Have you ever felt exhausted by your work, even if you love what you do? Or perhaps you've felt like you were swimming upstream overwhelmed at your growing to-do list and facing the limited hours in each day. If you have experienced this, you're not alone.
Exhaustion and burnout can take many forms, but signs of emotional and intellectual burnout are often less visible than physical burnout. This ailment is so prolific that the World Health Organization officially characterized burnout as a medical condition in 2019. According to a recent Gallup study, "76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28% say they are burned out "very often" or "always" at work." The study also discovered that it was how individuals experience their workload that made the most significant impact on their well-being.
When you strengthen the internal capacity of self-awareness, you can discern how you are experiencing and relating to your work. With this knowledge, you can better manage your energy, acknowledge when you need rest and recovery and build capacity for intensive high-performing work periods.
Our world's current and future challenges require caring and value-driven leaders and community members to envision and embody the future we want to see. In these distinct and challenging times, rest and self-care are essential to developing the mental agility and emotional fortitude required to build that future together.
For many years, work culture hasn't valued rest due to the myth that we are more productive when we power through. This myth perpetuates as we email colleagues at all hours, and they respond—usually within minutes, or when we consistently ask employees to show up early or stay late, and they do. Vacations, where we're not tethered to working remotely, are almost obsolete. This requirement to be always-on is impacting our well-being and relationships. In the days before cell phones, internet or email, work actually ended at 5 p.m. At today's pace, there's limited time for the brain to recover, which is an essential step to building resilience.
Contrary to the old-fashioned understanding of resilience as forcefully surpassing our limits and depleting our energy reserves, rest and resilience are deeply interconnected. The first step to building resilience is developing a sense of inner calm; this requires us to press the pause button, whether for a short, 30-second breathing exercise integrated into your workday, or a longer rest period by taking an extended vacation where we fully unplug. Researchers Zijlstra, Cropley and Rydstedt refer to these as 'internal' and 'external' recovery periods: "internal recovery refers to the shorter periods of relaxation that take place within the frames of the workday or the work setting in the form of short scheduled or unscheduled breaks, by shifting attention or changing to other work tasks when the mental or physical resources required for the initial task are temporarily depleted or exhausted. External recovery refers to actions that take place outside of work—e.g. in the free time between the workdays, and during weekends, holidays or vacations."
Integrated Daily Self-Care
So how can you create integrated breaks throughout your day for recovery and resilience? The key is to rest the mind, allowing it to pause states of high cognitive or intellectual arousal. Without these breaks, you may deplete your inner resources and experience exhaustion or burnout.
When we open our computer in the morning and notice the growing list of tasks, it is easy to become so consumed that we neglect our basic needs; hunger, thirst and 'nature's call.' In this heightened state of stress, our nervous system is overactive, leading to increased cortisol, which, if experienced in prolonged periods, can result in illness and disease. Throughout your workday, pay attention to your body's signals to know when it's time for a break. How does your body feel as you are working—Is it tensed? Are your breaths short? Are you holding your breath?
Short breaks such as a 1-minute awareness practice can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system so you can recover and approach your work from a relaxed state. When you sense that you need a recovery period, try a meditation, go on a mindful walk or take a real lunch break—without your phone or computer. Brief recovery periods like these improve focus and productivity upon return to work.
Extended Rest and Recovery Periods
Extended recovery periods aren't solely about taking time off—it's also how you spend your time off. If you take your vacation days glued to a screen, sending work emails on your days off, you are not allowing your mind to rest in a way that supports genuine recovery.
Unplugging can be challenging, especially from our interconnected world. Most managers and leaders do not fully unplug when on vacation, which can unintentionally lead to the breakdown of company culture. Each email you send while on 'vacation' conveys a message to employees that time off isn't actually time-off, and they should expect to be accessible even while on vacation. If your company values employee well-being and you advocate for it, model it by fully unplugging when you take a vacation. Taking time away from your phone and computer has many benefits, including better sleep, which is another opportunity for you to recover and build the reserves needed for the challenges that lie ahead.
Sleep is crucial for the body and mind to gain external recovery each day though many struggle to get a good night's sleep. One sleepless night can triple the number of lapses in attention, impair our emotional regulation capabilities, and intensify our negativity bias. To improve the probability of restful sleep, unplug from your devices 30 minutes before bed, set a regular sleep schedule and try a body scan to relax.
Rest and recovery are essential to our well-being and expand our capacity for sustainable high-performance. The emotional intelligence competencies of self-awareness and self-management are critical to discerning when you need rest, and having the mental courage to press pause. To learn more about how to develop these capacities, check out our Adaptive Resilience program and contact us if you'd like to bring it to your organization.