Stress and burnouts are a serious issue for workers worldwide; approximately 1 in 5 workers feel burned out regularly. Burnouts cost societies worldwide billions each year. Science has found a way to identify the causes of stress: any type of work demands a certain physical and mental performance, so called job demands. To meet these demands, everyone has resources available. A lack of resources (or a too high demand), could lead to stress and burnouts. Your personal resources, aspects of yourself that help strengthen your resilience, are the ones you can influence the most – other than for instance job resources where you are dependent on colleagues or managers. Strengthening your personal resources is therefore a good way to prevent stress. This requires building up day-to-day habits on four different levels. These levels are energy-levels, as described by Loehr and Schwarz(1) . The four levels are physical (fitness and energy level), emotional (feelings and thoughts), mental (freedom of thinking) and spiritual (inner voice, purpose). This article describes best practices and common theories on all four levels that improve personal resources and could be applied as day-to-day habits to prevent stress. Among these practices and theories are descriptions of physical workouts, Rational Emotive Therapy practices, taking breaks, avoiding social media and practices to perceive bigger meaning in life. These practices and theories are only truly beneficial when they become daily routines. This requires effort because any new routine may feel uncomfortable at first yet can be rewarding. Starting with new routines can be done through small experiments, allowing yourself to learn what works best in building up your personal resources on these four energy levels.
Keywords: stress, burnout, personal resources, wellbeing
A staggering 85% of people worldwide are disengaged from their jobs, and disengaged workers are far more likely to suffer from burnout symptoms as engaged workers (2). A few years ago, I became part of those statistics as I felt a strong pressure on my chest and in my abdomen while waiting for the train. Overwhelmed by the feeling, I could hardly catch my breath. I realized my body was giving me a very strong signal: I was pushing it too far. In hindsight, I took matters into my own hands at the right time before I got a burnout. I immediately called my boss, was able to work less for a while and had great help at the firm through personal coaching. I went through a very tough year but was never sidelined completely. That year, I used my own example as more motivation to research and practice the science of happiness. I have learned that stress and burnouts are a real issue, and science has found a way to partly explain what causes them. Dealing with them requires incorporating day-to-day habits that influence both your physique and mental state. Incorporating these habits, however, can be as uncomfortable as they are rewarding.
Stress and burnouts are a real issue
Worldwide, the percentage of people suffering from burnout symptoms is rising. In the United States, 23% of full-time workers feel burned out regularly(3). In the European Union, the number varies between 15-25%4. The Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research TNO has researched the costs of burnouts in various studies, and it is estimated on the results of these studies that burnouts costs employers in The Netherlands (population 17 million) only roughly 2,4 billion euros per year(5). Stress and burnouts are not only an issue among the working population. Students suffer from them as well. At Yale, Psychology Professor and Head of Silliman College Laurie Santos has launched the course ‘The Science of Well-Being’ after noticing a large number of students suffering from stress (in general feeling anxious or burned out when dealing with workload or the perceived pressure to do well at university).The effects of stress among students are real, and Santos states 40% of students in the US are too depressed to function well at university(6).
Stress and burn-outs can be explained through proven scientific models.
The science behind burn-outs is relatively simple: when you work, your job requires a physical and mental performance from you. You have resources available to deal with these requirements, and personal resources are an important part of them. A lack of resources, or excessive demand, could lead to a burnout. The model that explains this is the Job Demands Resource Model(7). This model proposes that your job drains energy (both mental and physical) from you because of things like time pressure or the actual workload. These are called job demands. In your job, several resources are available to deal with these demands (like managerial support, these are called job resources) and you bring personal resources to the job to meet these demands(8). Personal resources are “aspects of the self that are generally linked to resilience”(9) in other words: resources that help you meet (job) demands. These types of resources are often the ones you can influence yourself (with little help from others), like working out or how you deal with workload, whereas job resources are a collection of corporate culture and the way job processes are organized. An example from post-doc life puts this model into practice. In some cases, post-doc students do not make time to take breaks, as they may be convinced that working longer or harder is equal to working better(10). In this example, hard work depletes your personal resources, and post-doc life is hard enough as it is. You need these personal resources to help deal with the demands that come with your post-doc. The model does not fully account for personal characteristics, yet characteristics like self-esteem and external locus of control do influence the energy equation(11). Therefore, having sufficient job and personal resources does not completely explain your ability to deal with job demands; personal characteristics need to be taken into account as well. With that in mind, in this article I will focus on personal resources that you can influence to prevent burn-out symptoms and stress. I explain this with help from an article by Loehr and Schwarz: ‘The Making Of The Corporate Athlete’(1). My main point is that the incorporation of day-to-day habits on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level strengthen these personal resources.
How to strengthen your personal resources to deal with stress
You can strengthen your personal resources on 4 levels, described as ‘energy levels’ in the Harvard Business Review article on ‘The Making Of The Corporate Athlete’(1). These levels are: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – with each level building on the other. You need physical energy to be emotionally more stable, you need emotional stability to be mentally free and you need the mental space to allow for your spiritual energy to flow. But how do you do that? Here are a few good practices that are practiced widely and can be incorporated as day-to-day habits in your life (figure 1). To read more into the topic, read the original article by Loehr and Schwarz and publications from Ed Diener or Tom Rath.
Physical This energy is your actual fitness, your energy level. We all know what needs to be done to become more fit: eat healthy, drink enough water, sleep regularly and exercise daily. The bare minimum of exercise is to have an elevated heartrate for at least 30 minutes 5 days a week and work on muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week(12). A common misunderstanding is that you need to be outside of an office to exercise with an elevated heartrate. There’s plenty of good ‘no sweat exercises’ to be found online which can be perfectly done at your office desk, and taking a walk at a brisk pace already elevates the heartrate somewhat. There is growing evidence that exercise has a positive influence on not only your physical, but also mental energy levels(13). You are probably familiar with the mind-clearing effect that a good workout (such as going for a run) can have. If you have trouble sticking with an exercising routine, there’s a few things you can do. First, add exercise to your schedule just like meetings. Do you skip meetings? Then why would you skip your work-out appointment? Second (and this helped me get started), if you don’t feel like getting out of your chair, spend the time you would have spent on working out, on researching the health effects of sitting down and not exercising all day. Worked like a charm for
Figure 1. Creating daily habits on these 4 'energy levels' helps when dealing with stress. Habits on one level influence other energy levels positively when done right. The energy levels are based on The Making Of The Corporate Athlete by Loehr & Schwartz(1)
The emotional level encompasses your feelings and thoughts about things that happen, how you interpret the world around you and judge your own actions. Generally speaking, happy people have a well-functioning emotional system which makes them more resilient to life events(14) – so it helps to work on your emotional energy. The first step to take here is to become aware of you own train of thoughts. If you ever feel down or stressed, try to write down your train of thoughts, and ask yourself at every step ‘is it true?’. It could look something like this: ‘I feel stressed at this moment’ – ‘I have so much on my plate I can’t handle it’ – ‘if I can’t handle my workload, I have failed as a post-doc’ – ‘if I fail as a post-doc, I cannot be happy’. Most of the times, our assumptions are wrong - they’re just thoughts we’ve convinced ourselves of but aren’t necessarily true. The next level in making a train of thought is discussing it with a friend. I have had some hilarious conversations with friends about our own assumptions, simply because they were wrong and often nearly ridiculous. For instance, I have been convinced (for a long time) that I needed to be as successful as people I met in companies or at conferences, and not being as successful as them made me stressed. I developed the train of thought technique myself and put it into practice when coaching others. It is derived from Rational Emotive behavior therapy, which can be used on an emotional level to deal with stress(15). Another habit that helps at this level is to stop looking at social media and have real conversations with people you care about. This works in two ways: you will not be confronted by the insanely perfect lives portrayed by your friends (preventing your brain to feed on the thought your life isn’t perfect enough) and having real conversations with friends or family will boost your emotional fitness; better relationships with friends of family leads to more happiness(16) – we all need love. Various research has shown that social media usage could lead to emotional exhaustion and feelings of social overload – there are too many people to connect with, too many standards to live up to(17). If you want to start right here right now and improve your emotional fitness, write down 10 things you are grateful for. This may be hard at first, but gets easier over time. Doing this helps remind us what’s good about our lives and feeds our brain positive thoughts.
Your mental fitness is the amount of mental space, the amount of freedom of thinking you have. Sometimes, our heads feel ‘full’, with too much on our minds. There are two things you can do to improve your mental fitness: clear your head, and make sure it doesn’t become cluttered. Clearing your head can be done through meditation or a prolonged absence of stimuli (at least 30 minutes). There are plenty of (free) meditation apps and all kinds of meditation styles that could suit you, so don’t get bummed out if you don’t like a specific type of meditation at first. If you are new to the practice of meditation, try out a few things like mindfulness, zen meditations or guided meditations for stress release. Research has shown that following a mindfulness meditation program leads to less stress(18). What I take from that, is that meditating regularly has positive effects on your stress levels. I meditate almost daily in the train on my way to the office, or at home after a rough day. If you are not really into meditation; try out the ‘absence of stimuli’ for at least 30 minutes every day. You can either do absolutely nothing, just sit and drink a cup of tea, and give your mind time to wander. You could also try to draw, doodle or write – but make sure it is never related to the task you have done before. Doing absolutely nothing for 30 minutes might feel uncomfortable at first. Stick with it to see results over time. Also, if you want to take mental energy seriously: stop looking at your phone all the time. Your phone is the biggest mind-clutter device ever created in history, and quite frankly I wish I didn’t have to use one. Try out one day without your phone, see how you feel. Besides clearing your head, you can also make sure you don’t need clearing anyway. Making sure you head doesn’t become cluttered has a lot to do with a proper overview of what needs to be done. KanBan is a technique from the process and IT industry and has a few great rules about work (to learn more, search the web for ‘Kanban explained’). Take a piece of paper and sticky notes (or find a Kanban board online). First, prioritize all tasks at hand in one simple column and call this column ‘to do’. Write down your tasks on sticky notes if you use the offline version. The most important task goes first in the column. This forces you to see what is really important, your most important task is on top of the list. Create a second column right from your first and call this column ‘in progress’. The third column you will create will be right from ‘in progress’ and is called ‘done’. The power of KanBan is to move the sticky notes from left to right. Whatever you are doing goes in the column ‘in progress’. The master trick of this system is that you limit the amount of work in progress. I try to use a maximum of 3 tasks in the ‘in progress’ column. When you’re done with a task, it moves to ‘done’, and you’ve just created a space for a new task to be picked up. This system has multiple benefits. First, it creates an overview and you don’t have to think all the time about the things that need to happen. Second, limiting your work in progress helps you focus. If you put all your effort in finishing that one or two tasks at the same time, you’ll be much more effective than doing 10 tasks at once.
This is the world of your inner voice, your purpose, the path you want to follow in life. We all think about the things we want to achieve in life. The biggest key to spiritual fitness is that you don’t keep this thinking process to yourself. Force yourself to talk about your dreams and wishes with others. When you have to tell others about it, you will need to structure your story – and in this way you make more sense to yourself as well. Also, others can provide an outsider’s perspective on your thoughts – a free reality check. From my own experience, it makes for great conversation as well – it is wonderful topic to talk about with friends and family. Here is a simple exercise to boost your spiritual energy and that can be done on your own. Take 15 minutes and write down how you want to be remembered in life. Repeat this exercise at least weekly for 4 weeks and see what your mind is telling you. Writing your first version may feel uncomfortable, but it gets easier over time. This exercise is practiced widely in the field of personal development and helps, in my experience, with finding out what your perception of your meaning in life is. It is, however, sometimes difficult to deal with the outcomes of this exercise. What if you are not doing right now what you truly want to do? What if what you are doing right now doesn’t really give you meaning? People who perceive a bigger meaning in life, report better psychological well-being(19), so it could pay off to find out what your perception of meaning in life is. If you have difficulties finding out your own purpose or dealing with the results, there are also a wide variety of coaches that could help you. They cost money, but if they’re good they are absolutely worth it. My big takeaway on this topic is that you should never keep your dreams and purpose thoughts to yourself. Start at least with writing them down and remember that talking does help.
The power & discomfort of (new) daily habits
The four energy levels described above have one thing in common: they only work if they become routines. Small, recurring, boosts of happiness power your personal resources. This is also why buying stuff most of the time doesn’t provide true happiness: the excitement of a new toy wears away faster than the power of a good habit. I have experimented with many different daily habits and it felt uncomfortable almost every time. I stopped drinking coffee, I regularly create alcohol free months, I stopped eating meat, I started to meditate, I talked to a life coach, I volunteered on a farm, I’ve started interviewing people on what made them happy in life, I started a coaching course, I regularly create train of thoughts (in my mind, no longer need the paper) and eventually I quit my job to launch my own company. I’ve dealt with the discomfort of all these experiments and made them my daily habits. For me, the result is that I feel much more energized, resilient and happy with life in general. It is important to remember that any new routine, like starting to run, stop using social media, meditate or talk to a coach will feel uncomfortable at first. The fuel of your progress is that you deal with that discomfort. I strongly encourage you to experiment with small habits that could change your fitness on any level. If the experiment fails, there’s no harm done: you’ve learned what doesn’t work for you and you move on to a new experiment. I truly hope you can find the routines that will keep you fit on all energy levels.
About the author
Daan van Lith, has always been fascinated by the science of happiness; and dedicated almost a decade of his career to find out what people can do to become happier at work. He now started his own company Expedition: Good Life focused on personal development and wellbeing.
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