Faced with seemingly never ending to-do lists, jam-packed meeting schedules and a multitude of responsibilities, the world of work can be a breeding ground for stress. Then add a pandemic into the mix, with all of its Zoom meetings, at-home distractions and missed social interaction, and things can feel even trickier still. Let the stresses of the workplace build, and you could end up facing burnout: the worrying condition where work leaves you feeling emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted, as though you have nothing else to give.
Here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat, we work with guests facing extreme stress and burnout all the time. “We strive to bring a multi-systemic approach to our treatment of burnout,” says Karin Bleecker, M.S. psychologist and program director of NLP. “We do this through our programming, as well as communication with employers who refer to us and follow up care of our guests through social and educational support.”
Major advocates of mindfulness, we have woven mindful living techniques and practices into all that we do. “Mindfulness can support burnout recovery by increasing a person’s awareness to the many ways the body and mind interact with our external environment, helping us to slow down and have more time to respond vs react,” Karin explains. What’s more, they can help us increase our self-compassion and “foster a healthier, more skillful way of relating to our life experiences, how we appraise and interact with them, thus making kinder, wiser choices.”
While treatment and care for anyone suffering from extreme stress or burnout should be tailored to the individual, we thought we’d share a few starting points. Read on for your guide to stress, burnout and the mindfulness techniques you can implement to ease the load.
What is stress?
“Stress and burnout are frequently used interchangeably, and although very related, are not the same,” Karin clarifies. “Technically, stress is an organism’s ability to respond and adapt to internal and external demands.”
It’s important to note that stress itself isn’t wholly negative. “Stress can be thought of as on a continuum from the very helpful, such as that little twinge of anxiety that helps us to be alert before taking an important test, or the excitement and planning that goes into a life change, like a new relationship or move.” But at the other end of the spectrum, it can be very harmful. “This can result in symptoms like losing one’s hair, ulcers, high blood pressure, sleep disturbances.”
The majority of us face stressors that fall somewhere between the two. “This kind of stress typically responds to relatively quick and simple changes, such as taking a break or shifting one’s perspective, increasing connection with others, making small changes in routines, setting healthy boundaries, eating better, and getting more rest,” Karin recommends.
How stress affects you will hinge on how long you suffer from it, as well as your cognitive appraisal of it and how well equipped you are to cope from it.
What is burnout?
Burnout, on the other hand, is typically more severe and is most often referred to as a work-related condition. “However, it is most likely also applicable to conditions where long-term emotional labour is called for, such as caregiving of a family member,” Karin notes.
It typically begins gradually then builds and tends to last longer than stress. “One significant difference is the impact on the body. Burnout often includes utter exhaustion and the chronic nature of it causes cortisol levels to decline “leading to a state of depletion” according to The Medical Perspective on Burnout in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health.
To solve burnout, it requires the individual to make systemic changes to their work situation, as well as medical care, personal and lifestyle changes.
Stress and burnout interact with each other and Karin cites a recent article on the differences between burnout and stress, in which Dr. Bryan E. Robinson summarises recent research as: “The chicken-and-egg findings show that stress and burnout are mutually reinforcing.”
“That means, once burnout begins, it affects how a person sees different aspects of their job, taking what might be a normal component of a job, such as deadlines, and experiencing them as more stressful than they would normally,” Karin adds. Put simply, burnout is stressful, but stress can also exacerbate burnout.
How do you know if you’ve reached burnout?
One misunderstanding that it’s important to clear up is that “burnout isn’t necessarily about having too much work with too little time, though that can be a factor. It can also be chronically feeling under-utilized/under-employed,” Karin explains.
As for the symptoms of burnout, they can span from irritability and hyperactivity to hypo-arousal, for instance feeling sluggish and tired. The red flag signs include:
- Extreme exhaustion that doesn’t respond to time off.
- Demoralisation (feeling incompetent)
- Feelings of being detached
- Loss of interest in the job
- Increased frequency of illness and sleep disturbance
- Increased misuse of substances
- Social withdraw
- Increased anger
- Feelings of hopelessness, typical around work and one’s abilities
Mindfulness techniques for work stress and burnout
Although burnout is far too complex to warrant a simple solution. “Research on the treatment of burnout is inconclusive about which approaches are the most effective; however, multi-systemic and integrative approaches look very promising. First, there are often changes that need to occur in the workplace itself, such as preventive measures, early identification and support and responsiveness of managers to staff concerns and feedback,” Karin reveals.
She says that since burnout can affect your sense of self-efficacy and social isolation, approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) combined with
mindfulness-based approaches, exercise and building interpersonal connections hold great promise. “Follow up and long-term support are also necessary to sustain change,” she notes.
However, some mindfulness techniques you can try include:
Pay attention to what your mind/body/heart are telling you…
When facing stress, it’s very easy to tell yourself you just have to “pull yourself together” or “get on with it ” but it’s vital to remember that burnout is a real condition that is treatable. Even if you want to just “push through” and get the job done, don’t. It might make your situation worse.
You aren’t expected to be a burnout expert, so instead speak to a source more knowledgeable about the causes and effects of burnout to help guide your next steps.
“One of the quickest ways to reset our nervous system is to take a few breaths, softening a bit with each one,” Karin recommends.
Go back to basics
When your to-do list has gotten out of control, simple acts of self care and self-maintenance often go out of the window. Make time for yourself: eat well, protect your sleep time, move your body, pay particular attention to the small acts of kindness that come your way.
There’s no quick fix or overnight miracles. When dealing with extreme stress and burnout, it can take months to heal so don’t be hard on yourself if it takes time.
Connect with others
Social interaction can be a powerful tonic, even if it is eye contact with a store assistant or waiter. “Ask for hugs from people you feel safe with, they help to release lots of good chemicals,” Karin recommends.