Can taking MBSR help with Workplace Burnout?

BL00 - Could MBSR and Mindfulness Alleviate Job Burnout-Max-Quality

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By Peter Calin, Mindful Leader MBSR Instructor

An unprecedented phenomenon might be one way to describe the tsunami-like changes in the way we work now, compared to pre-COVID-19. COVID completely changed the work landscape. There was a seismic shift from working in offices to working from home remotely.  What had been an infrequent concession to employees became the norm, emerging from protocols to restrict the spread and lessen the exposure.  

The workforce emerged from having only the option of working remotely to having a choice.  Every month the debate had been, would employees be willing to return to the office given a choice?  And would employers be willing to offer the option to employees to either continue, to work from home and come into the office periodically, and/or return to the office.  Debates around and about the productivity of workers, the preference of employers, and the future of work logistics, continue.  

I’m feeling totally overwhelmed by the immensity of the problems we face,” . . . “but I keep pushing myself. It’s like an anorexic getting thin. . . . you’re never working hard enough.”
- Reversing Burnout, Stanford Social Innovation Review, www.ssireview.com

One often ignored aspect has been the levels of stress and collateral effects of working in the COVID environment and what workers experience whether working remote or in-office.  There is still burnout occurring.  Some of it may be self-induced by employees but some may be from employers who want employees back in the office. In the US, an incredible 72% of managers currently supervising remote workers would prefer all their subordinates to be in the office, according to recent research for the Society for Human Resource Management.  Interestingly, reasons cited included employers and managers feeling a lack of control or trust in their employees.

Under either scenario, many workers are still experiencing an increasing amount of workplace burnout–the feeling of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion.  Trying to balance work-life requirements, whether confined to the home, office, or a hybrid arrangement, workers still experience stress in trying to manage a balance. The ever-present domestic responsibilities, the child schooling at home, the spouse/partner working in the next room, and the limitations of space all generate challenges every day.

Shortages in the labor force create a higher level of stress as reduced numbers are overwhelmed by the increasing amount of work demanded of them.  And all of it further compounded by a COVID realization of the importance but perceived impossibility of work-life balance and better self-care.

Job/workplace burnout is not a fiction.  It has been called a stress syndrome, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its definition.  It now refers to burnout as “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” (Updated in the organization’s International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual.)

In its 2022 Trends Report, The American Psychological Association indicates that  American workers have experienced heightened rates of burnout in 2021. In the APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers, 79% reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%), lack of effort (19%), cognitive weariness (36%), emotional exhaustion (32%), and physical fatigue (44%).

These are the same  symptoms commonly associated with workplace burnout, which are:

  • Feeling stressed and overwhelmed
  • Exhaustion or feelings of depleted energy 
  • Increased mental distancing from the job, cynicism, or negative feelings towards the job, employer, colleagues, or career
  • Reduced productivity
  • Physical symptoms like headaches and muscle aches
  • More susceptibility to illness
  • Heightened self-judgment
  • Lack of self-care

It is now clearly recognized that burnout can and does impact people’s mental health.

The normal factors that contribute to stress and stressors are prevalent. Factors such as lack of control, a feeling of ineffectiveness, a sense of being overwhelmed, helplessness, judgmental mistrust, and an inability to complete perceived tasks at hand, as well as, fear . . . fear of uncertainty (which is so prevalent during these COVID times).

Science and the WHO are clear that job/workplace burnout are stress-induced.  Could a scientifically evidenced approach that reduces stress be used to combat/mitigate burnout?

MBSR is scientifically proven to reduce and mitigate the effects of stress. The practice of developing awareness, also known as presentness, is a starting point in mitigating the distractedness and reactiveness caused by stress and the physiological effects that manifest.  Through mindfulness and MBSR, there begins an awareness of the experiences that are stressors, providing then an opportunity to mitigate and manage it. MBSR teaches us that the effects of stress are toxic, maleficent, and insidious, causing some of the most dreaded maladies of our modern times; e.g., heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, intestinal bowel distress, cancer.  Yet, mindfulness practice activates the tools and insights to bring awareness to stressors, be more present on purpose (by choice/conscious choice), and mitigate these insidious effects of stress.  

Are there short mindfulness/meditation practices that people can do in their spare minutes to help?

We might try to develop practices that keep the levels of stress at a minimum. Here is one such practice:

1. Pause, either closing the eyes or gazing downwards, shifting from whatever is distractive and causing stress in that moment to focusing on just taking a breath

2. Breathe in deeply and exhale fully

3. Listen, feel and center the attention, deepening the connection in/to that particular moment, to just breathing a breath.

And then, seemingly, that moment when you are no longer focused on your stressor or stress, the physiology of your body and mind moves from a stressful, agitated state to a more neutral and balanced response. This “breath awareness” is one of many learned and developed practices through MBSR.

Others include practices like the body scan, meditation, and mindful movement.  It’s important to emphasize that it’s not always necessary to engage in a full practice to benefit (though I don’t want to understate the importance and power of regular, consistent mindful practice).  But sometimes we’re just trying to chip away at the cumulative effect of chronic stress, the stress that builds with all those challenging moments at work, all of those incessant demands, all of the relational and communication challenges, all of the perceived inability to accomplish the tasks at hand and feeling so overwhelmed.  So, . . . we’re trying little-by-little, breath-by-breath to mitigate and reduce the effect. 

She/he began to see that the key to liberation begins with each breath, each step, each pebble along the path. 

- Thich Nhat Hahn

In Forbes’ article 9 Ways To Recover From Burnout And Love Your Job Again, author Ashley Stahl suggests that taking time to rest and unwind throughout the day is one way to neutralize job burnout.  A five-minute meditation or mindful movement throughout the day could work wonders.  (For some the break is energizing.)

Further, the capacity engendered by MBSR and mindfulness practice heightens your awareness of your perceptions, judgments, stressors and stress, patterns, and coping behaviors, which do not serve you but rather actually promote a vicious continuing cycle of stress.  This heightened awareness, the mindful moving of and connecting with the body, developing the capacity to be present moment-to-moment, all ultimately mitigate and reduce stress and the potential for job/workplace burnout.

Peter Calin has been teaching for almost 10 years, has privately counseled and coached individuals on ways to manage trauma, anxiety, and stress and find balance, authentic purpose, and more joy and happiness in their lives. As an MBSR teacher, Peter has taught over a dozen MBSR training programs and workshops in the past three years. Peter is also an Ivy-League educated attorney and MBA graduate, holds an LLM degree in Intercultural Human Rights, is a former Fortune 100 corporate executive, intercollegiate athlete, Aikido practitioner and triathlete.

Peter is an instructor for our MBSR course. Click here to learn more and view upcoming classes. 

What are your thoughts? Please share comments and questions below.

1 comment

I am studying to become an MBSR teacher. I'm on sabbatical from teaching HS English. I was thinking of presenting a workshop to some colleagues, but the more I thought about it, the less confident I feel. I feel like management is squeezing workers so hard, that to pop in and suggest a 90 minute workshop feels like a lie. I know that I can say all the things, 90 minutes won't change your life, this is a practice that has helped me, and I invite you to try it, and I know that for some the invitation will open a door. And yet, it feels wrong. I feel like it has to come with some invitation to fight the power. THough that's a different workshop! 

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