One of the first things I get asked when working with clients that are in burnout is how long it will take them to recover. Based on experience, my response is that it typically takes about seven weeks before a person will start feeling that they have energy again.
“Really? Seven weeks?” is the typical response.
I will ask the person to consider how long it took them to get into burnout. How long have they been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. They usually say it took quite a while. Then I will ask them whether a seven-week recovery period seems so long, given how long it took to get into this condition.
I use the number of seven weeks as a guideline, but recovery from burnout won’t truly begin until the person authentically begins to take care of themselves. I caution people that they can stay in burnout for quite a long time if they don’t actively participate in the recovery process.
Many times a story helps to illustrate a point, so I will share one now.
(Details in the following story have been changed to protect privacy.)
I used to receive client referrals from a consultant at a large insurance company. This consultant was excellent at identifying people that were in burnout and that would benefit from working with me. He would talk to individuals for the first time after they had been on long-term medical leave for about a year, so I wouldn’t meet them until they had been on medical leave for quite a while.
One of the first questions I would ask these people when we met was whether they were tired. They would always respond, “Yes, I’m exhausted.” Remember, these people had been away from work for about a year, so it may be surprising to learn that they were tired.
I learned to ask them, “Do you let yourself sleep?” Invariably they would say, “No.” They would share that they would allow themselves to sleep only eight hours a night. Strangely enough, it didn’t occur to them that they might need more sleep than that if they were tired. Eventually we’d get to the point where they would realize that they could allow themselves to sleep more.
I sometimes tell this story to help my clients realize they will need to allow themselves to sleep as much as they need before they will recover from burnout. I tell them they will benefit if they allow themselves to sleep as much as their bodies ask them to. This might be as much as 11 or 12 hours a night. They might also need to take naps during the day, if that’s possible.
I suggest that they create an environment in which they will be comfortable sleeping because they are going to sleep a lot for the next while. I suggest they let close friends and family know that they will not be very available during this period because their focus will be on taking care of themselves.
Once they accept that they are going to spend a lot of time sleeping, most people anticipate that they will begin to feel incrementally better almost immediately. But this isn’t the case.
Instead, recovery frequently goes something like this. As soon someone authentically begins to take care of themselves, and they really, really, really mean it, they crash. They drop like a stone. Their energy level bottoms out, and they feel more exhausted, rather than better.
As a psychologist, this makes sense to me. I tell my clients that once they authentically commit to taking care of themselves, their body will completely let go. It knows it has depleted all of its energy reserves and will collapse once it receives permission to do so.
I tell my clients to anticipate this is going to happen and to make peace with it. I say that it is not until they enter this period of complete acceptance that they will begin the seven week recovery period.
Much to my delight, the majority of people will give themselves permission to completely let go in order to recover after we have had this conversation. The collapse doesn’t frighten them once they understand that it is going to happen.
And then something magical happens. Once they have accepted that they will crash, and do it, they start to recover.
So I encourage you to allow yourself to let go in order to enter the recovery phase if you are in burnout. You can stay exhausted for years and years and years otherwise. But if you authentically let go, and cancel your social engagements, and stop trying to keep the house clean and groceries in the cupboard, and commit to an authentic recovery, you can restore your energy reserves. In my experience, there is no way around it.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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