What is Burnout?
I have been fascinated with the Burnout syndrome for many years now since having my own episode of Burnout.
The symptoms of burnout are; feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. This came after years of working long hours in a stressful role as director building my first company with hardly any sleep. The result was a crash! I was in mess physically, mentally and socially.
It was not until I was recommended to try yoga, cardiovascular exercises and mindfulness that I made any improvements. Then after a few weeks of getting some running in followed by yoga and mindfulness, I felt like my symptoms had all but gone. The fact was that those symptoms had not actually gone so quickly but I felt so much better so quickly it felt like I had made a full recovery.
It took a few weeks of regular mindfulness and yoga practice before I felt stable enough to go into work. When I did finally go back, I had a clarity of mind and renewed energy. In fact, I drove the company so positively that I sold it for a massive profit. What has followed since selling that business has been an insatiable desire to understand what variables within the yoga and mindfulness helped my recovery.
Even more interesting than this was to understand what about those practices had led me to perform to a better performance than I had been able to achieve previously. This pursuit of answers led me to study an MSc and then go onto a PHD researching the efficacy of mindfulness and yoga in the treatment of burnout in the corporate workplace.
There are many ingredients that make mindfulness and yoga so successful in treating stress but it’s not yet understood how these two tools also develop resiliency needed for performance. At the time of burnout, I did not appreciate how important energy was. I have always had a strong mindset. If you were to use the paradigms that Dr Peter Clough (mental toughness) or Dr Carol Dweck (GRIT) use to define resiliency as having a strong growth mind that perseveres when all else would fail I had it. What I did not have was an understanding of how much impact energy had on those levels of resiliency and what aspects of yoga and mindfulness were responsible for such quick rehabilitation.
Replenishing our Energy
After initial research into this area, it became clear that the outcomes of interventions using yoga and mindfulness had a common theme.
The interventions affected the energetic state of the individual, so they felt physically, emotionally and mentally better and found their purpose again which is something that is lost during the burnout phase. Participants mentioned feeling like they had energy again, so I looked at what research there was into energy management in the workplace. This is when I came across Tony Schwartz’s Energy Project. One of Tony’s most famous statements is -“We’re not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.
Science tells us we’re at our best when we move rhythmically between spending and renewing energy — a reality that companies must embrace to fuel sustainable engagement and high performance.” Tony boldly suggests that in order to keep employees working in “Performance Zone”, we should be sprinters rather than marathoners – taking rests regularly to recovery our physical, psychological and emotional energy.
There are four energy zones, according to Tony, which are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. If any one of these four is out of kilter we run the risk of unbalancing our whole performance and with too much unbalance we might face burnout.
It was after understanding the four pillars of the energy paradigm that I came to realise how impactful exercise, mindfulness and yoga were in the recovery from and then the resiliency to not to return to burnout.
The combination of both mindfulness and yoga affects our physical, mental and emotional states. This is well documented. However, in burnout, a person can become detached from the world and themselves. They have lost connection, purpose and a sense of who they are. Ton calls this spiritual energy. I prefer emotional energy as this is the energy that drives and connects us to our purpose in life.
Both mindfulness and yoga help to bring a person to a place of purpose by looking inwardly into who we are and accepting how we feel. Tony’s model also has similar comparisons in that he promotes the use of practices like yoga that combine physical and mental exercises in short bursts meaning those in the workplace have a method to quickly recharge to give 100% of their energy to projects they are working on.
Once we finish one sprint or goal, we renew ourselves and prepare for the next sprint, where we can also give 100% of our energy. With this theory of rhythmic energy output and renewal, there is always 100% effort given to any given project or goal. This contrasts with the model I used to live my working life by where I would effectively run a marathon by working hard for long periods without breaks which ultimately led to my burnout.
Humans work more naturally and rhythmically needing to constantly balance the spending and renewal of energy. We can learn to do this by connecting with how we use and replenish energy and have an understanding of what exercises work the best to help us. If we are tight and tired in our bodies, we need a stretch and to move. If we are mentally stressed, we need to stop thinking and disconnect from the computer. It’s no good all these interventions in the workplace continually focussing on the mind. We must understand a person is a system of many different energy zones and if we are not addressing all of these then we will continue to be running a race without every fully recharging.