How to Recover From Burnout
Burnout is becoming more common, as work pressure increases along with the demand to always be connected.
Almost anyone is at risk of developing burnout symptoms, especially if they have tough schedules and high workloads.
What is burnout?
The term was first coined in 1974 by American psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger1, representing a collection of physical and psychological symptoms. The most common symptoms linked with burnout include: exhaustion, reduced sense of personal accomplishment, depression, reduced job function and other stress-related illnesses.
If left undetected or not dealt with, burnout can have extreme effects on health, relationships and career.
High risk of burnout in freelancing
Freelancers are at a higher risk of burnout than those in regular jobs, according to Dr. Dagmar Siebecke from the Technical University of Dortmund, who examined burnout syndrome in various work situations2. According to this study, 65% of freelancers surveyed had chronic pain or illness, work-related psychological problems and exhaustion, whereas only 43% of employees reported the same.
Interestingly, the study discovered that it was not long working hours that caused burnout. Instead, it was the nature of the tasks, the lack of connection to clients and colleagues, as well as the lack of separation between home and work life.
Freelancers rarely have access to programs designed to combat and prevent burnout, as implemented in many companies. They must seek help on their own, but this is difficult when already exhausted.
What causes you the most stress?
If you are experiencing many of these symptoms, you may be at risk of burning out.
- You are exhausted all of the time - you even wake up tired!
- You are frequently sick or have physical pains, without underlying medical reasons.
- You dread each work day.
- You are completely and utterly bored with all of your work projects.
- Your schedule, deadlines and goals are unrealistic and unreasonable.
- You feel helpless, worthless, isolated and overwhelmed.
- You distract yourself and procrastinate every chance you can get.
- You can't concentrate, or forget appointments all the time.
- You lie awake every night, thinking about work.
- You have reduced social contact, maximizing the time spent working.
Freelancers at risk of burnout
- Unmanageable tasks and lack of control - Poorly specified projects with unrealistic deadlines, absorb large amounts of time in miscommunication, too many meetings, and re-work to meet the client's changing demands.
- Lack of support, encouragement and acknowledgement - Freelancers don't have performance reviews, work is accepted by the client but rarely praised. Making this problem worse, freelancers often feel they are underpaid.
- Lack of interaction - Freelancing is a solitary job. There is no team to bounce ideas off, or to check the understanding of a problem. Interacting with clients is not the same as interacting with colleagues.
- No separation between work and home - Working and living in the same space, encourages the feeling that you are always 'at work'. This is exacerbated by pressure to always be connected, and respond immediately to incoming communication (email, phone, social media).
- Time pressures and inadequate breaks - These two factors combine with poorly specified projects, the lack of separation between work and home, and poor time management practices. Freelancers worry about taking 'unpaid' time off, when taking a short break, a sick day, or a vacation.
- Unpredictable schedule and lack of job security - Projects come and go, there is no guarantee that there will be a next project. For some, this uncertainty and fluctuating schedule is deadly.
The first step is to recognize that you are heading towards burnout. Take some time to objectively look at your situation.
- Work out your personal and professional goals, find what you are passionate about. Are you engaged with your current work, or are you bored?
- Check that your goals are realistic, and define realistic ways to measure your success.
- Identify the sources of stress in your job (and in your personal life). Look for where your goals and passions do not match your projects and work habits.
- Check that you are juggling a manageable set of projects. Being overloaded saps motivation and productivity.
- Identify small changes you can make that will help you recover from burnout, and try them for 30 days.
- Look at downshifting, reducing expenses along with working hours to find a better work-life balance.
1. Routines and schedules preventing burnout
Stop or slow down. Set and stick to reasonable working hours. Working long hours, with no time off, does not increase productivity. It increases stress, encourages illness, and leads to burnout.
Keep within your schedule when working with your clients, you do not need to be always connected and respond immediately. Sending emails at 2am after a 14 hour work day encourages clients to expect service at all hours.
Back-up your electronic files regularly. Nothing is more stressful than losing all your work on a nearly complete project, close to its deadline!
Routines are useful for productivity, and for reducing stress. Don't forget to organize your home routine around your work routine, and don't mix them together.
2. Separate work and home to avoid burnout
Have a separate area for working, apart from your living space - don't work from your laptop in bed, or from the couch in front of the TV.
Keep everything work-related in one area. When you leave the area, you are no longer 'at work' and can properly relax.
Shared workspaces are available to hire in many cities, catering to freelancers who don't want to work at home.
4. Prioritise and plan against burnout
Select projects that interest you, or work with clients that you enjoy working with. Encourage long-term relationships with your favourite clients, drop those that take too much energy and time. Take on projects in new areas, stretch your skills and avoid becoming bored.
Plan projects in detail, encourage clear specifications and realistic deadlines. Don't be pressured into impossible situations, get comfortable with saying "no".
If you have too many projects on your plate, you need to re-balance your workload. Look at outsourcing the projects you are least interested in, or which cause the most amount of stress.
Communicate with your clients, ask for further clarification of requirements, explain when you are having trouble meeting a deadline.
Don't work yourself into the ground - your health is more important than this project.
3. Make your workspace comfortable
You have the freedom to make your workspace at home work for you, unlike many who work within companies.
Use a chair that properly supports your back and neck. Arrange your computer and desk according to ergonomic guidelines. If you experience hand pain while typing, a Dvorak layout or split keyboard may be suitable, or use speech-to-text software, such as Dragon Dictate.
Fluorescent lighting causes headaches for many in workplaces - LED or incandescent globes may be better choices. Avoid listening to distracting music, and leave the TV off while working.
Choose software tools that help you focus and stay productive. Many editors now have a full-screen mode, and there are utility programs that can block access to your biggest distractions for a set amount of time.
Keep the workspace clean and organized, both physically and electronically. If the computer is used both for work and play, create a work-only account. Keep all project files and communication notes together for each project.
5. Take time off to prevent and recover from burnout
Take a month or week vacation now and again, or even a day, here and there. Focus on reducing stress, recovering from illness, relaxing, and re-balancing your life. Don't spend your breaks (or your weekends) working!
Spend time with friends and loved ones, whose company you enjoy.
6. Take care of yourself to avoid developing burnout
Set aside a regular block of time in your schedule to exercise. Do something you enjoy - walking, attending a gym, a dance class, swimming, or something else.
Getting outside regularly can help you to leave work behind, and relax more easily.
Eat a healthy diet - set time aside to shop, and cook from whole ingredients. Aim for as many colours as you can in each meal. A balanced diet of fruits, vegetables and proteins provides the vitamins and minerals that are essential for managing stress.
Also set aside time to consciously relax, at least once a week. Take a regular bath, listen to music, or meditate. Notice how your body is feeling, and consciously let go of tension.
Get plenty of sleep every night. Do not allow work to intrude - pack your projects away, plan for the following day, and then clear your workspace (and your mind) at the end of each work session. Allow enough time to unwind between finishing work and heading to bed.
A healthy diet, adequate exercise, relaxation and sleep work together to ward off illnesses that can result in lost work time and increased work stress.
7. Communicate and seek help to recover from burnout
Communicate with your clients. Work out detailed specifications and realistic deadlines, before starting to implement.
Ask for help from your personal support network. Encourage them to keep you accountable - sticking to a schedule, taking care of yourself, making sure you relax. Ask for help with tasks around the house - cooking, cleaning, gardening. Exercise with a friend, your kids, or your partner.
If your symptoms are severe, seek professional help from doctors and psychologists.
8. Spend time on hobbies or personal projects
Personal projects or hobbies are great incentives to stick to a sensible working schedule. A project or hobby that encourages you to relax and think about something other than work, can go a long way to preventing burnout.
Cooking, reading, music, gardening, painting, anything different to your freelancing job is a good way to switch off.
9. Learn something new - interest staves off burnout
In a world where technology is so rapidly changing, everyone must keep learning - new skills, new software, new approaches. Set aside time in your schedule for professional development projects. Take a course, read articles in your field, improve your skills. But keep this within your work schedule.
Taking classes unrelated to work, learning a new skill (perhaps cooking, gardening or a new language), is a great boost to motivation, creativity and engagement - an important tool to use against burnout.
You life is more than your work - there must be a balance. Slow down, re-balance, enjoy life and work.
By sticking to a structured and planned working routine with clear boundaries, balanced with a healthy personal life, and consciously relaxing outside of work, freelancers can overcome, and avoid burnout.
I've been diagnosed with burnout, now what?
You've hit rock bottom and you are completely burned out. Now what?
Burnout doesn't just go away, even if you take a break from work. It is a slow journey - there are no quick fixes.
The recovery journey is just as difficult as what caused you to burn out.
The first step is to take a break.
Get out of the situation, rest, give yourself space and time to work on finding the causes, healing and developing better coping strategies. You need to find out why it happened.
But be careful to not do anything drastic - don't suddenly quit your job, run away from your family and home,
Take sick leave or use your vacation days
In many countries, a diagnosis of burnout entitles you to sick leave. You may be allowed to take a few weeks or months off, both to take a break and to work on discovering why and developing coping and prevention strategies for when you return to work.
Most importantly - tell someone and get help - it's easier to recover when you have a support network which understands and will help you. You might be able a support group in your local area, and there are many available online.
Many psychologists and social workers are trained to help people with burnout, and may have printed resources or contacts to support groups that you can take advantage of.
There are many people and groups, both in person and online who can help you develop stress management techniques, which will help you both recover from burnout, and prevent it from happening again in the future.
Why did you burn out?
Do you hate or resent your job, some aspects about it or even the people you work with?
Keeping a stress diary can help you pinpoint triggers that contribute to your burnout.
For each thing at work, at home, or in your studies - all situations that you find very uncomfortable or are anxious about - write something that you can do that will prevent at least some of the stress and anxiety.
Typical problems that can cause burnout:
- Too heavy a workload.
- A hostile work environment.
- No control of your duties, processes or deadlines.
- Not enough reward - payment or recognition.
- Your work goes against your values.
- Your own perfectionism.
Think about delegation, reducing the breadth of tasks you must perform for your job, speaking with a mentor, working from home occasionally or not taking work home at all, using flex time and avoiding overtime, defining your responsibilities with your boss more accurately, or reducing your workload.
Perhaps changing roles or finding a new job may actually be the best course of action - but don't make a hasty decision.
Take this discovery process slowly and carefully - don't pressure yourself to get it done in a week. It can take a few months to find the root causes, and then more to discover ways to mitigate or avoid them in future.
Look at your goals
Burnout often occurs when your work goes against your personal values or goals. But it can also occur if you have no long-term goals (and want them).
Take time to identify what gives your life meaning, what you enjoy and what you want to do in the longer term.
Don't commit, especially to new things
Don't take on any new commitments while you are working on your recovery - that is your 'full time job' right now. Don't agree to organise family parties or events with friends, don't take work home with you to work on while you are on sick leave.
Learn to say 'no', and to not feel bad about it. You are worth it, you need to take care of yourself.
Take care of your body
Eat healthily and regularly. Cut down on alcohol and tobacco (these contribute to burnout!) Exercise - do anything that you enjoy - take walks, get out in the sunshine.
Sleep - chances are you have a massive sleep deficit. Take advantage of this break and catch up on your sleep - take naps!
Take care of your mind
Don't dwell constantly on your pain, on your burnout and the reasons it happened. Distract yourself - read books that you enjoy, play games, go out, see movies, breathe.
Perhaps pick up meditation, and try to quiet your mind. Tai chi and yoga are equally good, plus they are exercise!
Picking up a new (gentle) hobby can help too - you are learning something (this releases good brain chemicals), and you get the sense of achievement with no pressure to perform, unlike when learning new skills for work.
There is hope
You can recover from burnout. It may not be easy or quick, but many people have returned successfully to work, with strategies in their pockets that prevent it from ever happening again.
You can do it too!
- "Staff burnout", Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165.
- "Freelancer unter Dauerstress – IT als neue Burnout-Branche", Dr. Dagmar Siebecke, Technische Universität Dortmund, 2010 (PDF available from Burnon Infothek)
Have you experienced freelancer burnout?
How did you recover?
Share your tips and tricks in the comments below!