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How mindfulness can help teams prevent burnout

For many of us, a quick transition to working from home didn’t leave much time or mental space for planning new routines. This rapid shift in reality alone has been a lot for our minds and bodies to process. Combined with the overwhelming economic impact, caring for family, and the real global health consequences, extreme fatigue and burnout are natural bodily responses to this crisis.

We hear about “burnout” a lot. What is it, really?

The World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon in 2019. It’s defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” But burnout is more than simply feeling stressed or overworked. It’s a psychological syndrome that forms as a prolonged response to chronic stressors on the job.

It manifests across three key dimensions:

1) Feelings of exhaustion, depletion, or lack of energy at work.
2) A sense of cynicism, irritability, or withdrawal towards one’s work.
3) A low sense of personal efficacy, or reduced productivity or capability at work.

Burnout is a major workplace issue under ordinary circumstances. Deloitte’s Workplace Burnout Survey found that 77% of US professionals have experienced burnout. This confirms a 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 full-time employees, finding that 23% feel burned out at work very often or always, with an additional 44% feeling burned out sometimes.

Under our new extraordinary circumstances, human resources and organizational leaders are seeing an unprecedented need to understand and respond to their team’s mental health.

How can I tell if my team is burned out?

There are six factors that are most important in predicting burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. We might not feel fulfilled in all of these ways, all of the time. An imbalance in one area won’t necessarily lead to burnout if it’s matched by fulfillment elsewhere.

For example, if one has a high sense of personal control over their work, feels rewarded for their effort, and the job requirements align with their personal values, it’s often the case that they won’t experience burnout even under a high workload. That said, we should strive to support team members in optimizing their work across all six dimensions, whenever possible.

“There are multiple levers an organization or manager can use to help reduce likelihood of burnout and support their teams through stressful times. We often get overly focused on sheer amount of time working and lose sight of other important elements.” – Clare Purvis, Director of Behavioral Science at Headspace.

Meeting burnout with mindfulness

Recognizing how we feel is the first step in addressing extreme fatigue or burnout. As humans, we’re programmed to just keep going, and that habit holds strong when working at home, without usual routines to break up the day.

Mindfulness allows us to connect with ourselves, so we can recognize our thoughts and feelings head-on in order to address them. Here are a few mindful exercises to share with your team, so they can make their mental health at home a priority.

Press pause

If we don’t stop and look around, we might not notice how tired or burned out we actually are. While we’re still be wrapping our heads around the enormity of this situation, we can’t forget to check in on our own well-being.

Reset mini-meditation, Breathe mini-meditation, Body scan

Create connectivity

Feelings of isolation are the norm, but this is a shared human experience. Look for ways to create community and virtual belonging with video chat meditations, exercise/stretching sessions, cooking classes, discussion groups, or team trivia.
SHARE THIS WITH YOUR TEAM: Find Everybody Headspace on your homepage for live group meditations

Ask questions

Checking in with your team should go beyond their workload. Do they feel their work is acknowledged and rewarded? Do they feel a sense of connection with their colleagues? Do they feel they have a sense of control over their work? Consider what leverage you have to support people in improving those aspects of their work.

Communication meditation

Be realistic about what can get done in a day

This applies to leaders and their teams alike. For some, working at home might mean more time to get stuck in challenging thoughts or feelings. Finding ways to step out of the thinking mind, either through exercise or cooking, can be helpful inin breaking the thought loop.

Others may have a lot less time, especially parents and caretakers. Set realistic expectations for what really needs to get done in a day. And in the midst of a global crisis, it’s more than okay if you don’t check everything off that list. Now is the time to be gentle with yourself.

Webinar - One team, one mind: Help in tough times

Encourage unplugging

Encourage your team to schedule breaks in the day, to focus on the breath, do some stretching, or take a walk if possible. For those who need it, recommend a day off. Staying at home doesn’t mean we have to work around the clock.

Mindful tech meditation, Walking meditations

Help your team create healthy habits

Now that you have some tools to help with burnout, how can you help your team actually use and stick with them?

Establishing a clear goal is key for starting any new behavior. For example, a clear goal might be: “I will take a 10--minute break from my screen every weekday at 10 am.” Whenever possible, try to link the new behavior to an existing routine. Is there a recurring meeting you always attend? Try scheduling your new behavior (like a mindful walk or meditation) right after that existing habit — it’ll be more likely to stick.

Now, consider how this new behavior aligns with your values. How do you want to show up as a colleague, a parent, a friend, etc.? If being present and connected in your relationships at work/at home is important to you, consider how your new behavior serves your ability to show up. Knowing that a behavior serves our personal values can increase our willingness to work through barriers and challenges that might arise.

There’s no silver bullet for preventing or solving burnout. But by drawing awareness to the issue, asking the right questions, and suggesting tangible steps to take, leaders can make a real impact in their team’s experiences of working through this new normal.

For more free tools and resources to share with your team, visit our Employer toolkit.

1 * Maslach C, Leiter MP. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry. 2016;15(2):103–111. doi:10.1002/wps.20311*

Related articles

A mindful approach to helping your team through the current global crisis

Mindfully transitioning to a WFH culture

About the authors:

Authentic experts consulted were Clare Purvis, Psy.D (Director of Behavioral Science at Headspace) and Eve Lewis (Content Director & Female Voice of Headspace), trained mindfulness meditation teacher.

Libby Buttenwieser is the Senior Associate Manager of Product Marketing for Headspace for Work, specializing in helping people leaders integrate Headspace and mindfulness within their organizations.

Headspace is a leader in mindfulness training and mental well-being in the workplace. Headspace for Work, is used by more than 700 leading companies, including Starbucks, Adobe, GE, Hyatt and Unilever, to help them build thriving workplace cultures starting with healthier, happier teams.


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