Chronic work-related stress over time can lead to job burnout. Job-related psychological stress was first termed “burnout” in 1975 and is defined as a “prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal job stressors.” Burnout is measured by symptoms in three areas: emotional exhaustion or feeling depleted, cynicism or a sense of detachment from others, and a sense of inefficacy, or not being effective at work.
Job burnout can cause emotional and physical fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and problems paying attention at work. The effects of job burnout can start to spread into your personal life outside of work, causing depression and anxiety, detachment from loved ones, or attempts to cope by using alcohol or other substances. Chronic stress also contributes to medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. Stress accounts for over 60% to 80% of medical visits to the primary care doctor.
When your job puts your mind and body into a constant state of stress, you can become worn out emotionally, physically, mentally. In this vulnerable state, even little problems start to feel weighty and insurmountable.
Careers with the highest rates of burnout tend to include helping professions, jobs in which you have little control over your work, or jobs with constant high work demand. Burnout is found at high rates in doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, school principals, lawyers, and police officers.
Here are 10 strategies I recommend to fight job burnout.
1. The first step is to figure out if you are experiencing job burnout.
Awareness is key.
- Do you experience severe stress, fatigue, problems sleeping due to work.
- Are you dreading going into work everyday?
- Do you worry about work even when you’re at home in your free time?
- Have you become cynical or distant with coworkers?
- Do you feel ineffective, like you aren’t able to accomplish tasks that used to be easy for you?
- Do you experience more physical problems, like more headaches?
Once you are able to recognize symptoms of job burnout, then you can consider how to take action.
2. Your body and mind need more sleep.
Getting too little sleep is a major factor in predicting burnout and a likely contributor to job burnout. Sleeping better is also an important sign that you’re recovering from burnout and ready to go back to work.
3. Go work out regularly.
Cardiovascular exercise has been shown in studies to significantly reduce burnout symptoms in as little as 4 weeks.
4. Do yoga.
Yoga programs are helping school teachers, nurses, medical students, and first responders prevent and fight burnout. Studies show that it can significantly reduce emotional exhaustion.
5. Try mindfulness meditation, even 5 to 10 minutes a day.
Mindfulness meditation is a technique that allows you to just be exactly where you are and observe without judgment. You can do mindfulness meditation through free audio guided meditations online or apps like Headspace. I’ve reviewed mindfulness apps here. Practice for as little as 10 minutes a day. Observe your thoughts without judgment, and let them come and go like passing waves in the ocean or clouds in the sky.
6. Practice mindful breathing.
Meditation can sometimes sound intimidating or challenging. Many people imagine meditation is sitting in a dark room in a contorted, uncomfortable position trying to make your mind go empty. But meditation does not have to be physically uncomfortable or even seated. And you don’t need to force your mind to go blank.
Try a simple mindful breathing exercise, which is a form of meditation.
- Inhale for 4 counts of breath, and exhale for 4 counts.
- Say to yourself with each breath, “Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.”
7. Try mindful walking.
If sitting is uncomfortable, try mindful walking. A recent study found that a 30-minute lunchtime walk does wonders for the mood at work.
- Pair your steps with your breath.
- Inhale for 4 steps, exhale for 4 steps.
- Adjust the number of steps based on your pace of walking to create an even, calming breath pattern.
8. Make time for other activities focused on self-care and self-compassion.
Self-care and self-compassion are different for each individual. Massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. A silent walk in nature or playing music can be restorative. Experiment to find what nourishes you.
The key is doing the activity from a place of self-compassion. It sounds really simple, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to give ourselves “permission” to treat ourselves well.
9. Talk about your situation with people that you trust.
Talking with a trusted supervisor or mentor to explore options on how to modify work demands or achieve better work-life balance can be helpful. Many companies also have an employee assistance program which may offer confidential counseling. If things are not improving, you can treat burnout symptoms with the help of a mental health professional.
10. Don’t let the feeling of not having enough time stop you.
The most common reason I hear when I discuss the importance of yoga, meditation, mindful breathing, exercise, or getting additional sleep is that people already feel like they don’t have enough time. The paradox is that making time for yoga, meditation, additional sleep or exercise will actually give you more time.
How is this possible? Yoga, meditation, exercise, and sleep improve focus, concentration and energy, so you will be able to complete tasks more effectively and efficiently. Also, our experience of time is influenced by our nervous system. The sense of urgency and the frustration of feeling rushed is heightened when you have an overactive sympathetic (“fight-or-flight”) nervous system.
Yoga and mindfulness activities help us learn how to slow down and become fully aware of each moment, so your sense of time will actually expand. Doing restorative activities regularly puts the brake on your fight-or-flight response, so you will feel less rushed and stressed even when faced with the same to-do list.
Copyright © 2016 Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC
Watch how stress affects the brain over time with this TedX video