Understanding Burnout and Anxiety - Lunch & Learn by Spill

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A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a Lunch and Learn about Anxiety and Burnout. It was led by Will, a member of the team at Spill - a workplace mental health platform offered through Slack. The Lunch and Learn was organised in an effort to help badgers better understand their mental health and provide practical ways to maintain it. 

Over the last decade, we have seen an increase in reports of people struggling with mental health problems. 1 in 4 people in England are predicted to experience a mental health problem of some kind each year and following the year we have had it is not a surprise that mental health continues to be a major public health concern. In a report conducted by the Office of National Statistics in 2020 48% of adults reported that their wellbeing was being affected by the pandemic and 81% reported experiencing some form of depression and/or anxiety. Looking at those stats it’s obvious that it is now more important than ever to be aware of our mental health and to work as a nation to support those around us.

Kicking it off  

The presentation started off by highlighting that mental health falls on a spectrum. Similarly to physical health, we all move on a sliding continuum between great health and needing support. This is a really useful way to frame conversations around mental health and begin to destigmatise the need for support. Will then went on to provide a very useful framework to understand and work to manage anxiety and burnout. Here’s a summary of some of the key take-home messages.

Explaining anxiety

Anxiety is a type of fear usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future. It has been linked with a brain area called the amygdala, also known as the brain’s emotion centre due to its role in mediating our response to fear and anxiety. One of the major theories which can be used to explain increases in anxiety draws from evolutionary theory. It suggests that our emotions evolved to help us to quickly organise aspects of our environmental responses, and that anxiety may be an adaptive response to make us aware of dangerous things in our environment. This would encourage us to take fewer risks and seek safety, therefore protecting ourselves and increasing our chances of survival. It may be that in modern life, those of us who experience high levels of anxiety have a predisposition to a response that in previous times of human history was useful. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for us, the risk of acute threat has gone down and it has been replaced with a different kind of chronic and uncertain threat. 

While arguably these threats are not as dangerous, our brains have not adapted to the change in threat, and therefore respond to issues such as relationship strains or financial worries in the same way that they may have responded to a lion in the distance. Technology poses a large modern-day threat, with social media, in particular, being linked to increased levels of anxiety. We are constantly bombarded with opportunities we have missed and ways that we have not excelled. We are required to make thousands of menial, but somehow stressful decisions a day and scroll for hours without receiving that long-lasting sense of accomplishment we crave so much. Behavioural Psychologist James Clear gives a really nice explanation of this theory in his article ‘The Evolution of Anxiety: Why We Worry and What to Do About It’. 

Managing anxiety

So what can we do about this? While we can’t completely eradicate anxious feelings, the answer may lie in finding ways to be present, and in either reducing or changing our interactions with technology. Will provided a range of techniques to remain present including daily journaling, meditation, mindfulness and practicing abundance (easier said than done right). These aim to prevent the shutdown of the frontal lobes and the hijack of the amygdala (which normally leads to firing in the brain's fight or flight areas and anxious thoughts). Monitoring the information we consume and looking at the way we engage with technology could have a positive effect on our well-being. Understanding why we feel compelled to check our phones and where the reward is coming from can help us to find healthier ways to get dopamine and to spend time thinking about what else brings us pleasure.

Explaining burnout

Burnout is defined as a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterised by exhaustion, negativity and feelings of professional inadequacy. It has been defined by ICD 11 as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and is all about the psychological relationship we have with work. There is some really interesting research over the last couple of decades to explain how the low mood experienced in burnout may be caused by feeling as though situations are unachievable, or unwinnable. 

Managing burnout

So what is the solution? The ONLY option if you are currently experiencing burnout is to take time off. This can be difficult to accept but it is important to remind ourselves that sometimes taking time to recharge is the best thing we can do for our work and our personal lives. Will provided both short and long term tips to treat and prevent burnout. Short term, he drew on WHO’s suggestions to take time to recharge, stay active, connect with others, learn something, give to others, and work on staying aware of the present moment (all good ways to rest and refuel, whether you are burnt out or not). He then provided long term tips that can be used in workplaces to try and protect against the effects of burnout. Based on Christina Maslak’s research these tips included; making goals feel within reach, making feedback loops shorter, having autonomy over our work, making vulnerability the new norm, sharing conversations and meetings, and helping people understand meaningful goals. 

Will also gave some really insightful practical ways to do this, some of which (like our #thanks channel) we are already doing, and others (like having a mental health check-in during morning meetings) which I’m sure we will implement in the future. To finish off it is important we know that creating a culture that protects staff from burnout is achievable by putting small measures in place to change our psychological relationship with work. The onus is on the whole company, not the individual to make the change.

Take-home messages

  1. Get off your phone!! - What can you replace time spent on your phone doing?
  2. If you feel like you are burning out but are worried about being seen as lazy DON’T BE. Take the time off and come back stronger and fit to work. 
  3. Feeling like we are making meaningful progress towards something is important in protecting against burnout - find ways in your everyday life that you can do what you enjoy and feel as though your work is making a difference.
  4. Have a look at some of these books- Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, The Body Keeps the Score and Lost Connections 

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