office mindfulness

Mindful Remedies for Workplace Burnout


Office Meditation

By Mary-Milam Granberry

It’s no secret that as a society, overachieving and overworking are highly valued “strengths” in the workforce. The air of competition, perfection and success infiltrates nearly every industry. Overworking has become a norm in this culture, but the associated risks are seldom considered until it’s too late.

This unreasonably antagonistic and contentious mood in the workplace is something our society has brought on itself. In high school and college, students are pushed and prodded to overachieve, and when they do, they see great rewards in the form of popularity, excellent grades and awards. Hard work is encouraged and being well-rounded is the key to getting in good colleges and graduate programs. The reason students conquer classes, clubs and leadership roles and become nonstop multitaskers is to acquire success in the real world, right? Actually, it sets them up to fail, and fail hard. That failure is called burnout.

What Burnout Looks Like

Burnout happens to professionals and students for one main reason: Their expectations of the world around them are far too high. Imagine the following scenario: You start a brand-new job with enthusiasm. For a while, everything is great and the overachieving attitude you developed through the years impresses superiors and coworkers alike. Over time a number of things can happen: You are never promoted, you never receive positive feedback, your job is never very clearly defined so you don’t know if you’re doing your work or someone else’s. You work longer hours, and exhaustion starts to cripple your performance. Frustration and disillusionment with the job, superiors and company makes you a bit cynical, and you start having to force yourself to go to work, or you call in sick all the time. Your coworkers notice your attitude shift and they stop interacting with you. You start getting headaches, you can’t concentrate, but it doesn’t matter because you don’t really care that much about your job anyway. You are officially burned out.

A Medical Issue

Burnout as a medical problem was recognized post-World War II when the general quality of life in America rose and opportunities, and expectations, opened up. The term “burnout” was borrowed from narcotic drug culture because the symptoms were very similar to those in chronic drug users: emotional exhaustion, disillusionment, absence of motivation and withdrawing from friends and family. The similarity to clinical depression was acknowledged, but burnout was deemed a completely separate condition. The stress of burnout has effects on the body: insomnia, clinical depression and/or anxiety, increased alcohol or drug use, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, stroke and increased vulnerability to illness are just a few on a long list. The problem is that people who are burned out are less likely to seek any medical or psychiatric help than those with depression and/or anxiety. Burnout sufferers are more likely to take a vacation instead of looking for help. They feel better after time away, go back to work, and the cycle starts again. We push ourselves past our physical and emotional limits and the result is burnout. What next?

What Is Your Burnout Telling You?

If you’re still burned out but your workplace situation isn’t quite as dire as described earlier, perhaps your body is telling you something. Is it that you are not suited for the work you’re doing? If you’re pushing yourself to succeed in a profession you hate in order to meet others’ expectations (i.e., becoming a lawyer just like mom and dad), burnout is highly likely. If you live for the outdoors but work at a desk all day with no sunlight exposure, you might burn out. There are dozens more situations that lead to burnout that don’t necessarily have to do with a dysfunctional workplace. In many cases, your body is trying to convey something you can’t wrap your head around: You might be on the wrong path and you’re not treating yourself with enough compassion to realize it. Sooner or later, your body will force your hand.

What About a Solution?

There are thousands of recommendations for burnout relief. Some say working harder, even adding more to an overflowing plate with further education classes and programs and pushing forward is the answer. Others suggest small, “easy” solutions to various symptoms of burnout. Still others recommend a method that Westerners might not immediately think of: mindfulness and meditation. The traditionally Buddhist method of meditation was meant to help practitioners reach a state of spiritual enlightenment. The method can also benefit a miserable person suffering from burnout.

Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh has written extensively on the practical benefits of meditation and mindfulness in addition to the spiritual comfort it was meant to provide. In his book “Keeping the Peace,” he writes, “When you breathe in, you can appreciate the fact that you are still alive. Breath is the essence of life; without breath, we are nothing but a dead body. To be aware of your vitality through breathing can bring immense joy.”

The act of mindful breathing is intended to focus all of your attention on your breath, to clear your mind of everything else. A 2008 study of mindful meditation practiced by burned-out critical-care nurses found the practice to be healing and effective in making the nurses feel more in control of their lives. Transcendental meditation is a popular method, and hundreds of studies have shown it to be beneficial to physical and emotional well-being. There are numerous meditation and mindfulness methods, including walking meditation (favored by Thich Nhat Hanh), body scan meditation and meditative art. Mindfulness and meditation are great ways to start genuinely taking care of yourself if you’re burned out. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about yourself when in a completely relaxed state.

The Value of Mindfulness

Executives have become aware of the effect burnout has on their bottom line, and many—General Mills, Aetna and Google to name a few—have undertaken company-wide mindfulness training as a solution. There is plenty of research to satisfy even the most skeptical CEO that mindfulness and meditation in the workplace is beneficial. Following even more Eastern traditions, companies like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America have started company-wide yoga practices.

The point of mindfulness, meditation and practicing being present is to keep the body, mind and spirit connected. That connection is what makes us who we are, and when things get out of whack from burnout, we can lose ourselves. Practicing mindfulness and taking time to meditate may feel selfish at first, but staying in touch with ourselves can make it a little easier to keep it together during a crazy-hectic day. Taking care of ourselves is really one of the most selfless things we can do, and mindfulness is an excellent place to start.


Mary-Milam Granberry is graduate student at Emerson College in the publishing and writing program. The focus of her master’s degree is children’s publishing and creating interactive content for web and e-reader devices. Follow her @editmylife.

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Photograph of businesswoman meditating  by Shutterstock/Dragon Images

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