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Healing Burnout with the Four Pillars of Wellness

Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Advisor and Director of Wellness Research

As providers of wellness services for over 15 years, we at Namaste Wellness are acutely aware that most of us have faced unprecedented levels of stress since the pandemic began one year ago. Our clients are reporting deep exhaustion, a sense of emotional disconnect from their work, and even feeling of apathy and purposelessness. Unfortunately, these feelings are classical symptoms of burnout, a syndrome that the World Health Organization has classified as an “occupational hazard.”

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Not to be dismissed as “just stress,” burnout is a serious and potentially dangerous condition that occurs when the external demands of work exceed an individual’s internal resources to respond and adapt. (We believe this is true whether the work is paid or unpaid, such as with parents and caregivers.) Burnout is not due to lack of skill, enthusiasm, or resilience. Burnout often occurs among the most committed and gifted workers for reasons that include unrealistic workloads, a sense of unfairness in the work environment, extreme time pressure, lack of clarity about job roles, lack of support, or in the case of front line workers, exposure to traumatic events that deplete empathy and result in compassion fatigue. It is no surprise that we are now facing an epidemic of burnout across all sectors. In fact, a recent survey found that 40% of workers are battling burnout. Working mothers are hit particularly hard and have been leaving the workforce at a startling rate.  

Many people who are suffering from burnout blame themselves when the exhaustion, cynicism and disconnect slowly creep in. It is described as a “painful and lonely experience” with an insidious onset - many people do not see it coming and they do not understand why they are suffering. They often believe they should simply try harder or work longer hours. Unfortunately, trying to outrun burnout is like rowing upstream - eventually we run out of energy and get swept away. Burnout can often mimic or lead to other mental health problems, and must be addressed to avoid serious consequences.

 

A Systems Approach to Burnout is Essential

In recent years, a new approach to burnout has been developing - one that acknowledges that a truly effective solution involves a systems perspective. Since burnout occurs as a result of excessively stressful work conditions, the solution cannot rest in the lap of the individual who is suffering. It cannot simply involve enhanced self-care, although self-care is helpful. As one researcher commented, coping with burnout is not the same as preventing it.” In fact, emphasizing self-care in the conversation about burnout may make employees feel overly responsible for their challenge and may make employers feel less accountable.

Namaste Wellness has always embraced a holistic, bio-psycho-social-spiritual approach to wellbeing. This means that all domains of life, including work, contribute to our wellness. The National Wellness Institute explains that “wellness is multidimensional and holistic, encompassing lifestyle, mental and spiritual well-being, and the environment.” This last aspect - environment - is central to this discussion of burnout. Our solution to burnout combines the benefits of robust self-care with higher-level strategies that employers can initiate to promote a culture of wellness. We offer this holistic approach within the paradigm of Namaste’s Four Pillars of Wellness.

 

The Pillar of Connection

As social beings, we require social connection in order to thrive. Feeling safe in our connection with other people is a primary way in which we regulate our stress response. This extends to our work relationships - they too must be built upon trust and empathy. When people burn out, they often feel so exhausted and overwhelmed that they tend to retreat. Having the urge to isolate promotes loneliness and poses an increased risk for significant mental health concerns. When you feel yourself burning out, make a point to reach out to others. Communicate challenges to leadership (this is not complaining). Seek support from friends and ask family members for assistance. We are not meant to bear our burdens alone.

In an effort to create a culture of wellness that prevents burnout, the American Psychological Association recommends several workplace wellness strategies to bolster support during pandemic. For example, train managers to look for signs of emotional strain during video calls and to view missed deadlines as a sign that employees might be struggling. As part of a culture of wellness, companies might consider leading formal “recognizing burnout” discussions much like one company did during the pandemic. Give staff a chance to share their experiences and receive support in a group setting. Ensure easy and adequate access to counseling and mental health services through employment benefits and be sure to provide mental health days. There are even numerous counseling apps that make support convenient and accessible. Most importantly, managers should be trained to demonstrate empathy and express true concern for the wellbeing of the people they lead. 

 

The Pillar of Movement 

Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to process emotions and protect against the deleterious effects of chronic stress. In their book called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, authors Emily and Amelia Nagoski highlight that “completing the stress cycle” through physical movement is an essential strategy for healing and preventing burnout. When we face stressful circumstances, our bodies are flooded with neurochemicals that prepare us to fight or flee. Heart rate increases, our muscles are filled with blood, and our digestion slows down in order to redirect energy toward survival. If we do not have strategies to address the stress, the body gets stuck in the response. It may even result in an energetic collapse associated with a “freeze” response, otherwise called “dorsal collapse.” Physical movement (i.e. running, biking, swimming, walking, etc.) signals to the body that it has successfully fled the tiger or fought off the dragon. The body can then relax and return to a state of rest, restore, and digest. Thus, consider movement the number one tool in the burnout self-care toolbox. For those who do not enjoy exercise, deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, creative expression, authentic connection with others, and genuine laughter can all have a similar effect.

On an organizational level, companies can convey a culture of wellness through initiatives that include movement. This could include “walk and talk” meetings outdoors, group fitness and movement classes offered during lunch or preferably at select times during business hours (to demonstrate its high priority), reimbursement for gym memberships or free access to fitness apps. Weaving movement into work life allows stress to be processed throughout the day rather than accumulating. Namaste works with many companies to create customized class offerings for employees. In addition to offering healthy outlets during the day, scheduled wellness sessions convey a corporate culture of wellness that permeates the employee experience. 

 

The Pillar of Stillness

Stillness is the natural counterbalance to movement. Following action and exertion, our bodies and minds need rest and recovery. When we don’t rest or get adequate sleep, we burn out. The American Institute of Stress suggests taking walks during breaks, practicing deep breathing, meditating, practicing mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi, and creating boundaries around work while at home by shutting down digital devices. Mindfulness practice, deep breathing exercises, and meditation help to regulate the stress response and build emotional regulation, resilience, compassion, and even improved accuracy at work. However, as stated before, relying on these strategies is insufficient as they tend to put the onus on the person suffering rather than attending to the underlying systemic issues. 

On an organizational level, being encouraged to take time for rest and recovery is absolutely essential for burnout prevention. In one article in the Harvard Business Review, it was reported that less than half of workers use all of their vacation days. Emphasizing rest is a central component of a culture of wellness. During the pandemic, some companies have gone so far as to offer bonus “free” days, in which all employees are encouraged to go offline and take time for rest. Employees should be encouraged to use their vacation days, take mental health days when needed, and establish healthy boundaries around work hours, especially when working from home. Leaders should promote the value of rest by modeling this behavior themselves; taking time off gives employees permission to rest as well.  

 

The Pillar of Nourishment

Nourishment refers to the many things we “consume” that impact our well-being. This includes nourishing food and drink, of course, as well as our enjoyment of art, culture, literature, hobbies and other pleasures that feed the spirit and bring balance to life. Especially when under stress we must also control our consumption of toxins, including excessive alcohol, social media and negative news coverage. 

A discussion of nourishment for burnout requires that we reflect upon the nourishing nature of our work. Does your work align with your values? Do you feel inspired? Are you rewarded for your efforts? And are you able to connect with your purpose? One of the hallmark symptoms of burnout is the feeling that work no longer is meaningful. Reconnecting with purpose is essential to burnout prevention and healing. Employers can support this by demonstrating appreciation to  employees for their numerous contributions and by helping remind all team members of the meaning and purpose of their shared mission. Feeding the fire of passion can help us to rise out of the embers of burnout and return to an experience of vitality and enthusiasm.

 

Beating Burnout Together

It is our hope that an emphasis on shared responsibility can help remove the stigma associated with burnout and empower individuals to advocate for healthier work conditions while also encouraging organizations to make burnout prevention a high priority, especially during these unprecedented times. As wellness providers, we encourage you to create a robust self-care toolbox to help you thrive under a wide range of conditions. But more importantly, if you are in a leadership position, we encourage you to harness your authority to create a health-promoting environment for your team. We are happy to collaborate with you in this creation of your own culture of wellness. 

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