Managing Burnout with Mindfulness


September 13, 2021

No matter how you look at it, it’s been a slog.

After more than a year of the pandemic, many of us are exhausted by remote work and online schooling, around-the-clock parenting, and a host of societal and environmental upheavals.

More than half of Americans are burned out, according to a recent survey from Indeed, the job aggregator website.

Signifying an ongoing trend, the World Health Organization recently recognized burnout as a medical disease, ending 40 years of debate about whether the phenomenon classifies as a distinct condition.

How do you know you’re burned out, and what can you do about it if you are?

Psychologists and social scientists who have researched burnout since the 1970s define it as a multifaceted syndrome whose hallmarks include overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism or depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment.

Healthcare workers, psychologists, first responders, and teachers are particularly vulnerable to burnout. But so are parents, athletes, and pretty much everyone who puts dedicated, sincere effort into what they do.

“Our layperson’s definition of burnout is…that feeling of being overwhelmed and exhausted by everything you have to do, while still worrying that you’re not doing enough,” said Emily Nagoski, co-author of the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, in a recent TED interview.

Taking time to recalibrate

If that sounds all too familiar to you, it’s time to recalibrate.

Relieving burnout isn’t as simple as self-care. Taking a mental health day or a long bath are great. But if exhausted and disengaged, you’ll need more support and an intentional strategy to move toward greater well-being.

Mindfulness can help in a myriad of ways. Most essentially, becoming more aware of when you’re feeling physically tired, emotionally drained, or disengaged allows you to better manage your stress in the moment before it devolves into burnout.

Here are five mindfulness-based perspectives and practices to help you cope:

  • Move your body often and regularly: An essential way to move stress hormones through the body and restore balance to the nervous system is to move your body often and regularly, particularly after encountering a stressor. A 2015 study showed that doing cardiovascular exercise reduces psychological distress and burnout symptoms. Other forms of movement help, too. Going for a walk after a stressful day, doing jumping jacks after a difficult meeting, practicing yoga or slow, deep breathing during a lunch break all help signal to the body that whatever immediate stressor you faced is gone, and it’s okay to relax. Specific mindfulness practices such as a body scan also can help bring awareness to areas of tension in the body that may need extra care and help relax the body.
  • Feel Your Feelings: Challenging feelings accompany burnout, everything from irritability, resentment, anger, and anxiety. When we strive to get everything done or care for others, it’s easy to bypass our own feelings. But emotions are like an internal GPS. They guide us to a deeper understanding of what we need in any given moment. The next time you feel irritated, stop and notice how the emotion registers in your body. Is your chest tight? Is your jaw clenched? Notice what images or mental chatter accompany your irritation. Are you arguing with your boss in your head or criticizing yourself? Becoming intimate with our feelings and giving ourselves space to acknowledge them helps us take productive action to address what’s bothering us.
  • Get Support: Sometimes, we can’t change the things that contribute to burnout – lack of childcare, a demanding boss, or long and inflexible work hours. But we can ask for support from friends, colleagues, and family. We can let our family know we’ve reached our limit and need help cleaning up the house or extra sleep. We can ask a colleague to take a task off our to-do list. If possible, we can have an honest conversation with your boss about how we’re feeling. And when all else fails, we can ask a friend just to listen to us.
  • Engage in a Hobby: Playing guitar, knitting, building a model airplane, or meditating aren’t frivolous endeavors. Hobbies and daily practices such as meditation help us reengage in our lives. They also increase self-efficacy and give us a sense of control with burnout. The next time you feel compelled to cross something off your to-do list, pause and ask yourself whether putting a few more stitches in the scarf you’ve been knitting might make you feel better.

Take this a step further and join us for Building Mindfulness Skills to Address and Prevent Burnout taught by me on September 15th or Leading Through Burnout on October 14th. In this 30-minute webinar we will learn mindfulness techniques and strategies to help us cope with burnout, by practicing self-compassion, setting boundaries, and making space for rest and rejuvenation. 

Written by Kelly Barron