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Addressing Burnout with Mindfulness

We can all attest to the workplace changes that have occurred in the past few years. These changes might have even influenced our expectations and standards at work. While there have certainly been some positive changes, there have also been some changes that have had a negative impact on us.

Some of the changes that we may have noticed or experienced are increased turnover rates, inflation, economic challenges, layoffs, and workers not feeling appreciated. Many of these have resulted in more responsibilities and increased pressure at work. Throughout these transitions, the risk of burnout has increased for all of us. As employees navigate through these changes, employers must also navigate the way they run their business while also continuing to provide adequate support for their employees.

Without the sense of appreciation and adequate support from an employer, employees run a higher risk of experiencing burnout, a syndrome that can be detrimental to the wellbeing of an individual and a business.

What is Burnout?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a syndrome that can begin to appear when someone experiences chronic stress at work without feeling like there is ever any resolve. It is the result of workplace stress that is not being successfully managed.

Burnout has three main characteristics:

  1. Energy depletion (exhaustion, low motivation)

  2. Increased mental distance from one's job (negative attitude, cynicism)

  3. Reduced professional efficacy (poor performance, increased human error)

In more severe cases of burnout, people can experience insomnia, depression, and anxiety. It can also manifest as reduced creativity, isolation, physical ailments, lack of concentration, and increased accidents and mistakes at work. While some of these symptoms may sound familiar to depression, it’s important to recognize that burnout is different from depression in that it’s tied specifically to our work and the relationship we have with our work.

Factors in the Workplace that Can Lead to Burnout

So, what exactly leads to burnout? While the specific factors may vary slightly from person to person, it boils down to stress and demands in the workplace that are too great for us to cope with. Some examples of work demands that can increase stress are longer hours, increased demands for remote positions, unrealistic deadlines from an employer, unequal/low pay, and lack of opportunity for growth or advancement.

The occurrence of burnout has been increasing over the years, with studies showing a notable spike in 2020. According to APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey, 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Nearly 3 in 5 employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.

What Does This Mean for Business?

According to The Burnout Clinic, employees with severe burnout are 2.6 times more likely to leave an employer, and turnover costs 30% of an employee’s annual salary. The effects of burnout can have profound negative effects on an employee’s mental and physical health. If not addressed, a business may also begin to struggle with absenteeism, higher healthcare costs, negative changes in workplace culture, high turnover rates, reduced customer satisfaction, and increase in human error at work, some of the costliest aspects of running a business. Eventually, this results in a lose-lose situation for both employees and businesses.

On an individual level, we can do our best to tend to our mental health outside of work, but when stressors are connected to our workplace, some of the responsibility also falls on businesses and the support they provide. The power and influence businesses hold in preventing and reducing burnout is tremendous and, unfortunately, that power is not always recognized or used to its fullest potential to support staff.

Some ways in which businesses can better serve and support their team is by providing training in conflict resolution, maximizing staff autonomy, including employees in decision making, offering support groups, having a diverse work environment, providing consultations at work, providing training to increase confidence and role effectiveness, and setting clear and consistent goals for the company, teams, and individual roles. Most important of all though, providing education and raising awareness through workshops, training, and introducing healthy coping skills, such as mindfulness.

How Mindfulness Can Help

While it’s important to have interventions and support in place for when one does find themselves experiencing burnout, it’s just as important, if not more, to understand what support can be provided ahead of time as a preventative measure for burnout. Treating the physical symptoms of burnout is one aspect of burnout. However, doing so doesn’t address the root of the problem. Mental health is at the heart of this syndrome.

A very popular method shown to effectively combat burnout is the practice of mindfulness. To be mindful, means to be intentionally present, more aware of each moment, and being fully engaged with one’s surroundings, feelings, thoughts, and/or senses- with acceptance, curiosity, and without judgment.

Several well-known organizations have implemented mindfulness as a tool for their employees. Some companies even go above and beyond by providing yoga classes, weekly meditation sessions, and dedicated mediation rooms. Research at companies like Aetna, Intel, Target, General Mills, and Google, have found that implementing mindfulness in the workplace has proved beneficial to the wellbeing of their employees. Many other studies on the benefits and effectiveness of mindfulness, support these findings.

One study showed significant positive changes in participant stress levels; participants noticed an improvement in physical, behavioral, emotional, and personal stress indicators, as well as reduced blood pressure and cortisol levels. If we listen closely and pay attention, we can notice the ways in which our body is letting us know something is not right. Some of those stress responses that mindfulness can help manage are:

Physical: blood pressure, muscle tension, stress hormones, lowered immune response

  1. Emotional: anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, depression, shame, anger

  2. Behavioral: withdrawing, under or overdoing activities, lashing out

  3. Cognitive: trouble concentrating, difficulty making decisions, negative self-talk, negative thoughts and images about the event, self, and others.

Practiced regularly, mindfulness allows us to connect with ourselves on a deeper level. Through mindfulness, we can experience a stronger connection with our environment, thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This increased self-awareness increases the chance of spotting signs of stress early on and intervening before it has a chance to escalate towards burnout.

Another study found positive results on the impact mindfulness has on the relationships we have with others and ourselves, and similar to the previously referenced study, they also found an improvement in self-awareness, noticing feelings and body tension, and improved concentration. When we have healthier, more harmonious relationships (inside and outside of work), this can help set us up for more positive days and show up to work in a brighter headspace. Mindfulness can serve as a tool for helping us be more in tune with ourselves which means the sooner we recognize we are not doing well, the sooner we can seek help and support to address these concerns.

Extensive research shows that mindfulness can be successfully applied in business and in areas of leadership and personnel development to improve employee satisfaction and efficiency and effectiveness of an organization. While it may not be obvious at first, there are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in the workplace. Below is a short list of a few ways mindfulness can be practiced at work:

  1. Mindful breathing (focusing your attention on your breathing- its natural rhythm and flow and how it feels to inhale and exhale)

  2. Mindful eating (slowing down and focusing your senses and attention on food and the experience of eating)

  3. Mindful walking (being aware of your surroundings and how your body and mind feel while moving)

For someone to realize their true potential, they need to look within themselves, and mindfulness allows for just that. Mindfulness is a relatively easy skill to introduce and teach, it’s also a practice in which the investment of time is small, it’s a secular tool available to all, it provides immediate and observable results, and it’s a tool that is flexible and can be customized to meet the specific needs and level of experience of those practicing it.

Western corporate culture is often rooted in attitudes that focus on productivity, efficiency, and speed, often overlooking the importance of slowing down, being present, and tending to our mental health. Businesses that implement mindfulness will be better equipped to manage challenges and expectations in the workplace. It’s crucial that employers be responsive to feedback and open to hearing the needs of their employees. Rigidity and unwillingness to be flexible will result in employees not feeling supported, not having their needs met, and this increases the chances of employee burnout.

Employers can begin to address burnout at its source by providing support through benefits, encouraging time off, and emphasizing the importance of work life balance and mental health. When employees feel safe, secure, heard, and valued at work, they are more likely to be more open to working as a team, being supportive of one another, be more receptive to feedback, and more comfortable in giving feedback and discussing their concerns.

Management can make these opportunities available and encourage such discussions by having regular team meetings, checking in with employees individually, having company wellness programs, workshops, and maintaining an empowering and supportive work culture. Many of these opportunities also give room for implementing mindfulness exercises, such as during team meetings, one on one meetings, workshops, and training courses.

Humans are not machines; we forget this at times and place unrealistic expectations and pressure on ourselves. As complex beings, it’s important to take on a holistic approach to our wellbeing, prioritize our mental and physical health, and see the value in taking breaks to decompress as needed. Pushing ourselves to pursue unrealistic and unsustainable goals will, inevitably, be damaging to our wellbeing. The success of an employee and business are more closely connected than we may realize. If we tend to our mental health while receiving adequate support from our employer, then both employer and employee will reap the benefits and flourish on personal and professional levels.

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