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Returning to work? Keep burnout at bay

When we were kids, time was elastic and the summers were long. It felt like school holidays would never end, but end they did. By mid January, ads for stationery had invaded our TV. In late January, we were dragged to the shoe store and our feet jammed into stiff leather lace-ups. The feeling of dread was heavy and profound.

As adults, that same dread can be felt when returning to work after a long absence. Sure, we get to choose our own shoes, but that doesn’t make it easier to get back into the swing of things.

In fact, according to Professor Michael Leiter from Deakin University’s School of Psychology, the change in routine and stress of needing to catch up, fit in and make a good impression can lead to signs of burnout.

The lowdown on burnout

The World Health Organization now classifies burnout as a very real medical diagnosis. Prof. Leiter describes burnout as ‘a chronic ongoing condition’ characterised by three symptoms that, together, can stop you from thriving at work:

Chronic exhaustion

‘Most of us are exhausted by the end of the day,’ he says. ‘It means we’ve worked hard.’ But chronic exhaustion is when you’re exhausted before the day has even begun. This can happen when work pressures are too much or you’re not replenishing enough energy in your downtime.


Detachment is when you lose interest in something you were once passionate about. Maybe you’re a dog walker who’s finding it hard to muster the enthusiasm to even throw a stick. Or a vintner who can’t bear the sight of a vine.


‘People need a sense of efficacy in their work,’ says Prof. Leiter. Without it, they can feel discouraged. You may be discouraged because you think you’re not good at your job or because you don’t have the capacity to make things happen.

These signs of burnout will help you recognise it at work. But what are the causes?

Welcome back!

You’re back at your desk after weeks or months away. Maybe you were on study or parental leave or, lucky you, sunning it up in Fiji. You turn on your computer, but you can’t login; they moved to a new system while you were away. You get that sorted then launch your email program, a backlog of emails start flooding in, hundreds of them, thousands. You glance around the office, searching for a sympathetic smile, but you don’t recognise anyone; your former colleagues have moved on. And are you imagining it or is that new guy side-eyeing you, as if he’s dubious about your capabilities, as if you’re the imposter??

So now you need to get on top of the new systems, wade through the swamp of emails, make new friends and prove to everyone that you’re back in the game.

Before we crash headlong into this nightmare situation, let’s get some tips for avoiding burnout before it begins.

Get some sleep

‘If you’ve been out of the workforce you’re probably out of routine,’ Prof. Leiter says. Your sleep/wake hours may have moved from what is ideal. So you need to get back into a routine that gives you plenty of sleep. Start in the weeks or days leading up to your return to work: go to bed earlier and dust off that alarm.

Craft your job

When returning to work your role is less defined, Prof. Leiter says. So it can be a good time for some job crafting.

This is when you ‘reflect on your job and decide what you like about it, what you find tedious and what you hate,’ Prof. Leiter explains. The aim is to do more of what you like and less of what you don’t. ‘There’s always some breathing room. When you’re coming back to work you can push the boundaries a bit.’

'There’s always some breathing room. When you’re coming back to work you can push the boundaries a bit.'

Prof. Michael Leiter,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to meet with your manager and craft your job with them. ‘That’s much more powerful,’ Prof. Leiter says. ‘It gives you the official seal of approval.’ This meeting is also a good chance to talk workload: your expectations and capabilities versus their expectations and demands. It’s important you feel supported, because burnout is not just a personal problem.

But if you can’t manage this conversation, try ‘tweaking’ your job as you go along. ‘Do things that create opportunities to do more of the things you like. Small gains can build and get momentum going in the right direction,’ Prof. Leiter advises.

Reach out

‘The more positivity you send out into the world, the more comes back,’ Prof. Leiter says. His research into workplace relationships reveals some interesting truths.

‘We ask people, “How often has a colleague been rude to you in the past month?” Then we ask, “How often have you been rude to a colleague?” And we find that these two things correlate fairly strongly. There’s a correspondence between what you give and what you receive.’

His advice then is to reach out and generate positivity. ‘Go round and say good morning to a few more people. Bring a bit of brightness into someone’s life. That gives you a lot of currency.’

A social circle at work can help prevent the burnout symptoms of detachment and discouragement, and result in more people feeling well resourced and motivated. Avoiding burnout should be a team effort. Just don’t let anyone else choose your shoes.

Now you’ve tackled burnout at work, you might even consider a desk plant to make you healthier and more productive at work.

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Prof. Michael Leiter
Prof. Michael Leiter

Professor of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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