These proven techniques will help you and your team beat burnout

Written by Dr Lynda Shaw Tuesday 26 January 2021
Fight or flight? Try rest and digest. A renowned neuroscientist teaches us how to deal with burnout – for good
Nurse in PPE with her head in her hands

During these unprecedented times, more and more people are feeling overwhelmed, with parents in particular taking most of the brunt of working from home while simultaneously juggling the children who may or may not be at school.

Burnout can be caused by periods of additional anxiety or pressure, increased workloads or difficulty separating and balancing work and personal life. Working long hours, spreading yourself too thin and – especially at the moment – facing pressures of an uncertain job market meaning we may feel we have to do even more to stand out. Burnout can influence every aspect of your life, from your work to relationships, to your physical and mental health, and can leave you feeling like you have very little left to give.

The neuroscience

Think of stress like a set of scales: on one side are real or imagined pressures and on the other is how we cope with those pressures. If those scales tip because the pressure is more than we can cope with, then we become overwhelmed in the longer term.

There are two biological pathways that mediate our stress response:

  • The Sympathetic-Adrena-medullar (SAM) axis is the first pathway to respond and is very quick. The sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline and noradrenalin – meaning our heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up and we get a boost of energy and, consequently, our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This is tolerable in the short term and we recover once the perceived threat has passed.
  • The second biological reaction to stress involves the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which is slower to respond and is triggered by signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. We need the right amount of cortisol to survive and it enhances our brain’s use of glucose as fuel or energy, and also helps us repair tissue – but cortisol can become toxic if allowed to continue for long. Persistent overreaction of these stress systems can be detrimental to our health.

We need the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) to take over from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to feel calm, but still alert enough to function well. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over to calm everything down and our blood pressure, respiratory and heart rates slow.

So how do we deal with burnout in the first instance?

  1. Know when things are severely out of balance. Accept that there are sometimes periods of short-term stress, especially when you have to put in longer hours at work or have to deal with a certain situation, but it becomes detrimental when it dominates your life over a longer period.
  2. Identify the signals early. Signs of burnout include: fatigue, irritability, sleepless nights, feelings of exhaustion, and anxiety.
  3. Talk to someone about how you feel. If you feel nervous about telling your manager that you need a break or changes to be implemented, then talk to a close colleague, friend or family member first. Having a chat with someone who knows you well might offer you reassurance or another way of looking at things.
  4. Prioritise sleep. This will improve your concentration, memory and decision making and your overall physical and mental health. Look closely at your ‘sleep hygiene’ and limit caffeine after midday, avoid screen time in the one to two hours before bedtime and have regular bed and getting up times.
  5. Disconnect to recharge. To prevent chronic stress, take time to recharge and disconnect from work completely. When you take time off, make sure you really are off! This includes holidays, your evenings and weekends. The brain is more efficient when it has produced a cocktail of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters so prioritising pleasant pursuits in your spare time means you will be far more productive during your working day.

And how can managers and employers help those going through a difficult time?

  1. Employers must step up. A responsible and good employer won’t let their employees get ground down or have a mentality of employee disposability. Apart from protecting the welfare of their employees, helping staff to avoid burnout means better productivity, creativity and a lower turnover.
  2. Encourage your staff to ask for help. Admitting they need help at work (or any time) can be really hard as they may feel like their competency will be called into question. Maybe they feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to do what is being asked of them, or their work is simply beyond their scope and experience. If this is the case, it's so important for them to ask exactly what it is they need support with. Encouraging them to speak up can help to build trust, create networks and strengthen relationships between you and your team.
  3. Collaborate with colleagues to spread the load. Don’t forget to keep your team in the loop about what you are doing. Being collaborative and working as a collective is an important skill, and if they are ever in that boat, they know they will be able to call on you, too.
  4. Encourage your team to establish boundaries. Create clear boundaries and stick to them, such as not checking emails once you’ve clocked off and having agreed working hours. Turn off phone notifications you don’t need and don’t accept phone calls if it isn’t within your core working hours.
  5. Plan your day. Prioritise urgent tasks and be realistic about how long a task or project could take and factor in breaks. Don’t try to multitask. Focus on one thing at a time and give it your full attention.

  Sometimes, you just need to take 10

If you are feeling stressed, know when to take time out to allow your mind time to recover and recuperate. Try going outside for a short walk to allow your mind to reset. Build regular short breaks into your everyday work.

For urgent help, please find support from trusted organisations like the NHS guide and Samaritan, or text SHOUT to 85258.

Don’t forget, CMI has a mental health and wellbeing hub that has resources to help you manage your mental health positively, recommendations of self-care, and how to handle difficult conversations. By having honest discussions and through human leadership, we can break the stigma on mental health difficulties in the workplace.

Dr Lynda Shaw

Dr Lynda Shaw

Dr Lynda Shaw is a neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.

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