Mobile: Preventing & Dealing with Burnout


Nicole Cranley


In the last issue of The POSTDOCket, I talked about what burnout is, who it impacts, how it impacts you, and what the symptoms of burnout feel and look like. This month, I address what we can do about burnout and how we can prevent it—in essence, how we recover.


Daily stressors in our lives require psychological, physical, and emotional resources from us so that we can effectively respond to them. Once these stressors go away, we are in a position to recover. What does the ideal position for recovery look like?


You’re most likely to experience recovery when you aren’t experiencing workplace demands. This type of recovery typically takes place during “off-work” time when you are both physically and psychologically away from your work environment. We call this psychological & physical detachment. Once you’re away, you have the opportunity to engage in behaviors and activities that can contributes to your recovery.


Recovery is a process


In principle, once stressors are removed, we are in a position to recover. But that doesn’t mean we actually will. We must invest in our own recovery.


Active forms of recovery typically require some investment in resources. The potential returns are greater, meaning that active recovery restore spent resources and generate new ones. Active forms of recovery include things like participation in sports or other group activities, exercise, or volunteer activities.


Passive recovery experiences tend to only facilitate a homeostatic level of perceived stress and resource availability. For instance, binge watching television doesn’t really help you regain lost resources as much as an hour at the gym. One exception is sleep, which is considered to be a relatively easy and very effective method of recovery. Sleep can arguably be viewed as passive or active, depending on your perspective.


I think of active and passive as existing on a continuum, though this hasn’t been reflected in the research yet. Ultimately recovery is a personal and unique process for each of us, and only we know what recovery strategies will help us to effectively manage our physiological and psychological responses to daily stressors. Apart from considering the active <—> passive nature of recovery activities, we can group into five forms: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery experiences, control, and sleep.


Psychological detachment (Put that email away!)


You need to literally and psychologically detach to position yourself for successful recovery. Your ability to “switch off” after you’ve left work is the foundation for psychological detachment. It’s a necessary component for recovery so that your workplace to-do list isn’t continuing to drain resources from you while you’re supposed to be recovering. Seems simple, right?


Wrong. With today’s technology, it’s becoming more difficult to successfully detach psychologically from work after the workday is done. A lack of psychological detachment from work has been shown to have potential negative effects in both the short and long term, including a significant increase in emotional exhaustion, decreased well-being at bedtime, and poorer quality of sleep. If you get poor sleep, you aren’t as productive the next day, so you end up bringing more work home and not detaching. It’s easy to fall into this vicious cycle.


For example, I respond to emails whenever they come in. This is something that I still struggle with. Setting boundaries is critical for your psychological health, and, for me, that means putting the email away.


Relaxation (“Ommmm…“)


The first time I learned about this category of recovery activities it made me laugh. Is there anything worse when you’re super stressed out than someone telling you to relax? But let me try to reframe “relaxation” and how it is a beneficial category of recovery experiences.


Relaxation involves mental and physical experiences that are associated with “low sympathetic activation.” This means that these activities are associated with a decreased heart rate, tension in the muscles, and other types of physical reactions to stress. Examples of these activities would be meditation or listening to certain types of music. Relaxation methods are often associated with feelings of positive affectivity (positive mental states). They decrease sleep problems, need for recovery, and feelings of fatigue. Participating in relaxation experiences after vacationing helps prolong the positive recovery effects gained during off-work time.


Mastery experiences (Engage your passions as much as your email)


Mastery experiences give you the highest return on your investment. These activities are associated with challenge and learning but without being too taxing. They can increase your sense of self-efficacy by yielding a sense of expertise in a new area or building confidence in an existing skill or interest.


Certain types of mastery experiences have been identified as more beneficial than others. The most effective activities include exercise, learning activities, and volunteer work. Volunteer work can aid significantly in the recovery process, because you’re creating new relationships and experiences, which aid in building new resources. Your perceptions of the positive impact you have by volunteering can serve as a buffer against feelings of emotional exhaustion caused by negative perceptions about your workplace tasks and identities.


When you’re feeling high levels of workplace stress, physical exercise has also been shown to be especially beneficial—not just for recovery from stress but as a mood regulator too. This really resonates with me. If I am having an especially stressful day, I feel a million times better after I go for a nice, long run. Exercise has also been associated with a positive mood at bedtime, which is associated with sleep quality.


The issue with mastery experiences is that they require an additional investment of resources during a time when all you want to do is lay down on the couch and binge watch something on Netflix. This is a totally natural desire, and we’ve all been there. However, this will lead to potentially less effective, passive recovery strategies, especially if you aren’t too great at self-regulating Self-regulation—your ability to consciously override your desire—is a limited resource. When self-regulatory resources are depleted in response to continued stress, you may be prevented from engaging in activities that require aspects of self-control (like exercise), thus continuing an unhealthy cycle. How do we combat this? Routine, routine, routine. The existence of routines has been shown to aid in participation in mastery activities when self-regulatory resources are depleted.


Control (All the control freaks in the party say, “Yeah!”)


Hi, my name is Nicole, and I’m a type A control freak. But I try to harness my powers for good.


These types of recovery experiences allow you to spend time on things that matter most to you. These could be any form of activities or experiences that are in line with goals or your other individual desires. This leaves less time for things that are considered stressful or not beneficial. Essentially, you do you.


This seems simple enough, but if you have children or other outside work commitments, this isn’t as simple as it may seem. Having control over your non-work time has the potential to give you a more positive outlook. How do we do this? We carve out a little space for ourselves—a time that we choose, that we have control over, and we can do whatever we want in that space.


Sleep (Give me all the zzz’s)


Sleep is sometimes ignored as a method of recovery because it is so passive in nature. The irony is that carving out time for sleep and preparing for sleep (I’m thinking of my nightly skin ritual here) requires significant effort for many individuals. Regardless of whether sleep is considered a passive or active recovery strategy, sleep has significant restorative and positive effects on workplace performance.


Sleep quality is the strongest predictor of positive and negative affective states the following morning. Poor sleep quality negatively impacts your ability to work and to self-regulate. This creates domino effect: If self-regulation abilities are lowered by poor sleep quality, then you will have less of the self-regulatory resources available to successfully cope with the day’s stressors.


How do we get better sleep? That’s one of the mysteries of the universe, but I do have a couple tips. Get off the email before bed. Give yourself an hour away from social media and email to wind down. Try to go to bed at the same time every night (or do as best as you can). And make your sleeping space relaxing. For me, it’s clean sheets, a nice candle, a little lavender oil on my pillow, and major cuddle time with my pup (& Nathan).


At the end of the day, you have to figure out what works for you.


Think of a cup. Pick any cup you like. Now picture that cup full of stones. This cup represents resources available to deal with things you encounter throughout the day. Each time you respond to a stressor, you lose one of those stones. When you run out of stones, that’s it. By engaging in recovery activities, you can add stones back into your cup. Some activities may require a couple stones to engage in them, but you get twice as many back in return. Other activities don’t take any stones away, but you don’t get any back either.


Regardless of how psychologists might classify activities, the actual choice of which type of recovery to engage in is an individual one. It’s completely up to you. Individual differences in recovery strategies and preferences exist. What you might find relaxing may not have the same effects for me.


The next time you are trying to decide how to spend your day off, think about what will help fill your cup. Running? Painting? Reading? Spending time with friends and family? Taking a nap? We need your innovative mind sitting at the table, so let’s keep our cups full.


Nicole Cranley, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Cancer Health Disparities Training Program at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared on The Doctorette. It has been published in The POSTDOCket in an edited form with permission from the author.


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