According to the APA, the rate of burnout and work stress was higher in 2021 than it was in previous years. Rising levels of burnout have driven many people to seek solutions, and it’s become common to wonder, “Can self-care solve burnout?”

Your instinct might be to say “yes.” After all, anyone can benefit from self-care. However, self-care isn’t a real solution for burnout, and shouldn’t be endorsed as such. Why not?

Burnout supports ≠ burnout solutions

Dr. Marina Harris, Ph.D. points out in a popular tweet, that recommending self care for burnout can be considered victim blaming. We shouldn’t act like burnout recovery is just a matter of effort or willpower, because the roots of burnout aren’t always in a person’s control.

According to the World Health Organization, cited in an article from the American Journal of Health Promotion, “burnout is a workplace issue, not a work/life issue, which inevitably changes how we must prevent and treat the problem.”

When it comes to burnout, self-care can be a valuable form of support. However, because burnout stems from unsustainable work conditions, self-care simply cannot solve the root problem. 

One burned-out doctor puts it well: “There’s an underlying assumption in burnout discussions: that it can always be remedied with some notion of self-care. What’s never spoken is that burnout is the remnant of a fire.” A fire that you didn’t cause in the first place.

The answer is generally that it is convenient. Even though burnout is a workplace issue, it’s hard for organizations and workplaces to change.

In many cases, it’s more convenient to place the responsibility of solving burnout and burnout symptoms on the individual than it is for a company or employer to give that person what they need. 

Additionally, many people find it easier to rely on familiar solutions (like their preferred modes of self care), rather than making bigger changes that would address the roots of burnout (like switching jobs). When you rely on a job to make ends meet, it doesn’t always feel realistic to leave a stable paycheck. So instead of making a career change to solve burnout, you may turn to self care. 

Because self care helps *a little,* it can sometimes feel like a solution. It is better than doing nothing. However, it’s not your fault if self care doesn’t resolve your burnout. Self care is more of a burnout support than a burnout solution.

What are the actual roots of burnout?

Ultimately, self-care can’t fix burnout because it doesn’t address the root cause. While self-care practices might help for a brief period of time or provide a moment of peace, no amount of self-care alone can take someone off a burnout path. 

What could be the root cause of burnout? Here are some examples:

  • How you’re treated at work
  • How clear and reasonable demands are
  • How supportive your coworkers and superiors are
  • How do-able assigned timelines are
  • How much emotional labor you engage in (with clients or coworkers)
  • How stressful your work environment is

These are all major factors in developing and falling victim to burnout. Clearly, self-care will not improve any of these factors. So what coping strategies can help you address the roots of burnout?

How can you address the roots of your burnout?

Self-care won’t solve burnout, but it is important to support yourself through a work situation you can’t change. Below are some pillars of burnout self-care to help you cope with – not solve, but cope with – burnout.

Motivate yourself to take burnout seriously

Even if you can’t solve your burnout through self care, it’s still worthwhile to take the experience seriously, giving yourself as much support as possible.

Much like chronic stress, which may pair with burnout, workplace burnout can come with negative health effects. It can be hard to take these seriously before it’s too late. Acknowledge them now rather than later.

A systematic review on workplace burnout found that it can lead to:

  • High blood pressure and heart disease
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) issues 
  • Respiratory problems 
  • Prolonged fatigue 
  • Headaches 
  • Depression symptoms
  • Mortality before age 45
  • Hospitalization for mental health concerns
  • Insomnia 

Burnout doesn’t just impact your personal well-being, either. The review also found that job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and new disability pension are all potential professional outcomes for those who face burnout. Keep this in mind when you advocate for yourself at work. It is not selfish to focus on burnout recovery; it is necessary to both you and your employer

Compensate for your work environment

One way to compensate for the stress of your work environment is to support yourself as stress arises. Depending on the particular issues that are burning you out, think of a go-to phrase to reassure yourself in the moment. For example, if you feel drained by drama between coworkers, you could make a point of telling yourself: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Another way to support yourself is to develop a mindfulness or meditation practice. You may schedule these into your day once you find what works for you to ensure that you engage with these things on a regular basis.

Many people find that sleep helps counter burnout. Take at least one small step to reduce burnout by prioritizing sleep. Try to silence your electronics, or engage in other forms of sleep hygiene.

Other tools known to relieve stress in the body and mind include social support, time outdoors, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, and enjoyable activities such as art, yoga, music, sports, and dance.

Minimize compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion

In service industries or healthcare, client or patient satisfaction is important. That said, the old adage of “putting on your own oxygen mask first” really applies here. You can’t do anything to drive customer satisfaction if you burn out from emotional labor or compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue occurs when people in helping professions give too much of themselves in order to “do a good job.” Especially for those in service industries who experience compassion fatigue and low job satisfaction, self-care is simply not an effective way to solve burnout.

Put yourself first, and take time to be with yourself. It’s okay to set aside time exclusively to feel your feelings or to “do nothing.” It’s okay to cry (crying is actually known to release endorphins which relieve stress).

It may feel easier to push emotions away, and “power through” burnout. But in the end, it is not easier to avoid processing your experience. It is not easier on you or your body, and it is not beneficial to your long-term quality of work.

Keep meetings from draining you

Whether you’re burned out or just approaching burnout, you may feel your levels of stress rising during staff meetings. These events can put you on a burnout path if you don’t protect your energy.

Identify what drains you most or what leads to the most distress during these meetings. Then, find a way to support yourself through it.

For example:

  • Meetings are highly social, which can be draining for those who have less social energy. If that’s the case, try not to hang out with friends on the same day as a work meeting.
  • Meetings often mean that you take in a large quantity of information at once, which takes a great deal of energy. Try to carve out a couple minutes after a meeting to close your eyes, breathe deeply, and think–even if it’s just a bathroom break. If you can avoid scrolling or playing games on your phone, that’s best. (There’s a difference between distracting and recharging yourself.)
  • If your work environment is indeed toxic, a meeting could be high exposure to said toxicity. Holding in your emotions may make you burn out faster, so make sure to connect with a friend or online peer after a stressful meeting.

In general, don’t let moments of increased stress stay with you through your whole day. Focus on what you can control (while releasing what you can’t), and take some me-time when possible.

Participate in team-building activities

This can help you identify allies and supportive coworkers who can commiserate when your burnout is too much to handle. There’s strength in numbers, and if you come together, you may be able to find solutions and propose changes to the workplace – or the way you work – together. Team-building for burnout helps you remember that burnout is a natural human response and that if you’re burned out at your workplace, it’s very unlikely that you are the only one. 

Overcome and prevent future burnout 

Sometimes, a person may need to make permanent changes to prevent future burnout. However, it’s also possible to prevent burnout using small steps. You might choose to:

  • Set boundaries with yourself and others. For example, you may decide that you no longer engage with phone calls or emails that relate to work outside of work hours/workdays. Stick to it. This can vary based on your specific position and whether or not you are on call, etc. Whatever your circumstances, do what you can to make sure your relaxing time is actually relaxing.
  • Request accommodations if you have to. Some people might need to ask for a different shift schedule, specific days off, or change their workplace/work position altogether. If you’re in a similar position, you aren’t alone, and it is indeed okay to change course. 
  • Ask for help. It’s okay to ask for help from your team at work, medical professionals, or your support system (e.g., friends and family). 

Consider big-picture steps to address your burnout

Some find it helpful to look at the bigger picture, especially if they feel as though they’ve lost sight of who they are due to occupational burnout.

What do you want to do during your lifetime? Who are you at your core, and who do you want to be? Does your current life and stress level help you get closer to that person, or is it taking you further away?

Variations in privilege may make it easier for some people to act in response to these questions. That said, anyone can benefit from the guidance of imagining a more ideal situation.

It’s good to address your burnout, but it’s not your fault if you still struggle.

People often associate burnout with personal responsibility – as if you must not be helping yourself if you’ve burned out. On the contrary, burnout is not your burden to solve. As mentioned earlier, burnout is a workplace issue, not an individual issue.

One woman’s experience trying to self-care herself out of burnout: “We’re guilty zombies”

That said, if you can’t change your work situation, your goal is to deal with burnout symptoms as they come up. In order to do that, find a trusted ally who you can talk to when you need it.

If you need somewhere to turn and talk about burnout, Supportiv offers 100% confidential peer support, available 24/7. It’s a covered benefit through many organizations (email us if your organization doesn’t cover it!), or you can get a day pass to use Supportiv as an individual.