Mind-Body Wellness For Healing Professional Burnout

Professional burnout is typically understood as a psychological stress characterized by exhaustion, loss of interest in work and feelings of ineffectiveness.  In social work, we also talk about it as “compassion fatigue” because there is a sense of being drained. 

As helpers, it can be challenging at times to consistently deliver positive and enthusiastic service especially if we don’t feel appreciated, respected or supported enough by those we serve or our colleagues and superiors.  

Often this leads an individual to want to quit what they are doing – the position, the place or the field altogether.  While sometimes these options can be argued as the healthiest course of action, there are some alternative responses to consider that may also prevent “burnout” as a chronic pattern of avoidance. 

First, self-care is very important.  This includes the obvious - healthy diet, sufficient exercise and proper rest.  It also includes having some kind of daily relaxation ritual, which functions as a buffer between you and the stress of the day.  A ritual, in this sense, means regularly performing an activity that connects you with your own inner joy and is performed with your awareness deeply anchored in the present moment.  This could be something like sipping a cup of tea while watching the sunset, meditation, deep breathing or anything that is suitable, meaningful and peaceful for you.  This helps us to let go.  

One of the reasons we burn out is because things become too heavy psychologically.  It is common for people to “carry” their stress beyond their work environment.  Heaviness is not a matter of weight but a matter of time.  Even seemingly small things become heavy when we hold on to them.  If we learn to let go, we can recharge and have the energy to continuously pick things up again.

On a deeper level, self-care needs to support mind-body wellness.  Our bodies have wisdom.  For example, when our needs are not met – such as safety and security, love and belonging or peace and fulfillment – we feel it as pain in our gut, heart and head respectively.  In our work, we connect with clients, customers or patients and listen to the stories of how their needs are not being met. In the news we are also exposed to the same thing on a larger scale. 

It is unrealistic to think that our bodies will not react at times.  But we can take the healthy step forward by paying attention to the tension in our own bodies and respond with self-compassion.  Simply take notice of any tension or discomfort in your body with non-judgment and then take a moment to breathe and concentrate there.  Deep breathing activates the body’s relaxation response or parasympathetic nervous system which works to counter the effects of the fight-flight instinct and supports healing.   

This essentially creates a sort of wellness dialogue between our mind and body.  This is experiential which goes beyond intellectual rationalizing in order to feel safe and unaffected by the pain we treat or encounter.

Finally, finding time to honor our primary relationships strengthens our inner circle and supports us.  Most of us have had the experience of having a very good relationship at some time and feeling energized and inspired by it even if all the other areas of our life were not going well.  

On the other hand, if our primary relationships are strained, even if everything else is good, we will most likely feel imbalanced and stuck.  So, make more and more kindness investments into your meaningful relationships.  This will build a reserve of goodness to allow for both partners to make withdrawals when necessary.  

It only takes a word, a note, a look or a touch to grow in this way.  When your closest family members or partner says, “I love you,” pause and feel gratitude for that special gift. Then, with a full heart respond with “thank you” or “I love you, too.”  Many meditation centers have a bell to signal when it is time to begin meditation. If the practitioners do not stop what they are doing when it rings and prepare for meditation, the bell loses its meaning.  

As long as there is a pause and receipt, our sacred words and gestures will retain their power and help our relationships grow dynamically.  That is our support system and the posts we reach for when we fall.

With enough self-awareness, we can get better at noticing ourselves slipping towards burnout.  We can respond compassionately and redirect ourselves towards balance using these tips.  By reconnecting with our core values that most likely drew us to a certain career pursuit in the first place, we empower and align ourselves.  When we live authentically, we cultivate enthusiasm for work and for life – our best defense against burnout.

Todd Fink