Burnout is a state of peak physical, psychological, and emotional exhaustion. It derails your effectiveness, your motivation, and your clarity about your career trajectory.
With the combined force of hustle culture, financial pressure, and your desire to serve the world, it can be easy to overlook the early signs of burnout. And with the rise of remote work, the boundaries between work and life have never been more blurry. Before you know it, work problems are waking you in a cold sweat at 3 am, you’re pacing the halls in the dark, questioning your life choices.
Whether you’re deep in the thick of burnout or want to avoid it, you might wonder how it originates, how long it takes to recover from burnout, and how you can strengthen your resilience to it. These questions become especially pressing if you're like most people and need to work while you recover.
The signs and sources of burnout
Burnout usually originates from work pressures. When your work demands outpace the sense of fulfillment they bring, you become more likely to face burnout.
Stressors outside of work, like health or relationship tensions, can also lead to burnout. Especially when they bleed into our performance and interfere with our efficiency or motivation.
This is how you can recognize them:
- Exhaustion: Burnout can manifest as unrelenting fatigue or a sense of being drained you can't remedy with a good night of sleep or an afternoon nap. People often reach for caffeine when they’re yawning through their work, creating a vicious feedback loop where caffeine disrupts their sleep, and they need more caffeine to account for their exhaustion.
- Cynicism: When you're burnt out, you might lose your investment in your work, ruminate about why you chose your specific career, or resent the people you serve.
- Inefficiency: Burnout can make once-easy tasks feel grueling. The urge to procrastinate or use substances to make your work more palatable may also take hold.
The subtle roots of burnout you might overlook
At its core, burnout originates with a miscalculation about the role of rest in our lives. When we have big goals, it's easy to see rest as a reward for hard work rather than a non-negotiable for optimal wellness and productivity.
According to the Handbook of Work and Organizational Work Psychology, we can understand the consequences of this pattern through the effort-recovery theory.
The effort-recovery theory suggests that all work burns psychological and cognitive resources. We recover from these efforts by taking breaks. Yet if we take inadequate breaks (or none at all), we’ll never recover the costs.
It’s straightforward, really: If you’re constantly expending energy without recovering from it, you’ll be less productive. Then you'll need to work longer and harder to make up for your work, further amplifying your exhaustion.
Of course, it doesn’t help that our society normalizes spending free time doing things that at best, don’t allow us to rest, and at worst, contribute to our stress (we’re looking at you doom-centered news headlines).
How long does it take to recover from burnout? Factors that impact your burnout recovery timeline
Of course, no single timeline for burnout recovery applies to everyone. But knowing what factors will most significantly influence your recovery can help you eliminate the habits that needlessly slow your progress.
The following factors make the most significant impact on your recovery timeline.
Your burnout stage
The stage of burnout you’re in when you seek relief influences the nature of your recovery. Someone just starting to feel the pangs of work stress can more easily find clarity than someone in habitual burnout, for instance.
To identify where you fall on the burnout spectrum, read our article on the five stages of burnout. Remember: no matter what stage you’re in, it’s never too late to regain balance. It’s just a matter of treating yourself with more patience, kindness, and commitment in the later stages.
The sources driving your burnout
They found two categories of burnout: circumstantial and existential. The participants’ approach to burnout recovery depended on what type of burnout they were facing.
Circumstantial burnout came from “self-limited circumstances,” such as financial or relational conflicts, along with environmental triggers in their workplaces. Participants recovered from circumstantial burnout by directly facing workplace challenges and nurturing their relationships and personal interests.
Existential burnout originated from a loss of meaning in their career. As a result, one participant found relief by exclusively focusing on the aspects of medicine that still brought him meaning.
To narrow down the core causes of your burnout, it can help to ask, “If I could only change one thing about this circumstance, what would have the greatest impact on how I feel?” Focus on the factor that comes to mind first. Then list the steps you can take to improve in that area.
Don’t move on to a different dimension of the problem until you’ve taken steps to change that initial one. With trial and error, you might find your first solution wasn’t correct. That’s okay: focus on changing one variable at a time.
By focusing on the possible solutions, you’ll shift your focus away from everything that isn’t working and toward the factors in your power to change, bringing you a sense of clarity and control.
Our level of commitment to changing your lifestyle
If you know you’re facing burnout, this self-awareness will lend itself to a level of conscientiousness that can speed your recovery.
Factors like the activities you do outside of work, whether you’re getting enough deep sleep, and other lifestyle choices all impact your recovery timeline.
The sooner you get clear on the factors that influence your recovery timeline (and stay committed to following through on the change), the sooner you’ll regain your energy and balance.
Stepping stones to burnout recovery
Ask yourself: Does my job align with my values?
Work that doesn’t align with your values, interests, or incentives can set you up for burnout. You can squander time and energy justifying why you’re doing something so discordant. This questioning process adds strain on top of your actual work responsibilities.
These unconscious needs—which the researchers called “implicit motives”—take two forms. One is the power motive, which is the need to negotiate and maintain discipline to feel effective, and the affiliation motive, the need for positive relationships to feel a sense of belonging.
If either motive goes unmet, a person’s risk for burnout also increases. The greater the misalignment between a person’s implicit motives and their work responsibilities, the higher their risk of burnout [source].
These results imply that if we prevent or repair these mismatches, we can decrease the risk of burnout. While you may not be able to change your work circumstances immediately, you can find short-term strategies that allow your work tasks to better align with your incentives and interests.
For example, If you love socializing but you work in front of a screen all day, can you join a co-working space? Or connect with people pursuing similar paths, and regularly meet for lunch? If you’re an introvert managing groups, can you put strategies into place that help your team do more self-management?
Finding ways to make your work more ergonomic to your natural talents can ease stress and complexity while you search for better-fitting roles.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is one of the most reliable and non-invasive indicators of nervous system balance. Improving your HRV also improves your stress resilience and susceptibility to burnout.
A high HRV points to nervous system resilience: your nervous system can fluidly transition between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation based on environmental cues [source].
A low HRV, conversely, means the nervous system isn’t responding as flexibly. For this reason, people facing chronic stress typically have low HRV [source].
If you’re already facing burnout, raising your HRV can help you recover more rapidly or efficiently. HRV training can also support your resilience so you’re less susceptible to burnout in the first place.
Some strategies for raising your HRV include:
Under stress, our breathing automatically becomes fast and shallow. Without interference, this can give rise to a feedback loop, where our breathing patterns contribute to tense, anxious thinking, further amplifying our stress-inducing breathing rhythm.
Simple, easy-to-implement breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 technique, will help you regain ease or composure when you’re actively facing stress. And incorporating breathwork as an every day practice can improve your HRV, raising your stress resilience over time.
The Apollo wearable
Through clinical research, we’ve repeatedly documented Apollo's ability to improve sleep, focus, and stress resilience.
In an open-label evaluation of nursing staff facing burnout, the Apollo reduced stress markers among the nurses by approximately 40% within two weeks, as measured by changes in their HRV.
For best results, we recommend wearing the Apollo for at least three hours a day, five days a week.
For more information about Apollo’s results, read our studies roundup.
Practice slow living
No matter what you do for work, it can be hard not to burn out in a culture that prioritizes around-the-clock stimulation. You might feel pressure to respond to your emails or text messages the moment you get them. Or if you embrace “hustle culture,” it can be hard to ever justify sleeping in or taking breaks.
According to Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, slow living is ultimately a mindset. He writes:
“[Slow living] is about quality over quantity. It’s doing things with presence, being in the moment. Ultimately, it’s about doing everything as well as possible instead of as fast as possible.” [source]
If you’re interested in practicing slow living as a way to mitigate burnout, try this:
Embrace the seasonality of life
When you practice slow living, you recognize there’s a time for speeding up and a time for slowing down. You can do this on a day-to-day level by complementing every work session with deliberate fun or relaxation. For every two hours of work, take 30 minutes to do something fun or restorative: taking a walk, reading a book, or listening to a meditation. You can think of these as mini vacations.
From a longer-term perspective, you might also simply remind yourself there’s a time for hustling, and a time for slowing down. Neither is permanent, and both matter.
By honoring the way both stages influence your productivity and well-being, you can fully immerse yourself in each experience, aiming to give your complete, granular attention to whichever is currently in front of you.
Use technology mindfully
Embracing slow living doesn’t require you to give up technology. But it does ask you to be real with yourself, to be honest about when technology hurts you more than it helps you.
For example, you’re likely to be more susceptible to burnout if your idea of relaxation involves sitting in front of the TV or scrolling on social media from the time you leave work until the time you go to bed. In these cases, you’re not giving your brain space to truly unwind and recover from the pressures of your day
Try creating boundaries between social media/TV and your rest period. Carve out a 90-minute space before bed focused solely on things that uplift or relax you: drawing or stretching, taking a long hot Epsom salt bath, meditating, connecting with old or new friends, etc.
Don’t shy away from a hard reset
In certain stages of burnout, complete detachment from work can give you the time and space to reflect on your priorities. Spending a few days in a place you’ve never been, or if that’s not feasible, carving out time where you prioritize nothing but recovery can be a powerful way to recharge.
In addition to relaxation, practicing active recovery can help you make the most of your pause. Active recovery refers to low intensity challenges that allow you to maintain your agility even while you focus on rest and restoration.
Just as high-intensity athletes benefit more from taking leisurely walks on their breaks than lying on a couch all day, you’re likely to feel better rested if you compliment your relaxation with forms of active recovery.
Some examples of active recovery include:
- Taking nature walks
- Learning new skills or hobbies
- Practicing non-sleep deep rest (NSDR)
- Small doses of high-intensity interval training (HIIT)
The attitude that supercharges your susceptibility to burnout (and what to focus on instead)
In a world that prioritizes constant stimulation and activity, it can be easy to see rest and recovery as after thoughts, or as rewards for working hard.
But if you’re constantly working yourself until you’re burnt out, you’re not doing yourself favors in the long-run. Braiding opportunities to rest and recharge into your daily life allows for a more sustainable, slower-burning energy.
For this reason, strategic moments of pause may be the most effective productivity strategy available.