After the most unique, and commonly-experienced year in our lifetimes, the widespread experience of burnout is upon us. Like many people reading this, I also feel burned out. In my case, as a teacher and writer, my work exists as a constant pressure; it sits in my mind even when I shut off my computer. It comes from my relationship to my work, but the responsibility for dealing with it rests squarely on my shoulders. And we know, from our own unique experiences, that burnout means a loss of effectiveness and indicates an imbalance in our life that needs to be rectified. The imbalance is between our self-identity as an individual and the role we play for an organization. The appearance of burnout, then, is evidence of the current negative effects of the corruption of mass society on our individual selves.
Yet, burnout is an organizational problem, not an individual one – if we are to believe the Harvard Business Review (HBR). But while responsibility for preventing employee burnout rests squarely on the shoulders of employers, remedying burnout once you’re suffering from it is much less straightforward. Studies show that external efforts to pull someone out of burnout — no matter how well-meaning — often fail. While this by no means recuses employers from taking accountability for supporting the mental health of their employees, recent research suggests that when you’re feeling burned out, the best person to help you recover may be yourself.
HBR has conducted conducted several studies exploring the most effective strategies for recovering from burnout, and identified a number of common trends:
The Causes of Individual Burnout
When we label something as burnout, it is important to know what we are talking about. In fact, burnout is not a generalized phenomenon, but rather, it can present as any combination of three distinct symptoms: exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness), and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for oneself). To recover from burnout, you must identify which of these resources has been depleted and take action to replenish those resources.
For example, when exhaustion is the primary source of burnout, re-energizing acts of self-care are the most effective tool for recovery. One study measured the impact of small acts of self-compassion among a sample of business school students during their highly stressful 10-day midterms period — a time in which both mental and physical exhaustion are common. Each morning, participants were given one task for the day: on some mornings, we asked them to notice a challenge they would face that day and then treat themselves with compassion, while on other mornings, we asked them to think about and demonstrate compassion for another person. We found that engaging in self-care activities (such as a 10-minute meditation session, cooking a nice meal, or even taking a nap) correlated strongly with reduced levels of reported burnout the following day. These findings support the notion that self-care is not self-indulgent; on the contrary, taking a break and focusing on yourself is one of the best ways to combat exhaustion and burnout.
On the other hand, when burnout is due to cynicism, self-care may not be the order of he day. When feeling alienated, focusing on yourself may lead you to withdraw further, while being kind to others can help you regain a sense of connectedness and belonging in your community. It was found that when participants were instructed to focus on alleviating others’ challenges, they did things like offering words of encouragement or taking a coworker out to lunch, and then reported lower levels of cynicism the next day. Even just taking a few minutes to comfort a colleague or listen to their concerns led to a reduction in burnout associated with cynicism.
Finally, when employees struggled with feelings of inefficacy, acts that focused on bolstering their positive sense of self were the most impactful. Interestingly, this can mean either self-compassion or compassion for others — the key is simply to accomplish something that will validate your own sense of personal value. For example, external acts such as comforting a coworker led to increased self-esteem (especially if the coworker expressed gratitude), but so did internally-focused achievements, such as completing a workout session or finishing a project.
In addition, autonomy is essential. To effectively overcome burnout, employees must feel empowered to take control over their own lives and decisions. For example, if an employee is feeling burned out because of a lack of social connections, there are steps managers can take to alleviate that — but past research has shown that such interventions are tricky to execute: They’re often ineffective, and they may even increase the burden on your already burned out employees. A more restorative approach in these cases is for employees to reaffirm their own social networks. Rather than having bosses organize endless happy hours to artificially foster connections or herd burned-out employees into forced team-building activities, real recovery comes when managers give employees the space to pursue their own restorative opportunities — whether that’s explicitly encouraging them to take personal time to check in with a colleague, providing resources to build a mentoring network, or even just showing by example that the organization values self-care.
Of course, even in the most supportive work environment, compassion (for yourself or for others) doesn’t always come easily. In a second study, social service workers — a population prone to chronic burnout — were surveyed over three years. Those who were already suffering from burnout had a harder time engaging in acts of self- or other-care, but those who were able to muster the energy to practice compassion showed significant reductions in burnout. This suggests that compassion is a like a muscle: it can be exhausted, but it can also be trained. In fact, researchers have found that compassion meditation training can actually rewire neural systems in the brain, and breath training, appreciation exercises, yoga, and movement practices have also been shown to be effective tools to cultivate compassion. The key is to recognize that anyone can learn to be more kind to themselves and to others, and that those small, compassionate acts (alongside other mental health practices) can help you begin to break free of burnout.
It can’t be stressed enough that the best approach to burnout is to prevent it in the first place. It’s on managers and organizations to protect their employees from becoming resource-depleted in the first place, and it’s also on the employer to provide the resources necessary to support employees’ mental health. That said, no matter how much effort an organization puts into combating burnout, there will always be a need for employees to understand where their burnout is coming from and to develop strategies to help pull themselves out. If we are to believe HBR, it is through self-reflection that one can begin to identify the sources of their burnout, and then proactively determine the actions they can take that will be most effective for their recovery — whether that’s self-compassion, acts of kindness, or some combination of the two.
The Landmines in Self-Reflection
While this seems to answer the question of burnout, a mood of skepticism still pervades. For we are acquainted with the awareness that we, as individuals, are often the least aware of what we need, even when we are self-reflecting. And this poses a real problem, if the cure for burnout is a process of self-reflection. In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt project is to understand three features of our life as individuals: thinking, willing, and judging. Following this trifecta of capabilities, I will suggest three habits that indeed bolster our identities as individuals, especially if done together.
Prayer – Admittedly, “prayer” is very religious language for communicating with God. If you are athiest, or come from a tradition that does not believe in God (such as Buddhism), me advocating prayer might raise a skeptical attitude. Let me say it this way, if you believe in something sacred, pray with it in mind. You will know that it is sacred if you honor it with every word and deed. Protestant Christians will advocate “time alone with God”; and as much as one may disagree with that description, spending time with the sacred allows the sacred to spend time with us. And what is sacred is, in essence, what is eternal. It is a lifeworld of security against the temporary experience of imbalance.
Meditation – Meditation doesn’t simply allow our minds to perform more effectively, increasing our memory and sense of calmness and our ability to be present – although, importantly it does these things. It also allows us to process and release those energies that inhibit us from fruitful living. In other words, it restores our unique capacities for presence and not absence. And it relies on our embodied nature as belonging to this world.
Being with significant others – As we grow older, who we surround ourselves with becomes much more a matter of choice. We can choose our friends, and bring closer more pleasant family members. However, there are certain persons in your life, like it or not, that have an integral part in forming you to be the person you are. For example, one may have had an abusive parent. In our deepest reality, we need a place to be free to be ourselves. This only makes sense if there is a collection of people who provide that space for you. It may only be a couple of people, and they may not each know each other. These people may not agree with everything you do – but they offer you the freedom to be. Being rooted with people who give you the freedom to be, and who contribute to refining who you are, is a source of individual strength.
You see, the bolstering of individual capabilities in the face pressure from mass society, very prevalent in the case of burnout, happens in rituals and behaviors which find their sources in the presence of the sacred, the body and with those people who have shaped our identities. It isn’t that we are thrust back onto ourselves as abstracted selves; we are dealing with the imbalance as embodied, social beings with a core relationship to what is sacred.
So, whether it be dealing with burnout, or finding a balance between who we are and what role(s) we play, the individual is thus restored. Our recovery from burnout may be unique, but it certainly isn’t isolated.