The holidays can often feel like the last sprint of the marathon that is our daily work and life. As the year draws to an end and we gather with our loved ones, there is a common feeling in the air: exhaustion.
Our modern society has adopted a global ‘always on’ culture at an unparalleled rate, which does not come without its consequences. As our hardware devices and software tools infiltrate every aspect of our personal and professional lives, modern humans are under immense pressure to be readily available 24/7. We also lead increasingly complex lives, communicating continuously with expanding networks of people at unprecedented speeds. The ‘technostress’ and ‘social overload’ we feel not only hinder the ability to maintain work-life balance, but more importantly have a very real negative impact on our collective and individual health.
Burnout in developed countries has been on the rise since the turn of the century. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising – if the workday never really ends it can be hard to fully disengage and relax. And when we can’t switch off from our devices or get out of our inboxes, the stress at work can follow a person home and end up turning into a chronic condition.
In the past year alone, 35% of job-related illness cases were due to high stress levels, and 43% of sick days taken were related to stress.
Although we can say that the immense flexibility and accessibility that comes with our digital lives fuels this phenomenon, we as humans are the enablers.
While burnout is an increasingly common problem, it’s one we as a society do not address enough. And as we begin the race of another year, it is important to understand what burnout looks like and where we individually can make lifestyle changes.
What is a Burnout?
Burnout is characterised by feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation of those around oneself, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.
It is not specific to a job sector or level, though certain components of burnout can be especially prevalent within certain contexts. For people in social service roles, for example, it is common for burnout to be experienced as a lack of sympathy or even frustration with those they are working with. People working in the IT sector often experience burnout as a cynical perspective towards their work and a low sense of self-efficacy.
Burnout not only diminishes mental health but also greatly damages physical health, increasing risk levels for a variety of physical illnesses.
Whether experiencing a few symptoms or full burnout, there are a some simple lifestyle changes that can reduce burnout symptoms or increase resilience to burnout.
Combatting the Burn
Physical activity is hugely influential in combatting burnout and work-related stress. Burnout is more common in people who show a lack of engagement in physical activity– and the reverse is also true, where those who engage in a high amount of physical activity are at the lowest risk. After a physically or mentally exhausting day of work, the easiest thing can often feel to rest or indulge in unhealthy habits. But rather than grab for a glass of wine or binging on Netflix, adopting a regular exercise routine into your daily habits will benefit your physical and mental health. Adopting a regular yoga practice– even if it comprises of 15 minutes of self-practice after waking up or before bed– can have real advantageous results in how our brains alleviate stress and anxiety.
Social support from friends, family, and co-workers is also a major source of resilience against burnout. This does not even need to take the form of discussing workplace stress or concerns; simple informal support or even the perception that support is out there can make a big difference in a person’s ability to cope. Workplaces that foster a culture of authenticity in support and communication are the most effective in preventing employee burnout.
In the last years, a growing amount of scientific research has been done into how practicing mindfulness meditation can lower the risk for experiencing burnout. It’s been shown that those who participate in a mindfulness course exhibit decreased burnout symptoms across the three categories described above (emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and low personal accomplishment) and had overall increased wellbeing following the course. Another study found that mindfulness meditation helped people become more self-aware and better equipped to recognise risks to their mental wellbeing
All of these practices can be difficult to implement when feeling stressed or overwhelmed, so it’s important to focus on sustaining the motivation to live differently.
Setting up reminders to exercise or meditate and engaging friends or family to keep you accountable with lifestyle changes can have a strong effect on persisting in these decisions.
Determining a work-life balance will always be specific to individuals and their responsibilities. But adding physical activity and mindfulness to your day and maintaining strong relationships with coworkers, friends, and family can be highly influential in combatting burnout and improving wellbeing.
How we individually interact with our smartphones, devices, social networks and inboxes also have a major influence on our daily stress levels.
As we adopt addictive and compulsive habits, all of these habits directly elicit patterns of stress hormone activity in the brain. The first step toward making a change is to become more mindful of your own personal habits. How do you interact with your smartphone throughout the day? How does the way you use your technology affect your real life conversations and relationships?
We should take this holiday period to disconnect for a moment and remember what it means to indulge in real life, rather than virtual. And as the year begins again, make an effort to disconnect from work communication after hours to maximise the time you can spend in non-distracted meditation, social interaction, or physical activity.
Whether to improve productivity at work, or making efforts to feel more engaged and present throughout the day, taking care of your mental wellbeing and recognising signs of damaging stress and burnout is integral to being the best version of yourself in every context.
Wishing you a stress-free end of the year!
Leah Palmer is a member of the VINAYA Lab specialising in psychology with an interest in how psychological research and technology can be integrated to promote wellbeing. She enjoys reading, cooking, and travel.