While we have a clear definition of what burnout is, its three symptoms, and the six factors that lead to it, we know relatively little about how to help people stuck in the throes of burnout. Researchers from the Virtual Reality Medical Institute who reviewed over 11,000 academic articles on burnout recovery describe the landscape of interventions as "very fragmented" and filled with "many methodological weaknesses." Finnish researchers who performed a similar analysis concluded: "It is impossible to draw guidelines regarding how to treat burnout. Single studies produced mixed results..."
Why is the research so mixed and inconclusive? When looking for solutions, people tend to focus on actions they can take instead of changes their company should make. While this is practical, one of the most well-supported conclusions of this research is that combining individual- and organization-level approaches is most effective.
This doesn't mean you can't help yourself. However, given the murkiness of the research, it's easy to be lured into using an approach that has limited success. Here are recovery approaches that don't work, partially work, and really work:
Burnout Recovery Approaches that Rarely Work
These approaches find little to no support in the research. That isn't to say they are harmful to do. They may reduce stress or improve mood, but they don't have much effect on burnout overall.
Exercising: Exercise offers clear health benefits, including stress reduction and the reduction of depression, but in several studies, it was not successful in alleviating burnout symptoms.
Getting some light: Sunlight or artificial bright light can be a great solution for a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, but unfortunately, it does nothing for burnout.
Building communication skills: Improved communication skills can reduce relational conflicts and help burnout victims assert themselves, but the research suggests such skills are too far removed to drive significant recovery.
Burnout Recovery Approaches with Mixed or Partial Results
Some studies suggest these approaches have an impact, while others don't. Even when they don't speed burnout recovery, they generally still affect factors related to burnout.
Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness practices have clear, evidence-based benefits, but their impact on burnout is often either small and insignificant or fleeting. In some cases, mindfulness practices led to a reduction in emotional exhaustion or depersonalization symptoms, but not burnout overall.
Using relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques, which include focused breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, are a common approach to stress management. They are effective in reducing emotional exhaustion, but to speed recovery from burnout, most researchers believe they must be combined with other approaches.
Engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy involves identifying and replacing harmful or counterproductive beliefs that drive your actions. While there is strong evidence to support its use in relieving stress, it has mixed results in reducing burnout symptoms.
Recovery Approaches that Work
These approaches have substantial evidence specifically demonstrating they help people recover from burnout. Start your recovery effort here.
Working less: While it's almost too obvious to include, this is one of the most well-supported ways to aid your recovery from burnout. You may feel this is out of your control, but that is only half true. The Wall Street Journal just documented one of many emergent cases where companies have reduced the hours their employees work from eight to five by encouraging them to adopt several research-based productivity practices rather than shrinking their workload.
Finding social support: A randomized trial conducted at the Mayo Clinic found that providing physicians with one hour every other week to meet with a small group of colleagues and discuss their experiences reduced burnout. Social support builds community (one of the six factors that lead to burnout), changes your ideas of what is possible, and surfaces effective ways to make changes.
Mastering challenges outside of work: There are three experiences that help professionals refuel before starting work again the next day: psychological detachment (i.e., not thinking about work), relaxation (e.g., sipping a cold drink), and mastery (e.g., running a half marathon). While all three help, engaging in mastery experiences outside of work that build your belief that you are in control of your life has the greatest impact.
Hopefully, the research on what helps people recover from burnout will continue to advance. Until then, the final two sections offer a range of approaches you can use to speed your or a coworker's recovery.