Staying Lit — Actionable Ideas to Prevent Employee Burnout

Mary Best
August 8, 2018

We’ve all been there –– too much work to do in too little time, squeezing in those extra hours to get all the stuff crossed off our to-do lists. While upping the ante for short spurts or to go that extra mile on occasion is a good thing, putting in extra hours for extended periods of time is something we should think twice about. True, dedication and persistence can go a long way when it comes to crushing an assignment or finishing a project, but when stress levels are high for too long, we run the risk of burning out. And job burnout is bad for both employers and employees: it leads to higher turnover rates and a loss in production, not to mention damage to the employee’s physical and mental wellbeing.

We talked with Elke Cooke, an MD who specializes in functional medicine, to learn more about “burnout.” What happens to our bodies when we overdo it? As Dr. Cooke explains it, burnout is a state of “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion.” As surprising as it might sound, you might experience burnout from something as simple as spending too much time glued to your smartphone.

Keys symptoms of burnout

Dr. Cooke reminds us that while burnout can be sneaky in how and when it appears, there are some surefire symptoms to look out for, including:

  • Visible fatigue
  • Decreased job satisfaction
  • Lower productivity
  • Cynicism
  • Poor work quality / cutting corners
  • Decreased interest in the mission of the company

As Dr. Cooke cautions, “If your sense of purpose, passion, and excitement for work and life have given way to feelings of lack of joy, being overwhelmed and exhaustion, then those are tell-tale signs that you are headed towards burnout.” She goes on to warn that “engaging in escapism behaviors such excessive drinking or getting angry with friends, family, or coworkers can also be a clue.”

Sometimes persistent physical problems provide another clue to burnout. “Pay attention to sleeplessness, chronic illness, or difficulty shaking off that cough or cold that has been lingering for weeks. People may notice weight gain and chronic fatigue from a dampened thyroid function,” Dr. Cooke notes. “Muscle starts to break down and an overall feeling of disease sets in.”

What Burnout Does to the Body

The toll of burnout goes way beyond frayed nerves and sleepless nights. “In the early stages of burnout (or adrenal fatigue) cortisol is upregulated which can lead to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and increased belly fat,” Dr. Cooke explains. “This constellation of symptoms is also known as metabolic syndrome.”

According to Dr. Cooke, it’s the state of high cortisol that affects the brain center. “This part of your brain is responsible for memory, which is why chronic stress has now been linked to Alzheimer's Disease and memory loss,” she explains. “In the later stages of burnout, the HPA axis (or the brain-adrenal connection) is down-regulated. This leads to longer periods of low cortisol as a result of constant overstimulation. Your adrenal glands become less able to respond to stressors — imagine standing at the edge of a cliff; even the tiniest push can send you over the edge.”

So what can we do if we find ourselves approaching that cliff edge? How can we take care of our health and still be that rockstar teammate?

Prevention is Possible

As scary as burnout sounds, there are some easy ways to prevent its effects. Sticking to the basics, or “the four pillars,” as Dr. Cooke calls them, is a good guideline you can use in any role or job. “Getting sleep, movement, nutrition, and connection are key,” Dr. Cooke advises. “It’s really not much more complicated than that, though it’s easy to let these slide when you feel stressed.” Nodding your head yes in agreement? If so, it's probably time to create and enforce some boundaries to protect yourself and your health.

  • Practice self-care. “Don’t sacrifice an additional hour of sleep because you have to finish a project; don’t skip your workout or evening walk because you put in an extra hour in the office,” Dr. Cooke offers. “If you’re feeling stressed about squeezing in a tough workout, try simple movement for your body: A walk with a friend or your dog, a yoga class, or even a midday walk around the building during lunch. Round out your movement with nutritious foods instead of things that are quick and convenient; things like caffeine, alcohol, and sugar might boost your energy but will work against restoration and recovery in the long run.”
  • Don’t forget fun. Fun with friends is important too; as Dr. Cooke reminds us, that connection is important for our spiritual well-being. “Make time for family, friends, animals, nature and yourself!” she suggests. “Check in with yourself when you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or unhappy and ask: ‘Am I still doing things that are meaningful to me?’ ‘Should I be doing different things with my time?’”
  • Unplug to recharge. If you’re already exhausted, it might be time to start work on relighting your inner fire. Since this is no easy feat, Dr. Cooke offered some tips to turn off and unplug. “Try something like acupuncture or a massage; restorative yoga classes and breath work are great as well if you can do them on a regular basis — they stimulate the nerve that helps you relax. For an easy exercise you can do anywhere, close your eyes and breathe in four counts, hold your breath for seven, and exhale slowly for eight.”

Helpful Workplace Adjustments. Going hand in hand with encouraging employees to take part in good self care, employers can help create an environment that prevents, instead of fostering, high rates of burnout.

  • Provide proper training. Without proper training a workload can quickly become unmanageable. Make sure employees are trained on how to do their jobs thoroughly and efficiently by including training on tools that enable them to work smarter and faster.
  • Ensure employees are not overworked. Make sure managers and leaders track workloads. A leading cause of employee burnout is constantly being overworked. In addition to tracking workloads, focus efforts on hiring enough people to get the job done. Without enough hands to take on the work, you run the risk of overworking the team you want to hold on to.
  • Encourage employees to take time off. Maybe you offer PTO, but we often need to remind employees that it’s for more than just vacation. Personal days and mental health days should be used regularly by all team members and encouraged by management.
  • Create a Culture that Lifts and Supports. Make sure employees and managers know the whole team is doing the work together. Take the time to give compliments, especially publicly at regular company meetings. Encourage managers to express their appreciation of jobs well done on a regular basis. We are hardwired to need praise and encouragement.
  • Make the Office a Fun Place. This means more than just putting in a ping pong table. In order for work to be fun there must exist a culture of fun. This has to start at the top. Those offices where leadership takes the initiative to have a little fun throughout the day will allow other employees to feel comfortable doing the same.
  • Encourage Regular Work Breaks. No one condones employees taking more than their fair share of breaks, but short 15-minute, clear-your-head, rise-out-of-your-chair, get-some-fresh air breaks can do wonders for keeping employees from feeling overworked and should be encouraged.

Dr. Cooke’s most basic advice provides the best starting point to preventing burnout for all: Eat well, sleep well, and balance workloads. And at the end of the day, “draw your line between work and play; stick to them so you can end your day, turn off your computer, and put your device aside.”

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