Self-Care Won’t Fix Your Burnout

How many times have you been told to take a vacation or get a massage to combat your burnout? If you are chronically burnt out from work and stress, these “self-care” solutions won’t fix your burnout and are at best a temporary reprieve, not a long-term fix.

Self-Care Won't Fix Your Burnout


I recently read an article about managing burnout that has stuck with me. Since I have personally dealt with this and coach my clients through it as well, I eagerly clicked on the link. And then felt worse paragraph after paragraph.

While well-intentioned and true, all of the “tips” were individual strategies that employees could use to de-stress. Exercise. Sleep. Drink water. Journal. Request a meeting with your boss. These are great tips. But they won’t solve burn-out. They will mitigate stress. Maybe. But stress isn’t burnout. And burnout requires more than self-care.

Burnout is a systemic problem, usually caused by lack of resources, infrastructure, and poor leadership. 𝘽𝙪𝙧𝙣𝙤𝙪𝙩 𝙞𝙨 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙖 𝙥𝙚𝙧𝙨𝙤𝙣𝙖𝙡 𝙛𝙖𝙞𝙡𝙪𝙧𝙚 𝙤𝙧 𝙡𝙖𝙘𝙠 𝙤𝙛 𝙬𝙞𝙡𝙡. Self-care won’t fix your burnout. Diagnosing problems correctly leads to better treatment and better results.

What is Burnout?

A survey from the American Association of Physician Leadership and Harvard Business Review taken during the COVID-19 pandemic found more than 60 percent of people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often.” What’s more, is that nearly 90 percent of respondents said their work life was getting worse. But burnout didn’t start with the pandemic, in 2019, the World Health Organization officially defined burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It has three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

Psychologists even developed a test to measure the burnout phenomenon called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). You can take an online test here to see where you fall.

It’s not hard to see the effects burnout has taken on our society. You may have heard of “The Great Resignation.” The pandemic has changed the way people view work. In America, your work is so closely tied to your identity that not having a job or being unemployed can make you feel like a failure. We’ve been told we have to achieve and climb the ladder to be respected by others. Being at home during the pandemic has reminded many people what it was like to focus on something other than work all the time. Spending time with family and friends and doing things that genuinely make you happy have taken priority versus the work till you drop mentality. Refinery 29 shared a detailed article on burnout and mentioned the following meme.

If you died tonight, your employer would fill your role by the end of the month.

I’ve seen this a number of times throughout the years, and it always packs a punch, but following the pandemic, where hundreds of thousands of people died, it has a greater sense of urgency. What is your relationship with work? Do you have a job you love or a job that pays the bills? We’ve been so caught up in finding that “dream job” that we will overlook a lot of poor management and toxic work environments to maintain the fantasy of doing a job we love.

How Do We Fix Burnout?

So what can you do? How do you break out of this cycle of burnout? The first step is to stop throwing #selfcaretips around so casually. Remember, self-care (like a massage) won’t fix your burnout!

People want to do good work and be compensated appropriately for it. People want to contribute and feel valued. Being encouraged to drink more water while sitting at your desk while you’re worrying about your kindergartner isn’t sustainable. And it’s not self-care either.

Truly combatting burnout is about individual AND systemic change. To that end, there is a post going around written by Megan Witherspoon, the vice-president of communications at Altria sharing how she addresses the new work-life balance created by the pandemic:

Megan Witherspoon VP Communications at Altria

In her post, Megan shares that she cares about her employees and the things they care about, but she doesn’t care when, where, or how they get their work done. For example, she DOES care that your daughter is home with yet another ear infection, but she DOESN’T care that you’ll be offline for two hours in the afternoon for her doctor’s appointment.

When we talk about systematic change, THIS is it. Understanding that people are human and sometimes have more important personal responsibilities to attend to during the 9-5 traditional working hours. This doesn’t mean they won’t get their work done.

My Experience With Burnout

I had something similar happen to me five years ago before I started Sheldrake Consulting. I got a “letter in my file” for not calling into the office before 8 a.m. when I was home with the flu.

I did call. Every day. After a “good” night’s sleep of fever dreams where you don’t know your name, where you live, or what day of the week it is. But I did call. After 8 am.

When I made it back to the office a week later, I was greeted with a meeting with my boss. First thing. No “hello, welcome back, hope you’re better.”

Nope. She pulled me into her office, in front of all of my colleagues, and face down on her desk was “the letter.” She didn’t even talk to me first. It was already typed up, with full detail of all of my offenses: “On this day, you called in at 9:06 a.m. On this day it was 10 a.m. The attendance policy is well-documented (there wasn’t a policy) and cannot be flouted (that part’s my favorite).” She pushed it over to me and demanded I sign it.

Now when I start to feel sick my first instinct is to power through. “Maybe I’m not 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 sick.”

And sometimes I’m not that sick, but I also have days where I don’t feel great. So I may take a nap in the middle of the day. And I shoot out a few emails and am done for the day. Maybe I’ll sleep again.

  • Because I am a grown-up who knows and trusts herself.
  • Because sleep is restorative, and the work will always be there.
  • Because I want to get better faster so I can keep doing work that I love.
  • Because I want to model for my clients, and my sons, what wasn’t modeled for me.
  • Because capitalism sucks and we have to break some systems to rebuild them.

Toxic environments are real. It’s been five years and I 𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙡𝙡 felt the need to justify my decisions. That’s BS.

If you’re a 𝙗𝙤𝙨𝙨: don’t do what my boss did. Trust your staff. Assume good intentions. ASK questions. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t put a letter in someone’s file for being sick. Grow up.

If you’re 𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙛𝙛: please stay home if you’re sick. PTO is part of your compensation, and you shouldn’t have to explain what you’re using it for, and you definitely don’t need to set an alarm to wake yourself up before 8 a.m. so you can call in.

If You’re Experiencing Burnout, What Can You Do?

If you’re feeling burnt out, or you’re in an environment that doesn’t care about you, start searching!

If you’re feeling exhausted, cynical, a sense of incompetence, job dissatisfaction, or depression, there are some things you can do that go beyond a great massage or a bubble bath. These “self-care” tips won’t fix your burnout. Try taking action like:

Setting boundaries – Set specific boundaries as to when or if you’ll be available after hours. Maybe you don’t respond to emails after 7 p.m. Make sure your team and clients are aware of this boundary and they understand that if there is an emergency, they know to call you. Things like making sure you don’t miss your child’s school performance that’s been on the calendar for a month for a frivolous meeting are things you can draw a clear line in the sand for.

Prioritize your health – When you are tired and burnt out, this is usually the first thing to go. When I see people suffering from toxic burnout, they usually aren’t making healthy decisions or living a healthy lifestyle because they are barely keeping up with the demands of their jobs. Just making time for a dentist appointment or physical can seem impossible. Set a firm boundary that taking care of your health is important.

Ask for help – If you’re feeling the stress of burnout and it’s becoming toxic in your life it might be time to enlist a therapist to help you navigate those feelings. If you’re having trouble setting boundaries at your job or don’t know how to get out of a toxic work situation a career coach, like myself, can help you hold you accountable and figure out how to set boundaries without worrying about getting fired.

It may sound cliché, but you have one life to live. If you’re not able to live it to the fullest, or you’re wasting time at a company that doesn’t treat you like a human being, something needs to change. A trip to the nail salon isn’t going to fix years of a toxic work environment. An hour of self-care won’t fix your burnout. You may think that you don’t want to risk your paycheck, but I promise there are other opportunities out there for you! Set up a FREE consultation with me and let me walk you through it.