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Seven steps to returning to work after burnout

Psychotherapist Janet Weisz advises on how to ease back into work after a significant period of leave

As stress levels continue to rise, the number of GPs taking extended periods of leave is increasing.

Returning to work after a period of burnout can be a very daunting thought: your confidence may have been affected; you may have concerns about a lack of understanding from colleagues or you may be concerned about this happening again. You could be feeling a number of things, all of which could create a snowball effect of mounting anxieties.

In light of this, I’ve compiled seven steps that may help with the difficult transition of returning to work.

1 Agree a structured return to work with your employer

Doing too much too soon could further jeopardise your health. Easing yourself back in to your routine slowly is the safest way to return to work, particularly if you have been off for a long period of time. For example, this could mean working one day or two half days a week to start with, and gradually increasing this until both you are your employer agree that you are ready to take on your regular workload and resume working full-time.

2 Remind yourself that you have done nothing wrong by being off sick

Burnout is not a sign of weakness or inferiority; it’s your mind and body telling you that you are doing too much. You have as much right to time off as someone with a physical injury; a person with broken bones wouldn’t be expected to carry out arduous physical duties. Equally, you shouldn’t be expected to risk your mental wellbeing.

3 Choose how you’ll respond to colleagues about your time off

One of the most nerve-wracking aspects of returning to work is having to face colleagues. Their reactions could vary from asking too many questions, to saying nothing at all. If you are being treated unfairly, tell someone. It is up to your employer to eliminate any employment practices that discriminate against you.

If you are worried about what to say to colleagues in response to their questions, remember that it is a private matter, and opening up to them about your burnout is entirely optional. Depending on your relationship with them, you may find that opening up can help them to understand.

4 Keep looking after yourself

Think about what works for you: for some people it is regular exercise, for others it is engaging in hobbies. Monitor your sleeping and eating patterns and identify any irregularities that could be a warning sign.

5 Watch for signs of excessive self-medication

For example, sugary foods, energy boosters or alcohol. It is best to avoid anything that can modify your mood while you’re still in the process of adjusting. If you have any concerns about self-medication, seek support or advice as soon as possible.

6 Consider talking to your employer about other ways to accommodate your return to work.

Unless someone has experienced burnout themselves, it may be hard for them to understand the details of what you are going through. Although your employer will already know the reason for your absence, it is important to continue to let them know how you feel. They can then better empathise and make reasonable arrangements that are beneficial to both them and you.

7 Use your circle of support.

This could include close friends or family members. Having people around you who you can talk to and confide in will help to voice the feelings of anxiety you may be experiencing, while holding your feelings in could cause you to suffer even more. The people who know you best will be able to offer advice and help you with your concerns.

If you are struggling to talk to people at home, or your negative feelings appear frequently and are destructive to everyday life, you may want to consider seeking professional help. You may have access to therapy through your employer and should discuss your options with them.

Janet Weisz is a psychotherapist and psychodynamic counsellor, and chair of UKCP.

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Readers' comments (11)

  • I suffered from burnout. I found I simply could not get out of bed one day..... I was off for three weeks. My employer suspended me a week later and I resigned. They have subsequently refused to provide a reference for me and have now reported me for "fitness to practice" despite having never undertaken any investigation. I am not sure what "support" you speak of?

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