Returning to work after burnout

When I work with clients who have experienced burnout and have taken time away from work for self-care or to seek help and/or support, they often have mixed feelings about returning to work.

Whether a client is returning to the same workplace or has decided to embark on a career transition, these feelings can include renewed energy, fresh perspectives, and excitement about re-engaging with work. But there can also be concurrent feelings of apprehension, even worry about a potential slide back into burnout or fear of stigma for having taken time off. These feelings are understandable.

Burnout changes the relationship we have with work. Burnout changes the meaning work holds for us. As such, a supportive conversation addressing and reflecting upon the different feelings a client is experiencing is an important addition to the strategies we map out for returning to work.

The complex web of feelings and experiences that accompany burnout

For those who have chosen, and are able, to take time away from work, the physical and emotional relief (and release) from the day-to-day stressors that contributed to burnout can produce a deep sense of vibrancy and well-being. This comes from having the time and space to reflect on what they have been going through and to reconnect with their lives, to gain fresh perspective, and to focus on their physical and emotional health.

Taking time off can also leave a sense of being cut off from the relationships and connections our work provides, of being isolated from what “the rest of the world is doing.” Some clients I have worked with have experienced tremendous stress for seemingly “succumbing” to burnout and thus feel guilty for not “pushing through”.

Once again, any or all of these feelings are understandable.

An experiential approach to returning to work

Providing a comfortable conversational space that acknowledges and supports a client’s personal story of burnout is a first step. These conversations also encourage self-compassion and letting go of judgment.

We gather information from these reflective conversations, focusing on some of the following:

  • With deepened self-awareness and perspective, how does the client now view their relationship with work and career? What kind of relationship do they want going forward?
  • What did the client learn about themselves while away from work? What personal resources or resilience did they discover? What new perspectives emerged?
  • What has the client changed in their lives? What decisions have they been able to make or feel more comfortable making?
  • How did they reconnect to their lives – emotionally, physically, and cognitively? How did this feel?
  • What changes can the client make to their day-to-day lives away from work? What activities, boundaries, and healthy additions can they integrate into their day to day?

Customizing strategies

By harnessing insights from reflective conversations, we can then move on to what is possible for a return to work. We begin to customize strategies that are practical and healthy for the client.

If the client is returning to the same workplace, this may involve reviewing the workplace and what available resources exist. What changes does the client desire in the workplace or changes to their specific role and/or work responsibilities? What changes are possible? What resources and/or supports are available in the workplace to help facilitate these changes?

If the client is contemplating a career transition, many of these same questions and reflections can be applied to how the client wants to work going forward, and what they imagine their relationship with work and career to be. Then there are the practical steps to initiate a transition: reassessing skills and expertise, portfolio development, information meetings, and labor market research, for example.

Burnout is also a shared experience

Burnout is very real and very personal, but it is also a shared experience. Individually, we may not be able to change the overall structure and policies of a work environment that contribute to burnout but we can regain personal well-being, new perspectives, and personalized strategies that can help us return to work, or transition to new work, feeling more empowered and positive.

These are the conversations at Canvas Career Counselling. To book a conversation to explore options and strategies for returning to work after burnout please contact