It’s been a few years since the pandemic changed how we think, work, and engage with others. The cumulative impact of all these changes has been exhausting and many of us are feeling burned out.

RADA Business tutor Kate Montague says, this feeling of ‘burnout’ is universally recognised: “nobody has to ask what burnout is; we all know,” she says. “And most of us will experience it, at one time or another.”

Recognising the signs

For Kate – who is also a psychotherapist specialising in body-led psychotherapy – burnout is something many clients have been feeling.

“There are three main elements of burnout that have been identified by psychologists, in relation to work. They are chronic fatigue, increased cynicism towards the job, and reduced efficiency. Even if you have not experienced every individual element, you might recognise one or two.”

Often, simply taking a long break can be enough to help individuals realise they are suffering from burnout – and if you’ve ever found it difficult to readjust to being back at your desk, this might be why.

As Kate says: “When we take a pause, we have space to listen to our body, and to notice the state of the nervous system. The ‘threat’ receptors, which are often activated for workers in fast-paced and high-pressure jobs, begin to fire in our brain. It can help to observe our state and trust the body’s ability to find ways to self-regulate, soothe, and restore our energy balance.”

When we take a pause, we have space to listen to our body, and to notice the state of the nervous system.

The problem with not taking breaks

Of course, the fact that many of us have been working remotely for the past few years means it’s been difficult to take effective breaks that allow us to really recover.

“In many cases, boundaries have dissolved since the beginning of the pandemic. Working from home means it is harder to switch off, there are more logistical issues to contend with, and the additional demands on people’s time seem to be more widely accepted,” Kate says.

“And with extra pressure there is often resentment. Not having a space to talk about that resentment – say, in the office, or casually with a colleague – means individuals might hold on to it for longer.”

Train your body to manage your stress

So we know why so many of us are feeling burned out at work. But short of leaving our jobs, what can we do about it?

“Firstly, it’s important not to minimise our experiences,” says Kate. “A lot of research around burnout shows that we glorify work. We feel we are our achievements, we are our performance. But this kind of pressure comes at a cost, and we need to acknowledge it to make changes.”

This is one of the reasons Kate says we need to complete what is called ‘a stress cycle,’ whenever it occurs. Skipping over it will often intensify the stress and cause increased anxiety. We need to work through it, if we want to return to a comfortable place.

Try this exercise

Kate suggests trying the following exercise, the next time you feel stressed:

  • When stress and anxiety take hold, acknowledge the source and how it manifests in your body, breath, emotion and thoughts. Then take steps to release it.
  • Stand up from your chair and complete a full inhale and exhale to refresh the air in your lungs. Tense up all your muscles for 20 seconds, then shake it out with a big exhalation.
  • Breathe to release anxiety, using the 4-7-8 technique. It requires focus and concentration, which helps calm an overstimulated mind, and taps into the restorative capabilities of our bodies:
    • Breathe in through your nose for a count of four.
    • Hold the breath for a count of seven.
    • Breathe out through the mouth for a count of eight. The exhale should be firm enough to make a whooshing sound, yet measured to last the count.
  • Re-close your mouth and repeat the cycle of 4:7:8.
  • Complete four 4:7:8 cycles before resting.
  • Conscious breath work might feel unusual at first, but with time and practice it can have a long-lasting impact on the nervous system.

Identify stress-management strategies that work for you

A key factor in terms of managing anxiety is simply to pay attention to it. As Kate says, none of us will ever be able to avoid stress. But we can become aware of our triggers, and take time to prioritise self-care and find exercises that work to calm us.

Kate suggests making the following strategies part of your working day:

  • Check-in with yourself. Take time to identify any stressful situations you are dealing with.
    “Being mindfully aware of our emotions helps us create distance from stressful situations, such as interruptions in meetings, overwhelming workload, or difficult conversations. When we make our feelings conscious we are less likely to be reactive, and can choose how to respond.”
  • Give your to-do list a reality-check. “Assess what you can and cannot control. It can feel freeing even to just acknowledge what is realistically achievable in a day.”
  • Take support. “Being willing to reach out and ask for support can have immediate benefits on your stress levels. Share with, and listen to, your colleagues, a mentor or manager. Connecting with others helps to validate our thoughts and feelings, and helps us gain a clearer perspective.”
  • Redefine your sense of success. “Allow yourself space for creative expression, and practise saying ‘no’ to things that you are not able to take on. And choose a sustainable pace. Maintaining work/life balance is a marathon, not a sprint.”

If the last two years have left you feeling burned out, the good news is that there are techniques that can help. After all, we may not be able to avoid stress – but we can manage it.

Techniques for companies: creating a positive company culture

While managing our own stress levels is important, a positive company culture is central for workplace wellbeing. So, in our recent feature on the power of communication, tutor Conrad Hornby also looks at what organisations themselves can do to create a supportive environment that motivates its employees.

Read on for more.