I have to admit something to you that’s really hard to tell people, but I think it’s important. When I began my corporate career after University, I was full of motivation, dedication, and perseverance. As the first person in my family to go to University and a mixed-race minority, I thought I had to prove to the world that I was worthy of being paid well and belonged in a fast-paced professional career path. I wanted the title, the money, the prestige, and the recognition…or so I thought. The underlying driver of all that motivation, dedication, and perseverance was a deep-seated desire to be accepted. I didn’t feel like I belonged with everyone else. My toxic self-doubt was pervasively intertwined with everything I did.
I wasn’t smart enough or creative enough, despite launching multiple massive innovations.
I wasn’t a good salesperson or business manager, despite growing $100MM portfolios.
I wasn’t enough of an extrovert or people-person, despite training 100s of people and managing cross-functional teams of 60+ employees.
This negative self-doubt created a chasm between the great work I was doing and how I felt about it. In time, this stress manifested into disease – dis-ease – because I didn’t have the tools to transform these feelings. My body and mind weren’t equipped to be able to handle the stress and shift my mindset from one of worthlessness to one of worthiness.
I was not able to survive in the corporate world. I felt like I failed. I still do sometimes.
Yet, in hindsight, it was the path that taught me the value of self-care, lifestyle change, and the issue of burnout in today’s society. I burned out – multiple times – and had I known about some simple tools and habits to implement in my daily life I might have been able to reduce or prevent my burnout. Thankfully, now I’m able to share what I know with those that are currently experiencing burnout in their own lives so they’re empowered to make lasting lifestyle changes that enable them to thrive.
What Is Burnout?
Work burnout, defined as a state of physical and emotional exhaustion resulting from chronic workplace stress, is a pervasive problem in today's society. According to the World Health Organization, burnout is now recognized as an occupational phenomenon and is characterized by:
Feelings of energy depletion
Increased mental distance from one's job
Reduced professional efficacy and resilience
Recent studies have shown that burnout affects a large proportion of the global workforce, with estimates suggesting that up to 23% of employees experience high levels of burnout symptoms. The prevalence of burnout has significant implications for individuals' health and well-being, as well as organizational productivity and performance.
Five Science-Backed Methods to Reduce & Prevent Burnout
You’ve heard all about mindfulness which is a mental state that involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Micro-mindfulness creates bite-sized moments throughout your day to bring your focus into the present – either through your breath, body sensations, or a mantra – for as little as 30 seconds. The value of this practice is that it can reduce the amount of time you spend ruminating about the past [regret] or worrying about the future [anxiety]. The more time you allocate to staying in the present moment, the less you spend with thoughts that cause stress. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness can help reduce stress and improve mental health outcomes, including reduced burnout. One study found that mindfulness-based stress reduction reduced burnout in healthcare professionals. A great community that I am a part of is Insight Timer and it offers a wide range of mindfulness tools to begin your own purposeful practice.
Find two times during the day (e.g. before you start work and after leave) to do 3-5 minute mindfulness exercises and begin building micro-mindfulness moments into your day.
Take A Break:
Regular breaks throughout the workday can help prevent burnout by giving your mind and body time to rest and recharge. Every day we begin with a certain amount of energy based on our sleep, nutrition, hydration, resilience, and more. Just like any other energy-powered device we use in our lives, they all run out of battery eventually and need to recharge. Research has shown that taking breaks can improve productivity, creativity, and cognitive function. You aren’t meant to do long-grueling mental and physical work for hours on end. Breaks also tend to give you an opportunity to connect with others in a casual environment which can lead to stronger relationships that prevail through difficult moments at work. Science also shows that breaks improved workplace performance and reduced fatigue and burnout in employees.
Want to level up even more? Taking time off from work can help you recharge and reduce burnout risk. Research has shown that vacations can improve mental health outcomes, including reduced stress and burnout and this study found that vacations improved mental health outcomes in workers.
Set up meetings to end 5 minutes before the 30 or 60-minute mark to allow you time to take a moment for yourself. Alternatively, schedule breaks as if you were having a meeting with yourself because the more you show up for yourself, the better you can show up for others.
Move Out Of Your Own Way:
Burnout can manifest as a feeling of being ‘stuck’. It may be because you are struggling to solve a problem, working with a difficult colleague, or feeling generally unfulfilled. This feeling is exacerbated when you are physically sitting at a desk all day because you are physiologically not getting the blood flowing throughout your body. Exercise has been found to be an effective tool in reducing work-related stress and preventing burnout. Studies have shown that regular exercise can lead to improved mood, reduced stress, and better overall mental health outcomes, all of which can contribute to reducing the risk of burnout. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that exercise interventions can be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, which are often associated with burnout. The review analyzed 33 randomized controlled trials and found that exercise interventions led to significant improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The best part? It doesn’t mean you must do a HIIT workout or sprint a 5K during your lunch hour. Instead of taking the elevator try taking the stairs in the office. If you work at home, set it up so can do a few pushups or practice qigong during your scheduled break. You can even engage your team to take team walks while you have your weekly check-in.
Review your schedule over the next week and decide which meetings you will take while on a walk.
Food is Energy:
Did you know that your energy-making powerhouses are within each of the cells that make up your body? They’re called mitochondria and they are responsible for producing ATP [adenosine triphosphate] which is the foundational fuel source that your cells use. When your cells are not overworked, you are not overworked. One of the key pillars of healthy mitochondria is the fuel we feed ourselves – food & drink! Eating a balanced diet rich in nutrients can help reduce oxidative stress and promote healthy mitochondrial energy production. All this can lead to better overall well-being and reduce the risk of burnout. One study found that nutritional interventions reduced burnout in medical residents and other research has shown that nutrition can impact mental health outcomes, including stress and burnout.
Reflect on one food/drink-related habit that you do when you feel the onset of stress. What healthier alternative might work for you instead? Drinking water instead of soda? Eating walnuts instead of chips?
Relief from Relationships:
One of the bravest, most courageous actions you can take in addressing your burnout is asking for help. The importance of social support in reducing stress and preventing burnout has been highlighted in several research studies. Social support refers to the assistance and comfort provided by friends, family, or coworkers when individuals face difficult situations or stressors.
This support can come in various forms, including emotional support (e.g., someone to talk to about personal problems), informational support (e.g., advice or guidance on how to deal with stress), or instrumental support (e.g., practical help with tasks or responsibilities). Having supportive coworkers or friends can help you feel less isolated, leading to reduced stress and decreased burnout risk, as this study had shown.
If asking for help is challenging, start by surrounding yourself with like-minded people – join a local mentorship program, look into your employee assistance program, or sign up for a professional organization. Alternatively, talking to a health coach can create a safe, non-judgmental environment for you to open up. Set up a free chat with me.
There are numerous other methods and tools to use that can help you transform your stress and burnout into resilience and balance. Breathing techniques, prioritizing tasks, establishing boundaries, setting SMART goals, and sleep habits are just a few other methods. I’ll cover these and more in future journals. The key to beginning addressing burnout and creating positive change is to find the simplest, smallest step you can take at this moment - right now - wherever you are in your journey. Remember you are not alone in your journey and are capable of preventing and reversing the symptoms of burnout. Keep trying these science-backed methods to see which ones resonate with you.
World Health Organization. (2019). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
Shirom, A. (2019). Burnout and health: A review of the evidence. In J. Barling & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Behavior, Volume Two: Macro Approaches (pp. 131-148). SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781473971153.n7
A systematic review and meta-analysis of mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthcare professionals: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378642/
The effects of rest breaks on productivity and well-being at work: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5797550/
Exercise interventions for mental health: A quantitative and qualitative review: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016383431630316X
Krogh, J., Hjorthøj, C., & Speyer, H. (2014). Exercise for patients with major depression: A systematic review with meta-analysis and trial sequential analysis. BMJ Open, 4(12), e004364.
Nutritional interventions for reducing the risk of burnout among medical residents: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1550830718300982
A systematic review of social support interventions for caregivers of people with dementia: Are they doing what they promise? https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0885392418303077