For many people, work can be a source of stress. Deadlines, coworkers, clients, long hours, and juggling work with the rest of our lives can make us feel like we’re spinning plates. Add to that the global, economic, and health crises from the past few years and it can be a recipe for burnout.
Maybe you were once energized by your work and now you’re so tired that you can barely make it through the day. Maybe you once felt warm toward your coworkers or clients, but you find yourself increasingly cynical or numb toward them and your work. Or maybe you feel like you just can’t do it anymore, whatever “it” may be.
Work-related stress is on the rise, so if you feel this way, you’re not alone—but there are things you can do to combat burnout and stop it before it starts. In this blog, MyWellbeing therapist Dominique Rodriguez breaks down what mindfulness and burnout are and how you can use mindfulness techniques to cope with and even prevent burnout.
“Mindfulness is basically taking time out of your day and asking yourself how you feel and what’s going on with you,” says Dominique. “You can focus on your breath, focus on the present moment, and just be in tune with yourself, even if it’s just for a few minutes.”
Mindfulness can involve breathing methods, using guided imagery, and other practices to relax the mind and body and help reduce stress, anxiety, and burnout.
The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, such as doctors and nurses.
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It’s 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 (these are the three dimensions measured by the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), developed by Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson to assess your level of burnout).
“With burnout, you’ve reached a point of exhaustion,” says Dominique. “You’re ready to just walk away. If you’ve taken a day off and it doesn’t feel like you had any time away or if you’re away from work, like on vacation, but you can’t stop thinking about—and dreading returning to—work, you might be burned out.”
“A lot of my clients start to suspect that they’re burned out when, not only are they exhausted, but it takes them forever to get things done,” says Dominique. “They are tired, they don’t want to complete tasks, and they’re struggling to complete things.”
Unfortunately, burnout could lead to more severe mental health concerns like depression and anxiety if left untreated, so it's important to seek support if you suspect you are experiencing burnout.
All definitions of burnout given so far share the idea that the symptoms are thought to be caused by work-related or other kinds of stress, but burnout can also be applied to potentially unpaid labor that is still “work,” like caring for family members, such as caregiver burnout or new parent burnout.
Feelings of burnout are more and more common, especially with everything going on in the world today. Mental Health America’s 2021 Mind the Workplace Report found that most employees surveyed were experiencing the early signs of burnout, with nearly 83 percent of respondents feeling emotionally drained from their work. Nearly 1 in 4 employees surveyed experienced the more severe signs of burnout, including reduced professional efficacy and cynicism towards coworkers and their jobs.
When it comes to burnout, just noticing what we’re experiencing is the first step. When we’re burned out, we’re often numb or on autopilot, so noticing can be hard enough—and a great first step toward getting support for yourself. Once we realize that we might be burned out, that ability to notice how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and what’s going on in our minds and bodies can carry over into our mindfulness practice.
“Mindfulness is a way to check in with yourself,” says Dominique. “So when you start to feel like something isn’t right, mindfulness is a tool to use to help you become more aware of what isn’t feeling right to you.”
When we practice mindfulness, that’s all we’re doing: pausing, noticing, not judging or necessarily trying to change anything or be “better,” but giving ourselves the opportunity to return to a baseline sense of calm. From that place, we are better-positioned to move away from that burned-out state. If that seems harder than it sounds, it can be! That’s why it can be beneficial to get some mental health support.
“When you’re just getting started, some of the best mindfulness techniques or meditations are the ones that don’t feel like meditation at all,” says Dominique. “When someone says that they can’t meditate or can’t be mindful, I usually walk it back to the easiest, simplest practice of what mindfulness is.”
“A simple check-in can help, especially when you make it part of your routine,” says Dominique. “Taking a few minutes while you get ready in the morning to ask yourself, What is going on with me today? How am I feeling? Or when you get in your car at the end of the day, before you start the car and drive off, just sit there. You don’t have to do anything but sit and breathe.”
“You can try guided meditations on apps like Headspace or Calm or check out resources from MyWellbeing,” says Dominique. “Just pull up a short practice and listen. You don’t have to do anything or achieve anything, just listen and breathe.”
“In therapy, I explore what’s going on with each of my clients in their unique situation and figure out techniques that might work for them specifically,” says Dominique. “While breathing exercises and taking mindful moments can be beneficial for everyone, sometimes the best exercises are the ones tailored for you.”
“For example, some of my clients are perfectionists or need things in their lives to go a certain way, and when they don't, they struggle to cope—an exercise in this situation could be: Try not to fix anything this week. Just don’t fix things. A picture is crooked on the wall? Don’t straighten it. Someone didn’t say something the way you wanted them to? Don’t correct them. What does that feel like? What is that release of control doing to you? What are you thinking? This is mindfulness too; just being present in the moment and noticing.”
Like most coping mechanisms or techniques you’ll learn in therapy, integrating them into your routine so it feels natural is important, and your therapist can work with you to figure out the best way to do this for you.
“I typically do assignments with my clients to help them feel accountable,” says Dominique. “This can be as simple as ‘try the meditation or mindfulness exercise we talked about and note how it felt for you.’ Then we’ll talk about it in our next session. And if they didn’t do the assignment, there’s nothing wrong with that—we’ll talk about what came up for them, what did or didn’t work, and what could work better next time.”
“A lot of my clients struggle with sleep,” says Dominique. “They can’t sleep because they’re thinking about work or they can’t turn their brains off at night or they’re stressed. By just doing a short meditation for sleep every night for a week, my clients have reported that they sleep better, they have less trouble falling asleep, and it improves their mood during the day.”
The longer and more consistently you practice, the more beneficial it will be. If you’re committed to implementing mindfulness into your daily life, you can aim to practice mindfulness every day for about six months. If that seems daunting, you’re not alone! Start small, with just minutes a day, and you’ll start to see the effects.
“One of the most important things you can do is implementing mindfulness before you’re burned out,” says Dominique. “If you’re burned out now, that’s okay; you’ll commit now to practicing preventative self-care before things get worse. But don’t wait to take the time to care for yourself—you deserve support and relief now. Practice refilling your cup regularly so being empty is a thing of the past.”
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.