Last week The World Health Organization classified Burn-out as an occupational phenomenon (not yet a medical condition, but recognized as a major issue in our society). What does that mean? It means more people are experiencing it, and it’s having deleterious effects upon the overall health and wellbeing of our population. (read: not good).
So what is burn-out?
According to the World Health Organization:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
How does that differ from stress?
According to HelpGuide.org, “Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and mentally. However, stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.
Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities, burnout is a sense of being all dried up. And while you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.”
I really like this distinction, because I think it points to the crux of the issue – how we’re relating to our stress and how resilient we are to it. Because the fact is, stress isn’t going anywhere. It is part of modern life. And while we might be able to take some steps to avoid certain stressors, to some degree it’s not about avoidance – it’s about management.
So how can we better manage stress and prevent burnout?
The first step is to notice what/ who is causing your stress. Yup, that’s right – back to our good friend mindfulness. If you don’t notice it, you can’t do anything about it. This means slowing down and taking some healthy distance from your life so you can notice what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. This is something I’m actively working on personally (you can read more about that here).
Once you notice your stressors you have choices…
- Can you reduce or eliminate the stressor? Is it an activity that you can give up? Or a commitment you can let go of? If it is, how can you take steps to make the necessary shifts?
- Can you change how you relate to the stressor? Shift your boundaries or shift your mindset? Sometimes we can’t change the situation/ people, but by shifting how we view and interact we can move mountains (or at least reduce our stress). Hello Self-compassion. Feeling like you need a bit more help in this area. Working with a Counsellor or other helping professional can be hugely beneficial. You don’t have to struggle alone!
- Find healthy ways to cope. Oh hey, meditation! Sleep! Nutrition! Exercise! These are all tools that are HUGE assets in your resilience tool kit. Let’s dig into each one at a time…and give you some serious hacks that you can start using today!
Meditation is Magic
I’m a big believer in meditation. But you don’t have to hit the meditation pillow and become a buddhist monk to reap the rewards. I adhere to the Dan Harris (Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics) approach to meditation. Which means any amount of meditation – wherever you are COUNTS. Need convincing? Meditation is clinically proven to reduce effects of stress on the body (go science!). And it’s not hard to see why. Meditation not only offers us the ability to practice mindfulness (circle back to what I said about noticing you’re stressed). Which means we’re better skilled at noticing our experiences. If you can notice it – you can change it. Meditation also gives us a simple strategy we can use literally anywhere, at any time to help us dial down the response to stress.
The stress response is to fight, flight or flee. There is a market increase in stress hormones as our body prepares to combat the “threat” (whether that’s a wild animal chasing us or a deadline breathing down our throats). Meditation enables us to calm this reaction. And the research shows it’s even more powerful the more significantly stressed you are!
How to practice:
My favourite is often the simplest: simple mindfulness meditation. Find a safe and relatively quiet place. Close your eyes if you can (Dan Harris has shared he’ll wear sunglasses and do this in a taxi). Bring your attention to your breath at the nostrils or belly. Notice the inhale, and the exhale. Simply follow your breath for 10 breaths. This simple 1-minute (ish) meditation is both powerful and calming. Want to explore more? I found this synopsis article from the Mayo Clinic quite good.
Bottom line: Breath. Notice your breath. Practice mindful meditation in the momentum of life!
Sleep, the Unsung Hero of Health!
Sleep is so vital to our health I devoted a whole chapter to it in my new book The Elephant in the Gym. I also have an entire Masterclass on it in the Super You Studio. It’s huge. I’ve noticed it not just anecdotally with myself and my clients – the research is abundant and conclusive. We need sleep to optimally function. And we need more when we’re under significant stress. Which is ironic, because when we’re under significant stress our cultural default is to cut sleep to “get $hit done.” But just think about how effective you are when you’re over-tired (read: not). This is because sleep is essential for our health and vitality.
Why do we need sleep? Well for starters, during sleep is when our brains recharge and rewire. It’s when our brains consolidate memories (read: this is essential for learning and being innovative and creative!). It’s also when our bodies rest and muscles repair. So if you’re layering in work stress and physical activity stress – it’s of vital importance!
So how much should you get? Everyone is different, but general recommendations are 7-9 hours per night for healthy adults. Stressed adults? You need more. Burned-out adults? Even more. In her article “Chill out! How to Overcome Burnout” Martha Beck shares a really excellent framework for looking at stress vs. burnout on a continuum. And corresponds the necessary sleep according to Jesse Lynn Hanley, MD, coauthor of Tired of Being Tired. This 5-levels of burnout approach identifies how much sleep is needed at each level from 6-8 hours with naps as needed all the way to 8-10 hours per night plus 3 15- to 30-minute naps daily! And if you don’t take it? Your body will find a way (yup, you guessed it, this is exactly when you get sick or injured).
Bottom line? Sleep. Make it a priority.
Eat to Nourish
The default mode in times of stress is to skip meals, then grab that mocha-choco-latte with whip and a cookie on the side when you do have a moment because #stress because #jolt because #sugar. But going hungry is more physiologic stress and then adding caffeine and sugar spike might feel fantastic short term, but long term, they’re also part of the problem! Instead eat well and eat regularly. Your brain’s primary source of fuel is glucose. But that doesn’t mean we’re back to the cookie – think good quality sources of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and then lean proteins and fats to give your body the building blocks it needs to be healthy, well and vibrant!
Bottom line: don’t add hangry stress to your plate! Eat well and eat predictably so you don’t add fuel to the fire of stress!
Move Your Body to Move the Dial on Stress
Physical Activity and Exercise are wonderful ways to help with stress management. Not just because of the awesome happy hormones we release when we participate in moderate to vigorous exercise, but also because of the break from stressful activities it provides. In order to make sure it’s got the greatest impact for our stress reduction here are some things to consider:
- Take an actual break. The effect on our perception of stress is diminished if we try to “multitask” our exercise with work. Ie. your treadmill desk might help with reducing your sitting time, improving your overall physical activity level and even help you manage stress, but when it comes to actual stress management the effects are not as significant as actually getting outside and taking a break from your work! So feel free to take a work call on your lunch-time walk, but know that at least part of the benefit is from the break from work.
- Make sure you enjoy it. I say this all the time – if you don’t enjoy it not only will you be less likely to do it, all that dread and obligation you feel towards it- it’s stress! Yeah, not helping. Find something you genuinely look forward to that brings you JOY!
- Skip the HIIT and find your happy. When it comes to exercise specifically for stress management think about it this way: exercise is stress. Physiologic stress. So if you’re under critical amounts of stress (read: you’re nearing burnout level), more intense exercise may NOT be what the doctor ordered. I like to look at it this way: optimal intensity is inversely related to your stress level. If you’re minimally stressed with a reasonably good handle on things and you’re feeling strong and healthy, go for it! HIIT it up! Rock your intense workouts (balanced with adequate rest and nutrition of course). But when you’re at the peak of stress – what might actually benefit you most is more frequent doses of very gentle activities like tai chi or gentle yoga. Take a step back in the periods of stress and be responsive to your actual body/ mind/ spirit needs. What do you need for optimal health, vitality and resilience? Do that. That’s not “falling off the wagon,” that’s honouring your body. And at the end of the day exercise is meant to accentuate and add value to your life and health – not take away from it! Remember that!
Bottom line: Move. Take an actual break and find ways you enjoy doing it. But don’t just move on autopilot. Check in with your body/mind/ spirit needs and match your movement to your moods (without making excuses).
The BIG bottom line:
I say all of this knowing fully that it’s easier said than done (again, refer back to my post here – I fully own that I’m a work in progress).
Remember to start small. Lean in. Make small shifts. Tackle one thing at a time, and slowly layer changes as you develop confidence with your new habits.
And know that you don’t have to go this alone. If you’ve passed stress and are deep in burn-out, reach out to your doctor or a qualified counsellor. Get the support you need.