Bloomberg Business

Seven Ways to Beat Burnout and Get Your Career Back on Track

Here’s how to fix what’s making you exhausted over the long term.

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Illustration: Dena Springer for Bloomberg Businessweek

In 2015 online training platform Administrate grew from 13 employees to 30. John Peebles, its chief executive officer, who was 35 at the time, met with investors on a hot summer afternoon. He didn’t feel well but continued with his presentation. “I started to sweat and got very hot, and it felt like I’d pinched a nerve in my neck,” Peebles says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is bad. I hope no one notices.’” He completed the presentation, schmoozed briefly, and walked home to his apartment building. Then everything went to black. “I just fell down in the stairwell. I thought, ‘Well, I’m dying. But at least I’ve got key-person insurance, so the company will get an insurance payout.’” This is not ideal deathbed fodder.

Peebles survived, gaining firsthand understanding of depletion so severe that the body breaks down. That knowledge has since shaped the culture and policies of Edinburgh-based Administrate, among the largest tech companies with a long-standing four-day workweek, which it adopted in 2015. “It’s pretty intense to work here during those 32 hours,” Peebles says. “But then you’re done.”

The debilitating exhaustion experienced by Peebles is routine for many entrepreneurs. But it’s becoming alarmingly familiar to average workers, too. Burnout rates are through the roof and rising: Some 40% of US workers are more burned out this year than in 2021, according to polling by recruiter Robert Half Inc. And a study conducted in early 2021 by Ohio State University’s Office of the Chief Wellness Officer and College of Nursing found that two-thirds of working parents were experiencing parental burnout.

Some managers are particularly sapped as hybrid working often leads to more multitasking and fewer breaks. Consultant Craig Coffey, a former marketing executive at Wells Fargo, PepsiCo, and Nokia who now works with Fortune 200 leaders, has observed an intensification of this always-on behavior in 2022. “I can’t tell you how often I’m talking to someone, and they’re also eating their breakfast,” he says. “Before, there was much less nuance—everyone was physically in the same place, and leaders could lay eyes on people and have conversations. Now, leaders are more relational and spending extra beats to make sure that nothing is lost in translation.” The back-and-forth with employees is tiring.

Mental health experts say exhaustion and burnout are the norm right now. “It’s society, it’s the system, and the world’s been on fire,” says psychologist Janette Rodriguez, founder of Amica Clinical Consulting in Davie, Fla. Although it may feel as if you need to sit on the beach for three weeks to decompress, benefits would be temporary and wouldn’t address the underlying causes of your exhaustion. Here are seven lasting changes to consider:

Appointments with Dorothy. After the collapse-in-the-stairwell incident, Peebles’s assistant found a therapist for him. “Up to then, my life had been work, work, work and on to the next goal,” he says. “A lot of our early therapy conversations were around basic human needs and the habits that protect them, like safeguarding sleep and exercise—and a one-week-per-quarter vacation.” Peebles learned that he’s an introvert who recharges solo. His therapy experience was so instrumental to his current high-octane career that he’s installed a therapist named Dorothy on Administrate’s staff; staffers can anonymously book free appointments with her. He later added a session as part of onboarding (“Otherwise, people still wait until the last minute to reach out”) and normalizes therapy by openly referencing his “appointments with Dorothy.”

Daily Refueling. At Advocates for Human Potential Inc., a company that trains mental health-care staffers in self-care, workers learn how to identify what recharges them—whether it’s nature, napping, or Nerf blaster battles—and that the activities are useless if they aren’t built into weekly routines. Senior Program Manager Tara Fischer walks trainees through how to protect those refueling activities. (“No, I can’t help you move on Sunday.”) “It’s about giving yourself permission to stop taking care of everyone else and refuel, and then actually saying no to other conflicting requests,” she says.

Weekly Pause. You may recall that early in the Book of Genesis, God announces that every seventh day shall be a day of rest. “If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for all of us,” says Aliza Kline, co-founder and CEO of OneTable, a web platform that matches Friday evening sabbath dinner hosts with guests. “Basically, our whole premise is to incorporate a very sacred pause into our week that helps us breathe and be present and live our lives fully,” she says. Kline suggests creating a weekly Friday evening dinner with friends or loved ones. “That moment of sitting down to dinner coincides with the end of the workweek, and there’s a literal exhale that happens,” she says. OneTable’s latest campaign is “tech Shabbat,” turning off technology from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

Passion Projects. Your job can be energizing if the projects are engrossing. This usually happens two ways, says Rodriguez. “For some people it comes from doing projects they’re passionate about, and for others it’s from doing tasks they’re really good at,” she says. She suggests letting managers know your passions so that they assign those topics to you, and incorporating your own genuine interests into your work as much as possible.

Extended Leave. It’s no longer taboo to ask for a long break—along with the financial arrangements you need to take advantage of it. “We’re now seeing employees who burned through their regular energy, and are now running on empty,” says Julie Titterington, chief culture officer at business software review site Merchant Maverick. “The energy that carried people through mid-pandemic is long gone.” In response, she has normalized longer periods off, when requested. “Having someone leave for four or six weeks may seem like a hardship short-term, but the boost in morale and increase in production when they return is well worth the initial investment.”

Team Retreats. After two years without retreats because of the pandemic, 200 staffers from 15Five, an HR tech platform, recently returned from a trip to Venice, Italy. “Retreats are the essential ingredient of hybrid working,” says Shane Metcalf, co-founder and chief culture officer of the company, which was hybrid long before the pandemic. “In-person relationships and connection are the missing nutrient in most people’s lives right now.” 15Five’s retreat mixed equal hours of business strategy activities, personal growth workshops (such as breath work), and social activities. “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘I was burnt out and almost out the door, and this week has totally changed that for me,’” Metcalf says.

Novelty. Rebooting can happen by simply shaking things up. “Seek out novelty,” says Ruth Pearce, who coaches burned-out project managers. She suggests that her clients try new-to-them activities such as ax throwing, go-kart racing, skinny dipping, or boating, or tasks that used to be fun in childhood, like climbing a tree. Studies show that new activities boost dopaminergic activity in the brain, which is associated with motivation and rewards. “It provides a temporary reset,” she says.

Persuading Your Boss

You want to confidently ask for what you need, while using the conversation as an opportunity to reassert your commitment to the job. “This is a business proposition—in a conversation just like any other business discussion,” says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody, partner and director of assessment at Thrive Leadership. She suggests four strategies:

  1. Frame your request as a work problem. First, shape it as directly related to outcomes, then present the solution, and then explain why it’s good for the business. For example: “To hit the Saltzman project out of the park, I’m requesting to step back for three weeks to boost that energy. Then I’ll come back and hit the ground running.” You can point to past performance: “I’ve been here for three years with a successful track record, though honestly, it’s been a heck of a year.” This is not the moment to explain that you’re exhausted all the time and not sleeping and that you can no longer go on. You’re a confident player.
  2. Make it a trial. Who doesn’t love a pilot? Present your idea as something you’d like to try out for six weeks. “It doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast, permanent solution,” says Swody.
  3. Give options. Let your manager help choose details. For example: “My focus really skyrockets with regular vinyasa yoga, and I’d like to step back for an hour three times a week. I could do an 8 a.m. class and arrive by 9:15 a.m., or I could take a long lunch break.”
  4. Keep communicating. Articulate all the work you’re doing, daily or weekly. “It puts managers at ease if you’re getting things done. They’re more likely to go along with your experiment,” Swody says.

By: Arianne Cohen