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How To Manage Burnout With Mindfulness

mindfulness for workplace stress

Written By Sean Grabowski

A passionate ambassador, educator and student of mindfulness and meditation. Advocate for unique experiences and life long learning.

September 26, 2021

Firstly, if you are experiencing burnout, it isn’t your fault. In industrialized first-world nations like Canada, we live in a perpetual state of relatively high stress, recording much higher levels of pressure than most other places in the world. With productivity, deadlines, and timelines attached to nearly everything we do inside and outside of our work lives, burnout can creep us as subtly as anything else, hitting us hard when it does arrive. In lifestyles like this, burnout at some point or another is inevitable, and it is nobody’s fault, it is part of the cultural programming within each of us. In a world that constantly rewards us for being productive and/or ‘busy’, the key to managing burnout is much more simple than we may realize. It lies in understanding what stress is, and why it happens. Understanding this will then help us to learn about the science and tradition-backed practices that bring us back to balance, and reinstate a sense of ease with each step through life. These exercises exist, and are all around us, we simply need to understand why and how they can help us.

How To Know If You Are Burnt Out

Firstly, burnout is defined by psychology experts as ‘a state of chronic and ongoing stress that leads to:

  • Physical & emotional exhaustion.
  • Cynicism & detachment.
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness & lack of accomplishment.

Why Identifying Burnout Is Important

When each of these symptoms has reached full effect they can be debilitating, and often make it quite difficult to function normally at work as well as at home. Chronic stress both sends our stress hormones out of balance, while also limiting the effectiveness of many of the body’s primary functions, including digestion, metabolism, sleep, and more. To summarize the impact simply, burnout turns on our physiology’s sympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘fight or flight response‘ – the system meant to turn up our adrenaline and shut everything else off in order to kick into gear during life or death situations. Not so long ago, this mechanism served to help us run for our lives from tigers, swim to shore when falling into frigid waters while fishing, or maybe even to help us run from a volcanic eruption. In the modern era, we have become accustomed to turning on this powerful stress response for many circumstances that are completely trivial compared to running from a vicious predator, like responding to work emails, troubleshooting an internet connection, or because we are stuck in traffic that will set us back by 20-30 minutes. These stress chemicals will age us, weaken us, and exacerbate the stress we already feel. If there is one thing we have come to understand in recent decades, it is no matter what it is that we are doing, the brain performs, and focuses better in the absence of stress, with adequate amounts of rest.

How To Identify Burnout

Before we can combat burnout effectively, we of course need to identify what we are dealing with. Understanding the warning signs of burnout better can be one of the best resources to help ourselves, as well as others who may be displaying the signs that they are in too deep. Here is a list of some of the physical and mental symptoms

The Physical Symptoms Of Burnout

  1. Chronic fatigue: Exhaustion is an obvious side effect of burnout, because we are stuck in a cycle of energy expension that leaves our tank empty. In the early stages, this may be ther first symptom we eperience, before the rest begin to catch up to us as a result of our stress and energy expension.
  2. Increased illness: When the immune system is in a state of stress, it is expending too much of it’s energy operating in high gear, or it is nort working properly as a result of the ‘fight or flight response’. This inevitably can have a large impact on how sick, or how often we fall ill to seasonal colds, the flu, or any other illness that we may cross paths with.
  3. A loss of appetite: When the body’s metabolism is off balance, this has a strong impact on the hunger that we experience. Burnout inevitably affects both our appetite, as well as our ability to digest food efficiently.
  4. Insomnia and poor sleep quality: High levels of cortisol & adrenaline throughout the day have a large impact on melatonin and the natural production of other bodily chemicals that help us to relax and rest as the sun begins to set. The more deeply we fall into burnout, the worse the sleep issues usually become. Some people in the throes of burnout may not necessarily experience full on insomnia, but there is a strong likelihood that the quality of their sleep is not very good. Stress & burnout can have a large impact on the amount of time throughout the night that we dip into truly restful REM sleep, where the real mental & physical recovery happens best.
  5. Physical stress or tension: With inadequate recovery comes physical tension and stress. This can manifest as soreness, stiffness, and in the worst cases, serious illnesses. Some people experience vertigo and dizziness or issues with their digestive track during bouts of high pressure & stress.

The Mental Symptoms Of Burnout

  1. Increased anxiety: For most people, the most serious sign of burnout will be a strong tendency toward anxious thoughts and feelings. These feelings will start as tension and discomfort, and for many people who hit the deeper end of burnout, the anxiety can become so serious that it limits their ability to handle pressure of any kind until they recover.
  2. Anger and frustration: Along with the feelings of tension, pressure and anxiety that can arise from burnout and stress, feelings of frustration and anger become prevalent. Emotional stability decreases and moods can begin to swing dramatically. As resilience to life’s pressures decreases, are reactivity with anger and frustration can take hold.
  3. Depression: As a side effect of both of the mental symptoms listed above, individuals experiencing burnout can often feel hopelessly overwhelmed by their lives. This sense of hopelessness can materialize as depression and sadness until we are able to overcome emotional instability and regain control.
  4. Poor memory and concentration: Stress, and all of the acidic chemicals/hormones associated with is decrease the ability of brain neurons to fire efficiently. This will often manifest as poor memory, or a lack of focus and concentration. One of the most common myths of cognition is that the mind focuses better under pressure, this is not true. A healthy mind is an efficient mind.
  5. Chronic pessimism: A negative worldview may take hold over some people who are in the deeper throes of burnout. Once this stage has been reached, it is a sure fire indication that it is time to begin making a change before pessimism evolves into anything worse than it already is.
  6. Isolation: When emotions are high, stress is high, and resilience to pressure is at an all time low, many people begin to isolate themselves and avoid scenarios where they may be required to expend any level of energy. This sympton is also highle correlated with depressive tendencies.
  7. Detachment and lack of enjoyment: When you or someone you know is beginning to exhibit strong levels of detachment from the activities, hobbies, or relationships they typically enjoy, this can be a sign of burnout. Many burnt out people experience very high levels of sensitivity to tension and stress. As a result of this, they will sometimes begin to intentionally avoid anything that heightens their energy too much, choosing instead to engage in activities with low stimulation. This will often manifest as detachment or a lack of enjoyment to the things they would normally embrace. Burnt out individuals will often exhibit detachment from the outcomes of their outputs, leading to issues at work and at home.

How To Address And Resolve Burnout

When working to combat burnout, make sure to identify the areas of your life where burnout is affecting you most, and take the time to assess how it is impacting your life. Every individual experiences this sort of thing differently, and it is important to be self-aware about your experience. From this point, you can develop a plan to combat burnout, and bring your life back to a healthy state of balance.

Actions You Can Take To Reduce Burnout

  1. Begin monitoring and decreasing your demands: The most common cause of burnout, is operating at full speed, or full pressure for prologned amounts of time. Begin by paying attention to which areas of your life come with pressure and stress, and take necessary actions to decrease your demands. I know this is easier said than done, but the first step in reducing burnout, is to give yourself some breathing room from the pressures of life. In this additional time, we can catch up on priorities, and take some needed rest.
  2. Take a serious break: We all need some time to rest. If there is anything the first half of this article emphasized, it’s that the human body needs time to repair and rest. If you are in the middle of a burnout episode, prioritize some rest and relaxation. I know this can be very hard for many high functioning individuals, but we are also the same kind of people are are the most likely to suffer from chronic stress, and that is no coincidence. An intentional break can often be just what the body needs to go back to normal. The key is a balance between hustle and play, not an overindulgence in either one.
  3. Manage or reduce the expectations we have for ourselves: If you are anything like myself, the person who places the most pressure on my life, is myself. One of the easiest ways to manage stress and the burnout of pressure, is to relax the expectations we have of ourselves, and sometimes others. At the end of the day, every day is another day of being alive on this wonderful planet. We may as well stop to enjoy the roses, enjoy conversations, and to actually give ourselves permission to be wherever we are in life.
  4. Communicate your situation to the people in your life: If you are experiencing burnout, be sure to clearly share your state of mind with the people who it both impacts, and who can be part of the solution. This may mean speaking with your partner to let them know that you need some additional rest this month. This may also mean speaking to your boss and clearly expressing what aspects of your job you either need support in, or cause you stress and discomfort at an excrutiating level. These are the people who can support you, and these are the people who burnout may impact. Most individuals are going to be more supportive that you may assume.
  5. Rethink your work-life balance: Work is the most common cause of stress in North America, as well as in many other countries across the globe. This may not apply to everyone, but for some of us experiencing truly chronic levels of discomfort, it may come down to reassessing your work life, your career choices, and how much time or energy you would like to spend focusing on your career or business versus your personal life. Each person has a different preference, and you want to set yourself up for success by choosing a work life that is uniquely perfect for you and your family.
  6. Increase your resources: When the pressure turns up, having resources around you to combat stress before it has the chance to buildup and become an issue is a pre-emptive solution to burnout. Look into your options and find out what resources you can utilize to either reduce stress in your environment, or to become more stress resilient on a whole. These resources may be purchasing meditation tools such as an app, purchasing supplements for mental health, registering with a therapist/counsellor, or developing an action plan with your boss for the next time you face this experience. Increasing the collection of tools, skills and resources, will give you a much better shot at handling your stress in a healthy manner, before anything drastic occurs.
  7. Set your boundaries and stick to them: In life, it is inevitable that pressures will arise. When they do, it can be incredibly helpful to have your boundaries defined well ahead of time. Knowing when to say know, when to say yes, and what you are willing to tolerate will help you avoid situations that will throw you off course.

How Mindfulness & Meditation Can Combat Burnout

The adoption of mindfulness and meditation practices have been found in countless research studies to increase individuals’ resilience to stress by both providing them with actions they can take both in the moment, and proactively, that combat stress. Here are some of the techniques and practices that have been proven to elevate individuals’ stress resilience.

  1. Meditation: Taking time to intentionally release bodily and mental tension is a surefire way to combat stress in the moment. Meditation has been proven to reduce blood pressure and slow the heart rate. It has also been highly correlated with reduced levels of stress and anxiety, and actually strengthens the centers of the brain that fight stress to begin with. In this way, meditating not only helps us relax, it helps us experience less stress in the future.
  2. Yoga: Physical exercise nearly always helps the body to manage and reduce stress. Yoga, as a blend of both meditation, mindful breathing, and often intense exercise or stretching, is a perfect tool for stress management, as well as for releasing tension.
  3. Breath Awareness: Many of us have been taught since childhood that ‘deep breathing’ is a tool for relaxation, although very few of us take this seriously in adulthood. The reality is that taking several long, deep breaths, with elongated exhales is one of the very best ways to hack our physiology for relaxation. I personally like to do 5 breaths like this to start each meditation, and every evening before bed. Without delay, this nearly always serves to relax my nerves and help me ease into restful sleep or meditative awareness.
  4. Journalling: Writing down thoughts, feelings, experience and emotions can help us to process them clearly, and identify them for what they are – experiences – not who are are or who we are stuck being. It comes with the added benefit of improved self-awareness and relaxation. Many people around the world swear by regular journalling as a way to detach from situations, to process emotions, to remind ourselves of our goals and visions, or to simply analyze the situation more. Writing in a calm environment has the added benefit of being incredibly relaxing when done intentionally.
  5. Bring presence to every moment: Although the practices above require intentional activity or one shape or another, mindfulness can really be practiced in a variety of more simple ways. For one, we can exercise mindfulness by simple focusing and trying to be more present in whatever it is that way may be doing. For me, I like to turn off the podcasts and music when I go on walks so that I can purely focus on the experiences of the moment. The trees rustling, the rain on the water, the sounds all around me. Bringing presence to any moment and reducing external stimulation give the mind a chance to relax, and move away from the chatter of the monkey mind that constantly ponders past and future situations. Full present moment awareness comes with the added focus of improving our performance at nearly every kind of task.

How Leaders Can Step Up And Fight Burnout In The Workplace

With each passing year, burnout is becoming more common in corporate workplaces around the world, especially in North America. Our culture often glorifies productivity over wellness, and the result of this is beginning to become very clear. Perhaps the most important people in addressing these issues are the managers, leaders, and executives who make are the decision-makers of their workplaces. A recent study from Gallup found that the most common causes of burnout are:

  1. Unfair treatment at work.
  2. Unmanageable workloads.
  3. Lack of job/role clarity.
  4. Lack of communication & support from their manager.
  5. Unreasonable time pressures.

When looking at this list, it is clear that in order to combat the epidemic of burnout, we first need to address the culture of our workplaces. This is the epicenter of the issue the world is seeing today, and the good news is, there is room for improvement. Business leaders are at the forefront of this change, and it will be their decisions that have the power to impact culture and employees for the better. What we are seeing today is that compassionate workplaces that prioritize respect and wellness of their employees are leading the world in productivity, recruitment, and of course, profits. Compassionate leadership is not only ethically responsible, it is simply, good business.

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