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Burnout Isn’t Terminal

With support, employees can bounce back from burnout on the job.

Key points

  • Since 2020, burnout has been on the rise across sectors.
  • Many people falsely assume that burnout is terminal and can only be resolved by changing one's career or current job.
  • Leaders have a key role to play in helping burned-out team members realign with their purpose and bounce back.

In the Q & A after a recent keynote, a seasoned executive raised her hand and confessed, “I was burning out, so I knew the only escape was to quit and find a new position.” Her statement took me by surprise and highlighted something far too many people falsely assume: Burnout is a terminal condition.

In reality, this is rarely true.

While burnout is prevalent, pervasive, and persistent, it is possible to bounce back from burnout, even without engaging in a major life change. Recognizing this may also be more important now than ever before.

Since early 2020, heightened uncertainty and rapidly shifting work arrangements have led to an epidemic in burnout across sectors and industries, and burnout remains a challenge across workplaces. Fortunately, with greater awareness and support, it isn’t just possible to prevent burnout in most contexts but also to help people who are suffering from it bounce back without necessarily abandoning their careers or the organizations in which they have spent years investing their time, energy, and insights.

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that burnout results from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” According to the WHO, burnout most often presents as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. While burnout isn’t new, during the pandemic, it took on new significance. By May 2020, a reported 73 percent of American professionals were feeling burned out. In the past, I’ve used this column to address how to prevent burnout. But how do you recover from burnout once it presents?

From Terminal to Livable

Anecdotally, there is reason to conclude that both the “Great Resignation” and the recent rise in “quiet quitting” are directly related to rising rates of burnout. The connection is obvious. When people hit rock bottom, like the client mentioned in the opening of this article, they assume their only option is to parachute out of the crisis.

Although simply pushing the eject button (e.g., quitting your current job or even pursuing a new career) may offer temporary relief, extreme changes often introduce new challenges and heightened uncertainty (e.g., a reduction in income) and can result in a cycle of burnout. To avoid burnout in the future, individuals also need to make actionable changes in their lives.

How to Help Team Members Bounce Back

  1. Don’t assume that burnout is “the new normal.” Sometimes people lose sight of themselves and what is real. Encourage team members exhibiting burnout to do a personal audit and look in the mirror. Encourage them to tap into their reasons for joining the team or organization in the first place.
  2. Don’t wait for team members to reach out to say they are burning out. Ask questions and express concern when you see burnout symptoms presenting.
  3. Make diverse resources available. Explore how different strategies might support different team members. Optionality is essential.
  4. Encourage team members who are experiencing burnout to take time off (e.g., to use any unused sick or vacation days to reset). More importantly, give them clear permission to create better boundaries between work and life moving forward. There is compelling evidence that employees who nurture their personal lives and spend more time on nonwork activities recover from burnout more quickly (Abedini, 2018). Having clear boundaries between work and life has also been found to prevent burnout (Oerlemans and Bakker, 2014).
  5. Put on your own oxygen mask first. To help others, you must take care of yourself first and always lead by example. You can’t talk the talk without walking the walk.

Leaders can’t always prevent burnout, but with self-awareness (the ability to identify team members at risk), they can help mitigate its impact. More importantly, with the right tools, they can often help walk team members away from terror’s edge, even when they think the only way out is to resign. When people are burnt out, it is all too often because they feel unappreciated, uncertain, or hopeless. Leaders are well-positioned to help call employees back, re-align them with their purpose, reduce uncertainty, and bolster their sense of hope.


Abedini, N. C., Stack, S. W., Goodman, J. L., & Steinberg, K. P. (2018). "It's Not Just Time Off": A Framework for Understanding Factors Promoting Recovery From Burnout Among Internal Medicine Residents. Journal of graduate medical education, 10(1), 26–32.

Oerlemans, W. G., & Bakker, A. B. (2014). Burnout and daily recovery: a day reconstruction study. Journal of occupational health psychology, 19(3), 303–314.

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