Suddenly Burnout is ‘hot’. Last year, the European Commission (OSHA) published a report calculating the cost of work-related stress and concluded “Stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem in Europe.” Work-related health problems refer to (for example) mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders or diabetes, just to name a few on the list.
The cost in Euros in 2013 was estimated at €617 billion annually, comprising of factors such as absenteeism, health care costs, social welfare costs, and loss of productivity.
That’s kind of a big deal.
Belgium has now become the first country to create a law specifically addressing the prevention of burnout. It says that companies on Belgian soil must offer workers protection against psycho-social risks* (the fancy term used for risk factors affecting Burnout).
Governments such as in the Netherlands are trying to decrease burnout. Success seems far away though: in the Netherlands 1 in 8 workers (link goes to Dutch content) is facing a burnout (In Holland burnout has long been recognized as a work-related illness.)
So what’s missing? Well, often ‘reduction of absenteeism’ seems the common way to measure how “well” an organization is doing. That is a one-dimensional way of looking through the lens. What’s needed is for organizations to embrace mental and physical wellness of their employees in a broader, more long-term way. It should include strategies (from the top down) aimed at healthy ageing, harassment prevention, burnout recovery, integrative nutrition, and stress resilience, [anything else?]. Perhaps we should re-think Work-Life balance to Work-Life balance?
Ironically, at this point in time, the EU Commission that put the issue on the map in June, is now being asked to look at how well they are doing at protecting their own staff against burnout.
*Psychosocial risk is the risk of detriment to a worker’s psychological or physical well-being arising from the interaction between the design and management of work, within the organisational and social context (Cox and Griffiths, 2005).
Mindfulness is a great way to learn to relax but it will not necessarily help a person recover from a burnout nor prevent burnout from happening again. So why does mindfulness not solve the underlying cause of a burnout? There are in fact two essential reasons for this.
First of all, burnout is a gradual process that runs its course based on each individual’s belief and behavior patterns. There are some recognizable character traits that are often associated with a higher risk of burnout; such as having perfectionist tendencies, being a conflict avoider, or having the need to be ‘always’ helping other people. If we do not live up to some of these personal expectations about ourselves and our performance, feelings of guilt, failure and self-recrimination start to build up.
We start to ignore our energy and recovery boundaries thereby resulting in a chronic state of stress
Mindfulness can ease your stress in the short term, i.e. while you practice it. In such a way, it can contribute to lessening your immediate stress momentarily. What it doesn’t do is to take the heat of the chronic stress off. Mindfulness one of the functional tools used to help prevent a burnout but not necessarily to alleviate it.
Stress is like a teakettle of boiling water on a stove. Mindfulness can add cold water to the boiling water thereby keeping it at a simmer rather than having it boil over. Burnout treatment focuses on learning how to turn the gas up and down on the stove itself.
The second reason why mindfulness during a burnout may not be the ideal way to deal with the situation at hand is the ‘staying in the moment’ effect. People in a burnout are often dealing with a negative or depressed view of self, others, situations, even life in general. As mindfulness is about ‘staying in the moment’, maybe you can already see where problems can arises. Mindfulness in such a negative state can trigger a situation where too much attention is paid to the negativity that is being experienced in that moment and actually contribute to getting caught in a progressive downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions. Instead of finding a moment of ‘zen’, feelings of emptiness, helplessness, and apathy can gain a firmer foothold in the belief system thereby actually increasing the symptoms of the burnout itself.
Staying at home and doing nothing for a number of months often has the adverse effect that people start to find it more difficult to go back to work. This often leads to a negative spiral where people risk getting depressed. Burnout treatment needs to focus on physical recovery, cognitive and behavioral changes, and eventually on teaching people new skills to, hopefully, avoid any relapse. Treatment needs to include assistance for people by helping them to start resuming work in a gradual step-by-step plan.
I am not saying that Mindfulness should never be used as a tool in cases of Burnout, but rather, that in these cases, a well-trained and experienced healthcare practitioner should be consulted and the technique used with caution.
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