Craig Foster was the definition of a burnt-out man. In 2010, he was overwhelmed with work, sleeping badly and had completely lost interest in his great passion, which also happened to be his profession: film making. He needed a radical change.
So, Foster turned to his childhood playground: the bracing waters of the aptly-titled “Cape of Storms”, almost at the very tip of South Africa. While the surface is all crashing waves and murky currents, beneath he found a tranquil kelp forest full of strange inhabitants. As he relates in the Netflix film My Octopus Teacher, he swam amid its swaying fronds every day for a year, learning about the ecosystem and bonding with an unlikely friend (yes, an octopus), who quite literally reached out a tentacle and invited him into her world.
Not only has Foster now found new meaning in life, he also has a hit nature documentary under his belt. His “octopus love story” has been called a “breathtaking” success, and it’s already been nominated for more awards than its protagonist could hold in her many arms. That’s what you might call a well-executed burnout recovery.
What can we learn from Foster’s experiences? What’s the best way to get over burnout? How long does it take? And is extreme change always necessary?
Less than a decade ago, burnout was an obscure psychological concept. The idea of a type of chronic stress that leaves people physically and emotionally drained was more often found in academic papers than the news. But in recent years, the experience has become alarmingly common (and even recognized by the World Health Organization).
We now have political burnout, fitness burnout, Zoom burnout, relationship burnout, parental burnout, creative burnout and even video game burnout. The problem is sneaking up on people in almost every imaginable career, including Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and social media influencers. And there are hints that working from home might be making it worse. According to a survey by the job-search website Monster in July, 69% of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home during the pandemic – up 35% from just two months earlier.
While radical change worked for Craig Foster, Stela Salminen says there are other ways to recover from burnout
Many stories of burnout recovery are similar to Foster’s. Someone has an ‘aha’ moment, which makes them completely overhaul their life, quit their job, move country, end a relationship, or find a new passion. But according to Stela Salminen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, who has co-authored several studies into burnout, this is a red herring.
Dramatic life changes might be beneficial for some people, but in her own research Salminen has found one factor which unites those who recover, and that's realising that they are in control. For a small study in 2015, she interviewed 12 burnout sufferers who were attending a rehabilitation course about their experiences. Participants were assessed for the severity of their burnout at the time of the course, and then seven months later. Their scores were compared to what they said, to see if there were any tell-tale patterns.
For people who have a sustained recovery, the concept of agency seems to be at the core of this - Stela Salminen
The analysis revealed that those who recovered successfully experienced a revelation that they are in charge of their own wellbeing.
“For people who have a sustained recovery, the concept of agency seems to be at the core of this,” says Salminen. If people believe that they can influence their environment, they usually take the necessary steps to reverse the factors which got them there in the first place.
This might include things like improving sleep habits, since this is an important way to reset when you’re stressed, or drawing clear lines between work and non-work time, which is one possible reason that working from home is so problematic. “People who have a sense of agency take steps in the workplace, make changes in their families, they take care of themselves, and they’re more aware of their own limitations,” she says.
One way to achieve this is to attend a slightly scary sounding “burnout rehabilitation programme”. These come in many different forms – such as luxury retreats and basic online courses – but broadly they involve some kind of cognitive therapy to help people re-frame their experiences in a more productive way.
Another is to gain control of another aspect of your life, such as taking up a creative hobby or exercising more. The late painting instructor Bob Ross, who has recently become a YouTube sensation, often emphasised this, advising viewers: “If you don't like it, change it. It's your world.”
However, while self-care and a change of mindset are important, there’s an emerging school of thought that the emphasis on employees is unhelpful and misleading, especially when the real culprits may be workplaces themselves and their unreasonable demands. “A certain percentage of recovery needs to come from within,” says Salminen. “We need some individual changes and mental shifts if we want to recover from burnout, but this is not sufficient because burnout is not and should not be treated as a problem of the individual. It is, per se, an occupational disorder.”
Bad work or office cultures can derail individuals' attempts to set protective boundaries
Salminen explains that unless there are also changes in the person’s work environment, such as allocating more resources to those who are overwhelmed or a reduction of workload, it’s naïve not to expect chronic stress to keep coming back. In more recent research, Salminen followed up on four people who had attended a burnout course a year-and-a-half earlier, and looked for patterns in those who had managed to sustain their recovery.
“One of the participants had the belief that she could exercise agency, but she encountered certain factual barriers that prevented her from recovering,” says Salminen. The woman she is referring to is a 57-year old primary school teacher, Sara, who burned out because of constant changes at work which left her feeling confused about things like what her role should entail.
Certain workplaces and management cultures don’t allow the maintenance of recovery - Stela Salminen
In many ways, Sara was the model of a burnout victim who did all the right things: she spoke to her manager, and explained how she needed things to change. When this didn’t work, she changed jobs. But that didn’t work either – she encountered the same problems all over again. Despite her efforts, nearly two years after she first experienced burnout, she still hadn’t recovered.
“Certain workplaces and management cultures don’t allow the maintenance of recovery,” says Salminen. “There may be a lack of willingness to change things, or a lack of ability to do this.” In some cases, these issues might be endemic to entire industries.
The view that it’s necessary to take a more holistic approach to burnout is backed up by a large-scale review of the available evidence. The review found that interventions focused purely on the individual, such as those which included mindfulness training, did not systematically alleviate symptoms. Meanwhile, a study of patients on long-term sick leave because of burnout found that those who had low control at work were less likely to return to work following rehabilitation.
Another important predictor of recovery from burnout is a healthy personal life. “Apart from the agency and the concrete changes at work, this is maybe a third factor,” says Salminen. “Family relationships, one’s health – these tend to influence people who have gone through burnout and are on the path to recovery.”
For example, research suggests that divorce is a significant predictor of burnout at work. The study – which involved 1,856 recently-divorced Danish citizens – found that for both men and women, being the divorcee, as opposed to the divorcer, as well as experiencing acrimony and not having a new partner, were associated with a greater susceptibility to burnout. For women, being on a lower income was also significant. For men, it was having undergone fewer divorces in the past.
“Finding support seems to be the first step towards recovery,” says Salminen. “It can come from many different places – occupational health care, such as a physician or psychologist, it can be support from family members, or support from colleagues.” By validating your experiences, these people can help to improve your motivation and the way you see yourself – and regardless of what happens with the rest of your journey to recovery, this can only be a good thing.
Failing all that, you might want to try something more radical, like heading for the nearest kelp forest.