Stress and Burnout
Levels of burnout in the workplace and in society in general seem to be increasing year by year.
But what is burnout? According to the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare the term itself:
“… was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in 'helping' professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being 'burned out' – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions, or for the dark side of self-sacrifice. It seems it can affect anyone, from stressed-out careerists and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.”
Stress Levels and Research
Today, burnout is a leading cause of poor physical and mental health at work. Burnout can lead to long-term exhaustion, anxiety and depression, especially when it necessitates a break from work. It's a concerning issue for both employees and employers alike, since, besides the painful consequences for those who suffer from it, it can also lead to reduced productivity and business disruption in cases that are left unchecked. Since the causes burnout are often related to feelings of being overburdened and overworked, it can appear that there are few obvious solutions without exchanging productivity for lower workloads.
Two new studies suggest that mindfulness practice can help.
In the first study, 30 executives were given mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training for a total of 16 weeks. We know from experience that workplace mindfulness training produces significant and measurable outcomes, including improvements in mood and awareness. This is, in part, because negative emotions tend to self-reinforce. By learning how to better regulate emotion, we are less likely to get trapped in these self-reinforcing spirals.
As part of the study, researchers took measurements of blood cortisol levels and blood pressure at the start and the end of the 16 week period. They also conducted a pair of interviews to establish the executives' stress levels (as the participant perceived it) as well as their general level of emotional wellbeing.
The training itself involved a one-day introductory session, as well as two training days at weeks 4 and 8. The executives were equipped with audio recordings of mindfulness exercises and a workbook to fill in as they completed the course. The participants were encouraged to practice daily, and some even set up a group to practice together. This reinforced their commitment to the course. Ultimately, 22 of the original participants completed the MSBR course.
Measurable, biological results
The study produced strong conclusions of the intervention’s efficacy. Participants reported a variety of improvements, including better sleep and self-compassion (the latter being very important in reducing workplace burnout). Researchers found lower levels of blood cortisol, and improved blood pressure among the study participants. This study indicates that mindfulness training does not offer improvements in emotional health alone, but physical health too.
It isn't the first time lower blood pressure has been observed following mindfulness intervention. Of a separate, but similar, study it was reported:
“Although the blood pressure reductions associated with mindfulness-based interventions are modest, they are similar to many drug interventions and potentially large enough to lead to reductions in the risk of heart attack or stroke...mindfulness-based interventions may provide a useful alternative to help 'prevent or delay' the need for antihypertensive medications in patients with borderline high blood pressure.”
So mindfulness training can address and reduce burnout.
But all of this needs to be read with one large caveat. No amount of mindfulness training can or should be used to address systemic dysfunctions in the workplace. Some issues can be helped by equipping employees with the tools to better understand their own minds and the inner mechanisms we all experience and that sometimes can drive our distress. But sometimes it’s the workplace itself that must change to become more humane and better able to support the health and wellbeing of all those who create value in the organisation. A more mindful manager will be better placed at knowing which intervention is most appropriate at any time.
To find out more about mindfulness training at work, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (+44) 01223 750660.