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managing stress at work how to recover from burnout work burnout symptoms what causes burnout at work burnout prevention

Managing stress at work: How to recover from burnout

Published Apr 12, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024

Taking the time to relax is of vital importance for your mental and physical health. Studies showed that prioritising yourself and your downtime is the way to counter and also prevent burnout. The article explains what causes burnout at work and how you can tackle it.  


What is burnout? 

The term burnout was invented by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974[1]. One of the first big studies on burnout was conducted in the 1970s[1,2]. The researchers noticed a trend as workers reported feeling emotionally worn out[2]. They concluded burnout was rife among participants, influencing participants’ ambitions, idealism, and sense of worth.

One research from the 2010s found that 2.7 million workers in Germany report feeling the effects of burnout[1]. Results of a 2013 study in the United Kingdom have shown that nearly 30% of human resource directors reported that burnout was widespread within their organisation[1]. Wondering if you’re experiencing work burnout symptoms? Burnout is recognized as a state of vital exhaustion by the World Health Organization[3]. Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with those of depression, including fatigue, loss of passion, and uninterested in one’s job[1,3,4]. 


Why does burnout happen and what happens in the brain?

At its core, burnout emerges when job demands surpass a person’s ability to cope with stress[1]. It happens as a result of chronic workplace stress that has been unsuccessfully managed[4]. 

Burnout disrupts the regulation of the body’s stress response which controls the release of the stress hormone cortisol[1,6,]. Normally, when we perceive a threat, whether it’s a snake in the grass or an upcoming deadline, a rush of cortisol is released into the body[6].  Once the threat has passed, cortisol levels drop, and our stress response system returns to baseline levels. However, when stress becomes chronic as in the case of burnout, the body struggles to return to normal because our stress response system produces higher-than-normal levels of cortisol[1,7]. And when cortisol levels remain too high for too long, the body responds by eventually downshifting cortisol production to abnormally low levels, a state called hypocortisolism[7]. It’s as though the body’s stress response system itself burns out. Researchers also found that burnout was associated with cognitive deficits[1,5]. The same review of multiple studies has also shown that individuals with burnout were more prone to attentional setbacks and memory impairments. The reviewed studies had few participants which made it challenging to pinpoint burnout as the cause of any cognitive impairment. However, burnout is preventable and manageable. Take a look at the steps you can implement to beat it. 


4 evidence-based steps to manage burnout

Researchers found promising evidence that the unfavourable effects of chronic stress may be reversible[8]. They recruited a group of severely stressed-out medical students who were about to take the US medical licensing exam. The research team also recruited a group of fairly unstressed medical students as a control group. While the results from the first analysis that took place before the exam showed disrupted connections in the brain of stressed students, the two groups of students both perceived stress as low and performed well on the attention-shifting task four weeks after one group of students took the exam. Even though it’s hard to compare four weeks of a stressful exam period to years of stress that some people endure at their jobs, this study suggests that recovery is possible for people suffering from burnout[1,8]. Discover below 4 proven burnout busting tips including how to recover from burnout and burnout prevention.

  • Take regular breaks at the office

Taking regular breaks between your work time is important in recovering from stress[10]. It can improve your performance by restoring energy levels and mental capacity[9]. A small study even suggests that when faced with long tasks such as studying before an exam or designing a work project, brief breaks help you stay more focused on the task at hand while managing stress at work[10]. There’s also evidence that breaks improve memory formation - it appears that the brain reviews and facilitates what it previously learned while you take a break[11].

The so-called “movement breaks” are essential for your physical and emotional health. Results from a study conducted at Stanford University showed that, when people were challenged to do mental tasks that required imagination, walking led to more creativity  than sitting did[12]. One study also found that memory recall was better after students took an hour-long break and went on a walk[13]. The results show that students who took a walk in nature memorised and were able to recall more information than those walking through the city. 

While what feels best will be individual to you, try to distribute downtime throughout your day and week so that you have short breaks and longer chunks of time to unwind. During the week, go on at least one 1-hour long walk in nature, and make sure to take regular short breaks at work even if it means just walking to the toilet and back.

  • Boost your relaxation

Downtime is important for your brain health. Research has found that taking breaks improves your mood, boosts your performance, increases your ability to concentrate and pay attention, and helps with your physical health[16,17,18]. The refreshed mind works more efficiently. 

When planning your relaxation time make sure you pick an activity where your brain can rest, such as staring into a ceiling, vacuuming or weeding. These are known as mindless tasks where you can let your mind wander. If you feel like that’s easier said than done, you can always opt for a supplement that can help you relax and unwind. Studies show that theanine can stimulate Alpha brain waves, which represent a relaxed but attentive mental state[19]. Read all the reviews here and use the code ‘NEW 15’ at checkout to get 15% off your first order.

  • Prioritise self-care with meditation

Meditation is a  mental practice that helps you focus on the present moment while acknowledging your feelings, thoughts, and emotions[14]. Research has shown that people meditating for at least 20 minutes every day for 90 days had better attention spans than those who meditated for a few days a week for 20 minutes[14,15]. In the same study, meditation was found to positively impact brain activity, improving the memory brain system. 

A handful of experiments suggest that practising meditation for 10 to 20 minutes per day every day for a couple of weeks can improve our cognition, and aids in positive thinking[14,15]. Some studies also indicate that daily meditation is of far greater importance than the total hours of meditation over someone's lifetime[14,15]. Get to know 10 easy steps to practice mindfulness meditation here

  • Set boundaries

You’re halfway there by now knowing the techniques which you can implement to counter burnout. The other half is putting them into action. To do so, communication with others and yourself is the key.

To be able to implement the techniques you may need to set a couple of boundaries. Boundaries are guidelines or sometimes even rules that tell others how you want to be treated[20]. They act as a guide on what’s acceptable and safe for you. With setting boundaries comes greater assertiveness, meaning you become better at asserting and therefore meeting your needs[20]. You can consequently spend more time on things you truly enjoy. 

You’re probably asking yourself “Well, how do I do that”.

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a big circle on it. That is your life pie; it represents all the different parts of your life.
  2. Start to fill in the pie by drawing different-sized pieces on it. One piece can represent home, while others can represent your family, hobbies and work. Add as many pieces as you feel the need to, and make them as big or as little as the importance it carries in your life right now.
  3. Concentrate on your work for a second. Think about what kind of holes it has created throughout your life pie. It can maybe be something like answering your work calls or emails at home, meaning there may be a hole in your home or maybe even your family piece of the pie. Or you feel like you’re tired a lot when you’re at work. That’s a hole in the work piece of the pie. 
  4. Now fill in the holes with different fillings - activities that you love. You can also fill the holes with some techniques described in this article. 
  5. Good job! Now go and enjoy those pie fillings. Make sure to set a schedule for them if that’s how you make sure to stick with them. 

Beat burnout by putting yourself first. As Robert Holden said: “Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have”.


[1] Michel, A. (2016). Burnout and the Brain. Association for Psychological Science.,to%20cope%20with%20the%20stress

[2] Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behavior, 2, 99–113. 

[3] Persons encountering health services in other circumstances (Z70-Z76) (2019). ICD-10 Version:2019.

[4] Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases (2019). World Health Organization.

[5] Deligkaris, P., Panagopoulou, E., Montgomery, A. J., & Masoura, E. (2014). Job burnout and cognitive functioning: A systematic review. Work & Stress, 28, 107–123.

[6] Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., & Ayers, D. (2022). Physiology, Stress Reaction. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

[7] Oosterholt, B. G., Maes, J. H., Van der Linden, D., Verbraak, M. J., & Kompier, M. A. (2015). Burnout and cortisol: Evidence for a lower cortisol awakening response in both clinical and nonclinical burnout. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 78, 445–451.

[8] Liston, C., McEwen, B. S., & Casey, BJ. (2009). Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 912–917.

[9] The Importance of Taking Breaks (n.d.). The Wellbeing Thesis.,and%20cardiovascular%20disease%20%5B2%5D

[10] Ariga, A., & Lleras, A. (2011). Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 118(3), 439–443. 

[11] Jabr, F. (2013). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientific American.

[12] Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152.

[13] Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., Kaplan, S., Sherdell, L., Gotlib, I. H., & Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140(3), 300–305. 

[14] Raffone, A., Marzetti, L., Gratta, C. D., Perrucci, M. G., Romani, G. L., & Pizzella, V. (2019). Chapter 9—Toward a brain theory of meditation. In N. Srinivasan (Ed.), Meditation (Vol. 244, 207–232). 

[15] Fox, K., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M., Floman, J., Ellamil, M., Rumak, S., Sedlmeier, P., & Christoff, K. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 43.

[16] Shattell, M. (2018). Getting Away From it All: The Importance of Vacation and Downtime Recovery From Work. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 56(5), 3–4.

[17] Lazar, S. W., Bush, G., Gollub, R. L., Fricchione, G. L., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. NeuroReport, 11(7), 1581–1585.

[18] Why Downtime Is Essential for Brain Health (2020). Cleveland Clinic healthessentials.,doesn%27t%20work%20as%20efficiently

[19] Micallef, J., Soubrouillard, C., Guet, F., Le Guern, M. E., Alquier, C., Bruguerolle, B., & Blin, O. (2001). A double blind parallel group placebo controlled comparison of sedative and amnesic effects of etifoxine and lorazepam in healthy subjects. Fundamental and Clinical Pharmacology, 15(3), 209–216.

[20] Holowaychuk, M. K. (2018). Setting Boundaries to Protect Personal Time. Veterinary Team Brief.

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