Recovering from burnout takes significant time and commitment.
One of the first things I am asked by clients that are in burnout is, “How long it will take to recover?”
Based on my experience as a psychologist, my response is that it will take about seven weeks before they will begin to feel like they have energy again.
“Really? Seven weeks?” is the typical response.
I ask my client to consider how long it took them to get into burnout and how long have they been feeling exhausted. They usually say they have been working flat out for a long time – possibly years – and that they have been sleep deprived for as long as they can remember.
Then I 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 because it conveys the notion that recovery will not be quick. Rather, it will take a dedicated effort. You will have to give up much of life as you know it for a significant period of time to recover.
You can remain in burnout for years.
Recovery from burnout cannot begin until you authentically admit that you are in bad shape and begin to take care of yourself. I caution my clients that they can remain in burnout for years if they continue to push themselves and don’t actively participate in the recovery process.
Several years ago, I accepted referrals from a case manager at one of the large insurance companies. She was excellent at identifying individuals on medical leave from work for burnout that would benefit from working with a psychologist.
The case manager was assigned clients only after they had been on long-term medical leave for at least a year, so I didn’t meet them until they had been away from their jobs for quite a while.
When I met with these clients, I would ask them whether they were tired. They would respond, “Yes, I’m exhausted.”
Remember, these people had been away from work for at least a year, so it may be surprising to learn they were still tired.
I would ask, “Do you allow yourself to get as much sleep as much as you need?”
Invariably they said, “No.”
They would share they allowed themselves to get only eight hours of sleep a night. They would say, “You’re only supposed to require eight hours of sleep a night.”
These individuals were doing the best they could. They believed what they had heard, which was they were supposed to sleep only eight hours a night. But this guideline is for people that are healthy and taking good care of themselves.
A more accurate guideline is that you should routinely sleep between 8.0 and 9.5 hours a night. The part about 9.5 hours often gets left out, perhaps because people feel pushed to accomplish as much as they can in a day, and 9.5 hours of sleep would cut into their productivity.
You must allow yourself to get as much sleep as your body needs.
Today, my clients that work with me in burnout understand they can allow themselves to sleep as much as they need. What would be the harm of sleeping more? Maybe a novel approach is worth experimenting with?
I suggest these clients allow themselves to go to bed early and wake up without an alarm. Going to bed at 8 pm and getting up at 10 am is a rough guideline we generally use at the beginning.
I suggest these clients 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 members know they will not be available to do the things they normally to do for a couple of months because their focus will be on slowing down and taking care of themselves.
Once they begin to allow themselves to sleep, these clients generally report they are sleeping between 11 and 15 hours a night. Many report that they nap during the day, too.
Expect your energy level to initially plummet.
As a group, these clients share that their energy levels immediately drop like a rock, and that they are more exhausted than they were when we first met.
I forewarn my clients that this would happen, so they aren’t surprised when it does. But this can only happen after they authentically commit to listening to their bodies and taking care of themselves by getting enough sleep.
Why do their energy levels drop? Shouldn’t their energy levels increase almost immediately?
Having your energy level drop when you are let go makes sense, once you realize that your energy level is like a gas tank and that the needle is on empty, indicating you are out of gas. When you acknowledge how exhausted you are and authentically let go, this low energy level registers — and you crash. Your body knows it has no energy reserves and will collapse once it receives permission to do so.
Your energy level will then slowly improve.
After experiencing low energy levels for several weeks, my clients begin to report that their energy levels slowly rise. This increase follows a jagged path, much like the stock market. The slope of the curve, and the peaks and dips, are determined by how hard they push themselves day by day. If they allow themselves to sleep and listen to their bodies, they are able to recover more quickly.
You will recover if you stick with it.
I suggest my clients accept their energy level will drop, and that they make peace with it. It is not until they completely accept the process that they will enter the seven-week recovery period. The alternative, as I shared earlier, is that they can remain in burnout for years.
Much to my delight, the majority of my clients are able to give themselves permission to completely let go — in order to recover — after we have had this discussion. The collapse doesn’t frighten them once they understand it is going to happen.
So, I encourage you to allow yourself to let go in order to recover, if you are in burnout. 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 making a full recovery, you can restore your energy reserves. In my experience, there is no way around it.
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta