So you’re working from home, but you’re still stressed out? Your commute has disappeared and in theory you should have more time, in practice juggling is harder than ever. It’s hard to stay focused. You’re working longer hours. Colleagues are irritating you and they’re not even in the same room. Your short fuse extends to your family and friends. What’s going on? You might be experiencing burnout. Here are 10 things you need to know about burnout.

1. What used to work before might not work now

For many of us, the pandemic has created new levels of stress that feel overwhelming. What worked before to manage isn’t working now affecting our professional and personal life as well as our health. Part of the problem is we simply don’t recognise when we’re stressed and even if we do, we use the misguided strategy of “powering through” it, leading to burnout.

2. Stress is Universal Burnout Shouldn’t Be

Stress is universal we can’t ignore it or get rid of it. By understanding stress we can begin to manage and optimise it, to turn it into a catalyst for action. 

3. Reframing Stress

When we reframe stress, we can change how we interact with it. Physiological stress is neither good nor bad. When we perceive a threat our brain responds with a flash of cortisol and adrenaline from our sympathetic nervous system. We need that. In our heightened state of stress, it helps us to focus, gives us physical energy to deal with that threat. Once that threat dissipates, our parasympathetic system steps in to calm our body and mind with recovery and rest. Think of it as slowing us down to renew before the next threat or challenge.

4. When There’s no Brake

When we’re unaware of stress we often skip the rest and recovery stage. The stressors continue and so do we, without renewal. When we work in this way, oblivious to our stressors and our need for renewal it paves the way for chronic stress and burnout (an occupational phenomenon classified by the WHO is 2019). The result? decreased emotional intelligence, low mood, lack of empathy, reduced self regulation along with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. What’s more, it’s on the increase since the pandemic

5. Stress as a Vehicle for Growth

When we learn to recognise stress we can better manage it. Understanding our individual stress response is crucial to turning it into an opportunity for personal growth. When we do this, we can intentionally manoeuvre ourselves between an energised, engaged state and recovery and rest to optimise our performance. This is analogous to super-compensation in sports psychology where we add stress and strain onto the body, breaking muscle down so that muscle strengthening can take place in recovery, increasing strength and resilience. It’s the same for our brain. The key for our mental health is recognising when we are in an optimum state of stress, by developing self awareness.

6. Identifying your Unique Stress Response

Whilst it’s true that there are some universal signs and symptoms of stress, how you experience it on an individual level is unique to you. That threshold of stress is different for all of us. Some of us will become irritable or loud and others more introverted. The way that we chose to rest and recover is also unique, e.g. listening to music for one person, running for another or reading for someone else. One size doesn’t fit all. It can feel challenging to articulate how stress affects us. We’re socialised to say what we think, but how we feel, well, that’s another matter. Couple that with the cultural imperative to chug through stress and we’re in unchartered waters. If we can identify stress, we can use it and avoid the burnout that accompanies powering through without stopping. So how do we become more self aware and recognise stress?

7. Recognising Stress

In order to be able to move between an engaged state and recovery, we need to identify stress. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, Daniel Siegal says “Where attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows.” Or, simply stated, neural networks create change and new habits. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How often are you in flow?
  • What are the greatest stressors in your life? Do they dominoe from one area of your life into another?
  • How often do you attempt to chug through stressful periods?
  • Where do you create time for rest and recovery?
  • Reflecting on a recent stressful event, what happened? How did you respond? What resources did you call on to help you? How was it difficult for you? What would you do differently next time?
  • Do you coping strategies renew or deplete you?
  • Are you able to recognise stress as it is happening or only afterwards?

Returning to these questions, or journalling on a regular basis will assist you in identifying stress, developing your stress awareness. If you are able to, monitor your heart rate, your blood pressure to see if it’s possible to monitor the physiological responses to stress. Building your stress awareness will help you to move between the states of engagement and restoration more intentionally.

8. Creating Focus & Flow Instead of Burnout

Whether you’re working from home or in the office, distractions can derail deep focus. Multitasking leads to cognitive overload and an increase in errors. For complex high focus tasks consider creating the conditions for flow ;

  • Minimise distractions (turn off notifications and alerts)
  • Block out time for complex high focus tasks where you can achieve flow, undisturbed.
  • Use multiple platforms for communication, not just video which can feel draining and push us into multitasking with sensory overload.

9. Design Recovery into Your Day to Prevent Burnout

We’ve talked about focusing and how to do it. When you’re in an engaged state, recognise that to optimise your stress it should be followed by recovery. You can master this state by thinking about how you will create pauses in your day instead of attempting to power through. Take a moment and reflect on all of those natural pauses in the day that existed in the pre-pandemic world. Coffee breaks, the commute, listening to a podcast on the way home, walking to and from meetings, talking to a colleague. Think of the benefits of these kinds of breaks versus the cognitive depletion of checking your phone or social media. These are natural recovery moments in the day. How can you recreate them along with making sure you are being mindful of protective factors against stress, for example, sleep, nutrition, exercise?

Think about creating:

  • Good sleep hygiene routines and aiming for 7 to 9 hours a night. Watch your caffeine intake, caffeine has a half life of up to 6 hours in the body(if your last coffee was at midday, it could still be in your system at 10pm). Avoid the temptation to sleep more at weekends, it disrupts your sleep cycle and mimics jet lag in your body.
  • Exercise. Move when you can. Create short walks of 10, 15 or 20 minutes. If your commute used to be part of winding down, re-create it with a brief walk before you begin work when you’re working from home.
  • Micro-breaks throughout the day. Don’t book back to back meetings. Slot breaks in-between instead. Stretch, make a drink, hydrate, walk, practise qigong. Even 60 seconds of a stress relieving breathing technique will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress by 5% each time you do it.
  • Better nutrition. Increase your fruit and vegetable intake. Hydrate through the day. Poor nutrition will affect your mood and motivation. Adding more whole foods and reducing consumption of processed food is an easy win in the stress stakes.

10. Create Transitions Between Engagement and Recovery

Once you’ve worked on strategies to engage and recover, the next step is to intentionally design your day to move between the two states. Transitioning between the two will help you to automatically begin building the two states into your day. Think of it as creating a transition between productive engagement and productive recovery. They’re both productive. You can’t have one without the other. Try:

  • Creating a schedule to map your day according to engagement and recovery. Get into the habit of a start and end time for work when you can. Don’t let your working hours slide way into the night. You’ll only push yourself into burnout. Instead, schedule in an end time.
  • Plan for micro rituals. If your commute was your recovery time pre-pandemic, begin your day with a brief walk. Prepare your mind and your body for work with this replacement ritual. Did you nip out at lunchtime for a coffee? Do the same at home, either in your own kitchen or walk to get take out.
  • Create a way of ending the day. If you work and live in the same room, place your laptop in a drawer. Take another walk to replace your home commute or do something to relax; listen to music with ear buds in, meditate or exercise. These are markers between work and home, a way of winding down, creating separation. You’ll be less likely to re-visit work when you should have finished if you’re able to establish there habits.

Interested in learning more about burnout and building resilience? We work internationally to help people build resilience and optimise their performance. Koru Development provides resilience training courses and resilience coaching for organisations and individuals. Get in touch to discover more

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