Mar 12th 2020

How to recover from burnout and chronic work stress – according to a psychologist

 

It’s pretty likely you’ve heard of burnout – and you may have even experienced it. Caused by chronic work stress, it’s characterised by signs such as emotional exhaustion, lack of energy, and loss of satisfaction with work – and has been linked to a wide range of physical conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal pain.

Work stress activates our hormonal, metabolic, immune and cardiovascular systems. If these bodily responses are triggered too frequently, or for too long, they fail to return to normal and may alter our body’s immune and inflammation responses. These changes may eventually cause other physical conditions – such as coronary heart disease.

Although an overhaul of work conditions and culture is needed to address the rise in people experiencing burnout, there are still many things we can do ourselves to deal with it now. The most significant way we can prevent burnout is recovery.

Burnout is a consequence of chronic work stress over extended periods of time. It has three components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion (feeling tired, drained, frustrated and fatigued);
  2. Cynicism or detachment (caring less about coworkers or clients);
  3. A loss of satisfaction in one’s work.

Dealing with burnout is about recovering well from work, rather than focusing on being more productive or better at the work itself. Research continues to show how important it is to recover from work on a daily basis.

Recovery means finding time or space for yourself where you don’t engage in things that are work-related or stressful. Recovery is about bringing physiological responses, such as cortisol (a key stress hormone), back down to baseline levels. Proper recovery helps you feel more energetic and enthusiastic to face another day at work. Recovery can take place both during the workday (internal recovery) and outside of work (external recovery).

Types of recovery

Internal recovery is about giving ourselves relief from stress by using short periods of time during work to reduce our body’s stress responses. This can include taking short breaks, doing breathing exercises, or switching tasks when you’re feeling mentally or physically exhausted. So, if you have a few minutes spare at work between tasks or meetings, you may be better off trying to relax rather than checking your emails and experiencing new stressors.

After work, we have the opportunity for external recovery. These are things we do outside of work to help relieve stress. Instead of keeping on top of work and emails, external recovery may include doing any activities you enjoy. These might include watching TV, reading, or socialising – as long as these activities don’t encourage you to think (and stress) more about work.

The key to good recovery is choosing activities based on how they make you feel. If social media creates negative feelings, don’t check it during your work breaks or after work. If socialising with certain people makes you feel drained, this isn’t going to help you recover.

Daily recovery is also important. Research shows the energy gained from the previous day’s after-work activities helps manage the day’s work stress. But it’s important to know that it’s not the amount of time spent on recovering, but the quality of these activities.

It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning.

Daily recovery activities

Thinking about what you do after work to recover – and whether these activities really are helping you recover – is key. There are four types of recovery experience that explain how and why recovery activities work:

  1. Psychological detachment (not thinking about work),
  2. Relaxation (taking a walk in nature, listening to music, reading a book, doing nothing on the sofa)
  3. Mastery (such as seeking out opportunities to do things unrelated to work such as learning languages or pursuing sports and hobbies),
  4. Control (choosing how to spend your time and doing things the way you want to do them).

It’s important to note that psychological detachment is core to recovery – but it’s not as easy to achieve as it sounds. For example, smartphone use after work can interfere with recovery because it blurs boundaries between work and home, stopping psychological detachment from work taking place. Similarly, meeting friends and socialising to relax will not allow psychological detachment if the conversation focuses on complaining about work.

Some recovery experiences are more suited to different people. For example, sports and exercise have been shown to be more effective for workaholics than non-workaholics, possibly because they make psychological detachment from work easier.

If you don’t feel you have much control over your job, psychological detachment and mastery experiences have been shown to be the most effective for recovery. If you feel exhausted due to time pressures at work, relaxation is most protective. People can also personalise and pick the recovery activity that suits them and provides them with the best antidote to their particular form of work stress and burnout.

With burnout, emotional exhaustion typically happens before other stages. It’s the easiest to identify, and easier to change than the other stages. So if you feel emotionally exhausted after work every night – and don’t recover by the morning – your recovery is incomplete. If this is the case, it might be worth taking a closer look at the quality of the after-work activities you’re doing.

Even if you don’t have a lot of time, it’s still important to carve out a little time for yourself to do something you find satisfying. Taking time to recover is shown to help people feel more engaged at work, and protects against the longer-term consequences of work stress and risk of burnout.

 

Rajvinder Samra, Lecturer in Health, The Open University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."