By Rebecca Stambridge ©
How to use Mindful Self Compassion to manage stress and prevent burnout.
Workplace burnout is on the rise. Although recent shifts towards hybrid working have been welcomed by office workers worldwide, an unhelpful relationship with our work can still have a debilitating effect on our mental health.
The World Health Organisation characterises burnout as a depletion of energy and can result in a lowering of performance and distancing from the work role. It is widely known to be caused by the build up of stress i.e. "The pressure a person is experiencing exceeds what they feel they can cope with" - NHS. Whilst stress is a common part of life, too much of it isn’t good for us at all. The mind interprets stress as a “threat” which plays havoc on our body and pumps chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline through our system. If this gets too much the body puts the breaks on and we go from productivity to no activity with simply no more to give. What causes burnout? Burnout can of course be caused be unhealthy workplaces where staff capacity and workloads just aren’t realistic or managers lack compassion. However, what is less well known is that burnout is more common in certain personality types where the pressure placed on the person actually comes from internal expectations (i.e the person themselves!) rather than external. If this is combined with a busy, demanding or high achieving workplace then a perfect storm is created for burnout. Unhelpful beliefs such as the need to be perfect, compete with peers, not being good enough (i.e. imposter syndrome) or fear of disapproval have all be shown to exacerbate burnout. These beliefs can fuel a person to keep going, pushing themselves too much and ignore their own needs. They can also distort a persons perception of what is going on around them, so they might assume their job is at risk if they do not perform or believe their work is not as valued as others.
What helps? There is strong evidence that mindful self compassion is the perfect antidote to stress and burnout. Practicing mindfulness can help you spot the signs of stress early and give space to unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Incorporating compassion can help us be kind to ourselves by letting go of unhelpful beliefs and listening to what we need instead. Mindful self compassion does not come naturally to most of us but it is a technique we can develop. Tara Brachs' R.A.I.N. meditation is a very useful practice which we can use regularly, or in moments of distress, to be kinder to ourselves and bring attention to the beliefs at the core of our actions. Below is a slightly adapted version to apply to work stress to prevent burnout. Before you do this exercise it might help to reflect honestly on what beliefs are driving your hard work and what would be helpful to let go of. R.A.I.N. (Meditation to respond with mindful self compassion to distress caused by unhelpful beliefs). Next time you feel overwhelmed by stress or noticing the physical signs of stress in the body (such as tension, mind racing etc) do the following: R: Recognise that unhelpful beliefs may be at the route of this. What thoughts and feelings are present which are driving you forward? Stop for a moment to bring attention to this in a curious and non-judgmental way.
A: Allow - Often there are intense physical feelings associated with our emotions. For example, a feeling of dread in the stomach or a tightness in the chest. Often its only when we stop what we are doing and tune into our bodies do we find these feelings. Once you have found them the trick is to allow them to be there. Don’t fight them as this sets up an aversive relationship. Be curious and soften your response to it.
I: Investigate. As you sit with these feelings spend some time understanding what the beliefs really are. Where do they come from? How long have you had them? Are they opinion or fact? What impact are they having on you? What would happen if you let them go?
N: Nurture. Ask yourself what this part of you needs right now. i.e. What does it need to hear? (i.e. that you are doing your best and are good enough). What do you need to do? Probably have a break. RAIN can really help to prevent burnout but it can take practice and you might feel that working with a therapist would be useful to explore and understand yourself more or attend a mindfulness and compassion course.
Rebecca has worked in mental health for over 15 years, empowering others to improve their wellbeing. She is an integrative therapist as well as a mindfulness and compassion teacher. As well as 1-1 and group client work, she loves to write blogs and guides, helping others learn skills to improve their wellbeing.