxation mixed with healthy boundaries and patient gentleness with yourself, rejuvenation is on the way.

If you find this post helpful, please consider sharing it with others. Burnout is a common problem that is only going to get worse if we don’t do anything to address it.

Without a doubt, our overworked society and our workplaces need to start talking about ways to help people recover from burnout. Even better, how to prevent it in the first place!

My next post focuses on just that.

In the meantime, share your thoughts! Are you suffering from burnout? What led to it? Have you recovered from burnout? Do you have any burnout recovery tips to share?