By Dan Gleason, DC
“I’ll sleep when I die,” Kristina Shea used to joke about her three hours of nightly shut-eye. In retrospect, she says ruefully, “It almost became a reality.” Her hectic life as a single, widowed mother juggling her child’s needs, a high-powered career, university classes, fitness teaching and a two-hour work commute came to an abrupt stop eight years ago when she got off an escalator in the Toronto business district and collapsed. “It was burnout which manifested into physical symptoms such as extreme high blood pressure, red rashes, eczema and even a brain cyst,” she recalls. “I was emotionally and physically drained, with little joy left for life.”
Determined to reset, she switched jobs, prioritized sleep, practiced yoga, meditated and took long nature walks. When COVID-19 shutdowns hit and she was laid off, she was at a loss, but rebounded, and inspired by her own healing process, started a CBD-enhanced natural skincare product line. “Still to this day, it is an active healing process,” she says. “It is very easy to go back to old patterns of behavior.”
Burnout, once primarily a workplace concern, is turning into a societal norm. During the long slog of the pandemic, its telltale symptoms have become commonplace: fatigue, cynicism, apathy and feeling ineffective and disconnected. Among American employees, 52 percent reported feeling burned out in a March 2021 study, with two-thirds saying it had worsened during the pandemic. Belgian researchers found parental burnout in the U.S. to be among the highest in the world—even before COVID-19 closed schools. Record numbers of healthcare workers, caregivers and therapists report feeling physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, with grave implications for those they are helping. Over time, burnout can bring on such health consequences as depression, insomnia, cardiovascular disease and immune disorders.
Turning around burnout requires a simple first step. We must admit what’s going on, says Eileen McDargh, author of Burnout to Breakthrough and an executive coach in Dana Point, California. “Until we stop and literally look at what we are doing, we remain on the hamster wheel,” she says. “And then, we must listen to what our head is saying to us, and perhaps even more important, what our heart—our intuition—is telling us. The heart knows the truth.”
From this self-assessment, other steps can follow, she says, such as asking, “What can I change about this? What can I avoid? What can I amend? And what—at least for the short term—can I accept?” A stressful situation can also be proactively reframed by viewing it as a challenge, a learning opportunity, a way to help others or as having a higher purpose. Other helpful strategies include:
Access points of joy. By asking ourselves what three specific activities or things truly make us feel alive, engaged and happy, we can figure out how to work them into our days and restructure our life. In one study, physicians that spent about 20 percent of their time—roughly one day a week—on the activity they found the most meaningful had half the rate of burnout as those spending less time on those pursuits.
Find points of control. Feeling helpless is a trademark of burnout, “but there is always something we have control over. Our physical body is a great place to start: sleep, exercise, diet….” says McDargh. Even little steps matter, such as putting greens into smoothies, turning off digital devices a half-hour before sleeping or dancing to a short tune.
Take micro-breaks. “You don’t have to wait for the next vacation to recharge,” says Michelle Risser, a licensed clinical social worker and burnout expert in Worthington, Ohio. “Some examples: stand up and stretch between meetings. Feel your feet on the ground and take a nice, slow breath. Breathe in on a count of five, out on a count of seven. Listen closely to a piece of music.” As few as 10 minutes sitting or walking in nature improves mood, focus, blood pressure and heart rate, report Cornell researchers.
Enhance gratitude. Studies among firefighters and professional athletes have found gratitude to be significantly protective against burnout—in part because it causes us to pause and savor an uplifting feeling. Developing the habit is as simple as writing down a few specific reasons to be grateful before bedtime several days a week. “Gratitude is a powerful energy enhancer,” says McDargh.
Shea concurs, “When we take the time to just be, feel gratitude, the sun on our face, this helps rewire the way we think—and we can then begin to heal our bodies.”
Health writer Ronica O’Hara can be contacted at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.