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How to Recover From Burnout (Hint: Low Sleep Debt Is Key!)

Keeping sleep debt low is a proven way to fight back against burnout. To do this you’ll need to address stressors and build a buffer between work and sleep.
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists. Learn more.
Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Published
2023-01-23
Updated
20 MINS
Man sitting on couch relaxing with his cat while he recovers from burnout

If you’re experiencing burnout, you’re certainly not alone. As the pandemic drags on, more and more of us are dealing with compounding stressors, both at work and on the home front — adapting to pandemic-induced career changes or new hybrid remote/in-office schedules, picking up extra hours or duties at work due to short-staffing issues, working from home while caring for kids who keep getting sick, or trying to keep our productivity up while we’re sick ourselves, etc. — all of which can build over time into a state of burnout.  

But just because burnout is more common than ever doesn’t mean we need to resign ourselves to living with it long-term. 

So, what can you do to fight back against burnout? It may seem counterintuitive when life feels like one long never-ending to-do list, but the first step in burnout recovery is to work on prioritizing your daily downtime. In particular, making sure you're getting enough sleep is key. 

Below we’ll cover the symptoms and causes of burnout, the science behind the sleep/burnout connection, what you can do to improve your sleep and say goodbye to burnout for good, and how the RISE app can help increase your chances of success every step of the way.

What Is Burnout?

When we feel completely overwhelmed by our responsibilities and obligations, day after day, week after week, this prolonged state of stress and exhaustion can eventually lead to a depletion of our mental, emotional, and physical capacities that commonly results in poor self-esteem, depression, lack of motivation, and disengagement both at work and at home. Unfortunately, this further compounds the problem by making us less capable of staying on top of the demands of our jobs and personal lives, all while the pressures that put us there in the first place continue to build up. 

To distinguish burnout from ordinary stress, psychologist and burnout researcher Christina Maslach, Ph.D. specifies that those undergoing burnout will experience all of the following three burnout hallmarks

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism or hopelessness related to work 
  • Guilt or self-blame (i.e. we worry it’s “all in our head” and feel ashamed or angry with ourselves for being mentally checked-out during family dinners or mindlessly scrolling while procrastinating a tight deadline) 

But despite the nagging self-doubt, burnout is very much not “all in our head.” According to other research, burnout has also been linked to:

  • Mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation
  • Measurable cognitive declines, including reduced mental agility and difficulty making decisions
  • Negative implications for our physical health, including headaches, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, and cardiovascular events requiring hospitalization
  • Sleep loss, which not only exacerbates all of the above, but also comes with its own troubling implications like decreased motivation, heightened emotional reactivity and less empathy, impaired immune function, and weight gain, among others (as you’ll see shortly)

What Causes Burnout?

Historically, burnout has been attributed to chronic stress, usually as a result of daily demands (either at work, at home, or elsewhere) outpacing our ability to keep up with them. Often this is combined with other factors, such as:

  • Lack of support at work and/or at home
  • Lack of security in our job, finances, or family/home environment 
  • Feeling like our hard work is going unrecognized by our bosses, spouse, etc.
  • Feeling like we’re not in control of our schedule, or what projects or additional responsibilities we’re required to take on
  • Being required to perform tasks that conflict with our values

All this, in turn, leads to increasingly poor work-life balance, diminished downtime and self-care efforts, and negative feelings towards our jobs, coworkers, loved ones, and ourselves. 

But while high stress is certainly relevant, recent research points to sleep loss as a potentially even more meaningful driver of burnout. 

For example, according to one study that observed 15 burned-out individuals over a 2-year period—during which time their sleep habits, stress levels, and burnout symptoms were routinely assessed—“too little sleep” (defined by researchers as less than 6 hours each night) was the most significant predictor of burnout. Though struggles with “work demands” and “thoughts of work during leisure time” were also reported by the study participants, it was sleep that had the biggest impact. 

What’s the Connection Between Sleep and Burnout?

The relationship between sleep loss and burnout is bi-directional, meaning each perpetuates the other. 

Chronic stress interferes with the biological processes that dictate our sleep-wake cycle, which, simply put, means that stress can easily throw our sleep health out of whack. What’s more, sleep deprivation also negatively affects these same biological processes, making matters worse the more sleep we miss out on. 

Added to this, when we’re carrying sleep debt (defined as the amount of sleep we owe our bodies, based on our individual sleep need — at RISE, we calculate this using a 14- day window) staying on top of our daily tasks and obligations becomes more difficult

This is because sleep debt:

  • Impairs our cognitive functioning, making us less productive, efficient, and more prone to costly mistakes and oversights 
  • Negatively impacts our mental and emotional well-being, making us more negative and reactive, and less emotionally resilient

Sending a catty email to the entire office because you accidentally hit “reply all,” or having a meltdown because you spaced that it’s your turn to pick up the kids from soccer practice? Yep, your lack of sleep may very well be to blame! 

And, of course, the less capable we are of knocking things off our to-do lists during the day, the more overwhelming our to-do lists become, and the more stressed we feel come nighttime. 

From here we can quickly find ourselves in a rut where we intentionally skimp on sleep to try to make up for what we didn’t get accomplished during the day, which only digs the hole deeper…leading to more “off” days, continually higher stress levels, more sleepless nights, and, you guessed it: burnout. 

Is Burnout Reversible?

Yes! And, thankfully, because the sleep/burnout connection is so strong, one of the most impactful actions we can take toward kicking a bout of burnout is to focus on improving our sleep

Research indicates paying down our sleep debt is a successful strategy for reversing signs of burnout — in one study of 59 burnt-out employees on extended sick leave, improved sleep was “the best predictor of return to work” after six months. 

This applies to all domains of burnout, too — whether we’re experiencing job burnout, academic burnout, parental burnout, and/or burnout related to another aspect of our life (i.e. we could also be caring for a sick parent, in the process of selling our house, trying to finish a novel in our spare time, or have a long daily commute that’s started to take a toll), sleep appears to be a universal salve. It’s also something we can work on without quitting our job, reducing our full-time hours, or mentally and emotionally isolating ourselves from our friends and family members. 

How Do I Recover from Burnout?

Since the burnout recovery process hinges on sleep, the steps we need to take to beat burnout are also the steps we need to take to get better sleep. 

Here are 5 strategies for banishing burnout by way of improving sleep:

1. Keep Sleep Debt in Check

Low sleep debt is not only a powerful antidote to burnout but is generally the best predictor for how we feel and function during the day—in other words, it helps us optimize the baseline aspects of our daily life when we’re otherwise feeling at the end of our rope. Here are some things to keep in mind when addressing sleep debt:

  • In order to determine sleep debt, you first need to check in with your sleep need: Despite the cultural emphasis on 8 hours of shut eye each night, it’s simply not true that everyone needs the same amount of sleep. In fact, one study suggests the average sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes or so, but 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night. (If this sounds confusing, don’t fret — the RISE app can calculate your sleep need for you, down to the minute.)
  • Humans aren’t good at assessing how sleep-deprived we are: Not only do we tend to overestimate the amount of time we spend asleep, but we’re also biologically hardwired to acclimate to high sleep debt, meaning subjective measures like how tired we feel are far from accurate. This is why keeping track of sleep debt via the RISE app is a game-changer — your sleep debt number is an objective measure of how much sleep your body’s missed out on over the last 14 days, and you can use this to gauge your progress and plan ahead. 
  • Remember that the goal is improvement, not perfection: Ultimately, you want to keep your sleep debt below 5 hours over the span of each 14 day period in order to feel and perform your best and nip symptoms of burnout in the bud. (This 14-day window is also helpful, as it allows us to engage with the bigger picture, and takes the pressure off any one night of sleep.) 
  • Low sleep debt won’t eliminate stressors, but will make them easier to deal with: Getting enough sleep won’t stop your boss from micromanaging your workflow or resolve your teething toddler’s tantrums, for instance, but it’ll make you more equipped to face these stressors head-on by helping with mood, problem-solving, and the ability to bounce back after a stressor has subsided, making burnout a less likely outcome.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view your sleep debt.

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app keeps track of your sleep debt for you. Keep this number under five hours to help prevent and recover from burnout. 

2. Prioritize a Nightly Wind-Down

While blocking out time pre-bed for relaxation and “me-time” is something everyone can benefit from, maintaining a consistent nightly wind-down routine is non-negotiable for those who are in the process of recovering from burnout. 

Maintaining a purposeful boundary between the hecticness of the day and our sleep not only helps us sleep better (which helps alleviate burnout symptoms), but also helps with burnout on its own. 

Research shows that when we take time to psychologically detach from work (or other sources of stress) it reduces mental strain, boosts our mood, and even can make us more engaged at our jobs

Your wind-down should focus on calming activities (so likely you’ll want to avoid social media and work-related emails or text messages) and ideally begin one to two hours before bedtime every night. Here are some pointers for building out your burnout-busting pre-bed routine: 

  • Banish bright light: Indoor light that’s too bright at night (think: overhead lights, televisions, and computer or phone screens) tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime, which inhibits production of the sleepiness hormone melatonin and makes us less likely to feel sleepy come bedtime. Keep lights dimmed (candlelight is a great option!) and avoid screens if possible during your wind-down (or, alternatively, consider these blue light blocking glasses from Amazon to lessen the effect).  
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals: Consuming caffeine, alcohol or eating a heavy meal too late in the day can disrupt our sleep, as well. The RISE app can help you schedule personal cut-off times for each, according to your individual schedule and biology.
  • Opt for yoga or stretching over high-intensity exercise: An intense workout can make us feel alert and energized, which, while great for a daytime energy boost, isn’t ideal near bedtime. So though you’ll want to pass on late-night CrossFit, yoga and/or stretching are great sleep-supportive options if you’re craving movement before bed. 
  • Brain-dump any residual anxieties: Purge your worries or get tomorrow’s to-dos off your chest by journaling or performing a “brain dump” during your wind-down. Writing down future to-dos can help us avoid the sleepless pitfalls of bedtime rumination, and the RISE app helps it become a nightly habit by sending you daily evening reminders—simply add “Brain Dump” to your Habits in the app! 
  • Use science-backed relaxation techniques: Guided relaxation exercises are a pre-bed go-to for many who struggle with falling and/or staying asleep. You can access the four more common science-supported ones (autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and soothing sounds) in the RISE app.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their nightly wind-down routine and reminder.

RISE app screenshot showing how to personalize your energy wind down activities
The RISE app can help you design a sleep-inducing evening routine, and send you reminders to keep your wind-down on track.


3. Keep Your Sleep Schedule Consistent 

The right sleep schedule for you is one that sets you up to feel and function your best each day. 

This means it must support your sleep need, your chronotype (are you an early riser by nature, or more likely to be found burning the midnight oil?), and your social clock (do you need to be awake at a certain time for work or to drive the kids to school?). 

It should also be a schedule that you can stick to consistently. While we understand it’s not possible for everyone (healthcare workers, shift workers, or new parents, we see you!), keeping sleep and wake times consistent from day to day—even on the weekends—supports our internal biological clock (aka our circadian rhythm), making it easier to fall asleep and wake up at our scheduled times.

The RISE app can help you figure out the best sleep-wake schedule for you, and can even guide you through shifting your sleep schedule in service of getting more sleep—after using the app to work out your sleep need and sleep debt, RISE can determine your ideal bedtime for your each night.  

4. Incorporate Daytime Tweaks that Support Your Sleep

While the wind-down routine is certainly important, we shouldn’t wait until night time to think about sleep. 

Sleep hygiene is the collection of behaviors and habits that we can perform during the day, starting as soon as we wake up, that support our nightly sleep. 

The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits to help you sleep better and avoid burnout. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

Sleep hygiene is a big topic (see our comprehensive sleep hygiene guide here), but here are the most impactful behaviors to implement if you’re trying to beat burnout by way of improving your sleep:

  • Sunlight in the morning makes us sleepier at bedtime: Bright light (preferably sunlight) first thing in the morning makes us feel more awake because it triggers increased production of the alertness-promoting hormone cortisol, and signals to our circadian clock that the day has started. This begins a biological countdown which, in turn, makes us naturally begin to feel tired just as we should be winding down for bed. If you can’t get 10 minutes of bright natural light first thing in the morning, consider a 10,000 lux light therapy lamp (here the rec is 30 minutes). 
  • Daytime exercise helps with sleep and stress management: Exercise that gets our blood pumping isn’t a good idea late at night (especially since it often comes with a side of bright light), but this doesn’t mean we should avoid it altogether. When done earlier in the day, regular exercise has many health benefits, including stress relief and improved sleep. Head here to read more about these benefits and figure out the best time to work out for you.
  • Napping too late can hijack our nightly sleep: Napping can help you pay back sleep debt, but can lead to a bad cycle of late nights and climbing sleep debt if we let ourselves indulge in naps too close to bedtime. A good rule of thumb is to avoid napping past the afternoon, but RISE can tell you your perfect nap window.

 

5. Harness Your Natural Energy Peaks and Dips

Our circadian rhythm isn’t just about our sleep-wake schedule. It also dictates our natural energy fluctuations during the day. 

The exact timing and duration of these energy peaks and dips changes from person to person from day to day based on factors like when we wake up and our light exposure, but the larger pattern remains the same: 

  • We wake up and feel sleep inertia, or a period of grogginess
  • We get our first peak in energy in the morning
  • We go into our afternoon slump, where our energy dips
  • We get a second-wind energy peak in the late afternoon or early evening
  • Our energy dips again as we wind down to bedtime

Knowing about these natural peaks and dips is key because it means we can schedule our days in accordance with them. 

You can make the most of your two daily energy peaks by tackling tasks that require more brain power or emotional courage, like writing pitches, giving presentations, or having a difficult conversation with a coworker or spouse. 

And you can make your afternoon dip easier on yourself by saving simpler to-dos like emails, errands, data-entry, or cleaning for that period of time.

By aligning your activities with your energy, you’re going to better set yourself up to accomplish what you set out to do, which ultimately helps with time management and allows space for a stress-free wind-down at the end of the day. 

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peak and dip times
The RISE app predicts the precise timing of your energy peaks and dips each day, so you can match your activities to your energy to get more done.


How to Get Energy Back After Burnout?

Recovering your energy after recovering from burnout is a matter of staying the course.

Continue focusing on keeping your sleep debt low, maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule to support your circadian rhythm, and leaning into your natural energy peaks and dips to get the most out of your days. 

Even after you’ve gotten a handle on your sleep debt, it may take some time for your energy levels to get back to where they were pre-burnout. 

While it may be frustrating to not immediately bounce back, remember that when you experience burnout your body and brain go through a lot. Try to be patient with yourself, and have self-compassion. Don’t push yourself to do too much all at once to avoid a relapse.

When Should I See a Doctor About Burnout?

In most cases burnout can be treated without medical intervention, but if your symptoms are hanging on no matter what you do, seek a professional opinion. 

It’s also a good idea to consult with your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, GI issues, or if you find you’re getting sick more often than usual
  • Insomnia that persists despite establishing a nightly wind-down routine and addressing other sleep hygiene factors 
  • A worsening of mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression
  • Resorting to substances such as drugs or alcohol or abusing prescription medications to get through the day
  • Fears that you may do something drastic to escape your current situation such as quit your job, leave your family, or even harm yourself  

Your doctor may refer you to a therapist or other mental health professional, who can work with you to develop coping strategies and stress management techniques to help treat existing burnout and prevent it from recurring.   

How Can I Prevent Burnout In the Future?

We’ve written in depth about burnout prevention here, but the most important thing to understand is that burnout prevention looks almost identical to burnout recovery, and revolves around prioritizing sleep and downtime. 

Remember that sleep and downtime in the form of a nightly wind-down not only protect against burnout, but also help us to feel and function our best each day. 

To prevent future bouts of burnout, make sure you’re:

  • Keeping your sleep debt low
  • Maintaining a wind-down buffer to destress before sleep
  • Organizing your days in alignment with your energy peaks and dips

Say Goodbye to Burnout for Good with RISE

Though it may require something of a mindset shift in our 24/7 always-on society, productivity and sufficient sleep aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, sleep is one of the most potent levers we have for optimizing our daily performance, productivity, and maintaining our important interpersonal relationships. Even if sleeping enough means we have fewer hours in the day, it makes those hours we do have truly count, and helps us show up as the best version of ourselves for the moments that matter.  

By using the RISE app as part of your burnout recovery journey, you can rest easy knowing that RISE has got your back. Make sure you’re taking advantage of all the burnout-busting tools available on the RISE app. When there’s already so much on your plate, our algorithms take the stress and guesswork out of how to embark on improving sleep and beating burnout for good. 

Summary FAQs

Can you recover from burnout?

Recovery from burnout is possible. Because the link between sleep loss and burnout is so strong, one of the most impactful actions we can take toward recovering from burnout is to focus on getting enough sleep.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

How long it takes to recover from burnout varies. The most important factor in burnout recovery is paying down our sleep debt by getting more sleep. For some, this may take only a week or two. But when we’re very sleep deprived recovery may take longer.

What is the fastest way to cure burnout?

The fastest way to recover from burnout is to pay back sleep debt. Keep in mind that when we’re sleep deprived, the amount of sleep our bodies require temporarily increases, so you may need even more sleep than usual while you’re recovering.

How to recover from burnout while still working

Luckily, you don’t need to quit your job to recover from burnout. The first step in burnout recovery while still working is to begin prioritizing your daily downtime. In particular, making sure you're getting enough sleep is key, but you’ll also want to establish a nightly stress-free wind-down routine as a buffer between work and sleep.

How to recover from burnout in life

Since burnout recovery hinges on sleep, the steps we need to take to beat burnout are also the steps we need to take to get better sleep. Make sure you’re keeping your sleep debt in check, prioritizing a stress-free nightly wind-down, maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule, focusing on daily sleep hygiene, and harnessing your natural energy peaks and dips as part of your burnout recovery.

How do I regain energy after burnout?

Continue focusing on keeping your sleep debt low, maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule to support your circadian rhythm, and aligning your daily commitments with your natural energy peaks and dips to get the most out of your days post-burnout.

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