Psychological burnout is a lonely experience with lots of company. Here are 7 ways to help others out while avoiding it yourself

psychological burnout is a silent crisis that needs an alarm

Psychological burnout in the workplace is a painful, silent crisis receiving inadequate attention from both organizations and individuals. The social stigma of appearing weak prevents victims from speaking up and the need to be seen as virtuous in light of such a debilitating condition keeps organizations (i.e., leaders in control) from accepting blame, much less do anything about it. Despite, and as result of this comorbid “coverup,” everyone both knows what psychological burnout is, and knows a victim of it. This is a very personal affliction. What’s worse? Recovery from psychological burnout is extremely difficult – even with lots of help.

Anecdotal evidence of the increasing problem of burnout at work can be found in my typical day. Lately I’ve been taking an increasing number of calls from self-claimed victims (or near it). And these calls come from individuals both at, and out of, work. It’s clear to me that this is not a simple matter of the binary reality of having or not having work. Those who call “with work" wrestle with the question of whether or not they should quit, and those “without” work struggle with whether or not to finally give up the search for meaningful work. This is evidence of a third brutal truth beyond hushed victims and organizations in denial. No two people experience the stressors that lead to full blown burnout the same way. What one calls stressful to the point of ruin, another claims to be exhilarating. What all calls have in common is a deep and painful sense of lost relevance -- and loneliness.

Naturally, prevention is the best course of action. But for the reasons already mentioned, few (and increasingly fewer) organizations are ready or able to take action before it’s too late. The worse things get, the less willing and able organizations are to reckon with the causes of psychological burnout. The problem is more ominous than the mere absence of some innocuous organization stressors such as employee engagement or basic satisfaction with working conditions. Psychological burnout is squarely on the dark side of organizational behavior.

But the survival instinct is strong, and people experiencing stress will turn to independent means when outside help isn’t available. Too frequently, however, independent action exacerbates the problem causing more stress despite seeming innocent enough. Stress is like quicksand, you don't know how deep it is, it's very difficult to escape, and the struggle to do so can dig you in deeper. Some of these behaviors are actually helpful in the right circumstances but things change under stress. For example, taking time off is an obvious and popular means of reducing stress. The paradox here is that work and the stressors at work don't take a vacation, in fact they actually accumulate over the time when one is experiencing chronic stress. But some "go to" behaviors are clearly dysfunctional in the case of burnout and may create an even worse, vicious cycle, e.g., abusing alcohol.

Here I provide a list of simple behaviors one can take to reduce stress and ward off burnout that a) don’t depend on someone or something else to help and b) pose {little} risk of making things worse. As such, they avoid the complications apparent for stress in the workplace (which may be the same place as home). {Note: Special and significant caution is advised for items 6 and 7 for reasons I will address to follow.}

  1. Smile - Smiling makes people feel happy – even when nobody sees them. In addition, smiling is associated with the psychological trait of “agreeableness” which is associated with success at work. Most beneficial, smiling and its consequences is contagious.
  2. Move around - Movement improves cognitive functioning and re-focuses attention so as to avoid stress.
  3. Clean up – When someone declutters their workspace they may also “declutter their head” by putting away distractions that can cause stress. Cleaning up also demonstrates “conscientiousness,” another trait that, like agreeableness, is associated with high performance, for good reason. Organizing behavior, a component of conscientiousness, serves as a form of non-verbal communication that allows others to know what or where something is when “the organizer” isn’t available (or is taking a vacation).
  4. Exercise – The link between physical fitness and mental fitness is clear and strong, exercise improves self-image and releases high amounts of endorphins. In fact, being physically active improves health as much or more than dieting or even quitting smoking (which is still very harmful).
  5. Meditate – Studies consistently reveal the power of meditation to improve psychological health. Mindfulness is one form of meditation with especially impressive positive results. When combined with physical activity (i.e., exercise) the benefits multiply.
  6. Be with others – People are social animals with a fundamental need to interact. Even passive interaction helps to make people feel better. By interacting with others, individuals build their social network which is probably the number one predictor of well-being. (Caveat – it is not helpful to be around others who similarly are experiencing stress or burnout. This can create exaggerated anxiety that results in one or both becoming even more stressed and at risk of burnout.)
  7. Do someone a favor – People who help others can receive more benefit than the person they’re helping. A simple favor makes the individual useful and builds social relationships. (Again, it’s vitally important that the favor not pertain directly to psychological stress or stressors.)

As the potential for these suggested remedies to allay burnout increases, so does the risk (in terms of likelihood and severity) of unfavorable results. I have listed them by increasing order of potential benefit AND risk. Incremental risk for items 1 through 5 is relatively constant, but the risk spikes for items 6 and 7. Due to the social nature of these two items caution is advised, the risks can outweigh the benefits. A mistake here can create bigger problems not just for one, but for two or more people. Only when properly managed and kept within the scope as defined here can the benefits of behaviors #6 and #7 be realized with minimum negative fallout. Should there be any doubt, these are not advised. Dumping stress on someone else is a burden to even willing receivers who aren't trained as a counselor.

Psychological burnout and the stressors that cause it is a painful and pervasive problem that increasingly is not receiving adequate attention. That said, individuals don’t have to simply “get over it” without any help. The behaviors described here have scientific support for their ability to make a difference in an individual’s experience and management of moderate levels of stress without outside intervention. In cases that approach true burnout more substantial intervention is necessary. Though burnout may be silent, help is desperately wanted.

The best way to cure hiccups: A little psychology delivers the strongest medicine

Woman hanging upside down and driking from a cup to cure hiccups

A lot of “techniques” are used to cure hiccups, few really work. The procedure I'm about to describe is backed by psychological, scientific research and is absolutely the best way to hiccups. Guaranteed. There’s only one “but:”

It’s for adults only.

Well, it’s not entirely exclusive to adults, but it does require very strong concentration. {Also, you wouldn’t believe what adding “adults only” does to my SEO score.}

If you really want to cure hiccups you need to invoke the psychology of,

Automaticity Interruptus. {More SEO points!}

I’ll get to exactly what this is all about and how to do it but want to debunk some of the most popular “cures” for hiccups first. Beyond the fact that none of them actually cause the cure for hiccups, most come with unpleasant side effects.

Downing a spoonful of sugar shoots up glucose levels like fireworks (i.e., a rapid rise and explosion followed by complete burnout). Drinking from the other side of a cup upside down can result in nasal reflux (you can picture this, I’m sure). And scaring the crap out of someone speaks for itself.

To the extent these really do work at all it’s because they contain a smaller amount of the active ingredient, Automaticity Interruptus.

I made up this term, so I can’t link it to more information – but you will find some interesting results if you google it. It’s basically a means of “breaking the habit,” but it sounds more erudite. {minus SEO points}

Here’s what I mean:

Behavior falls into one of two categories, controlled or automatic. Sorting behaviors by these categories would appear to be pretty obvious based on the transparency of the two terms, but it’s not. Most behaviors can be both. BUT, (and this is key):

Not at the same time.

A (single) behavior can’t be both automatic and controlled at the same time. This doesn’t mean automatic and controlled behaviors (plural) can’t exist together. “Close calls” occur when there are differences between two or more behaviors (e.g., meditation to reduce anxiety) or the behaviors switch back and forth from automatic to controlled so quickly you don’t notice.

Hiccups definitely aren’t controlled behavior – not “for real” hiccups. They belong to a special form of automatic behavior. Hiccups are spasms of the diaphragm, but they act a lot like automatic behavior because they occur without effort and are "generally" uncontrolled. (Just give me some rope here - I'm not being greedy).

Reflexes you ask? Reflexes are really not in the zone of behavior as described here even though they seem like automatic behavior since there is no cognitive processing at all. Many reflexes don’t even loop through the brain. So, reflexes can’t be controlled at all except by eliminating the stimulus.

To point: If hiccups are automatic (in some way) AND automatic and controlled behaviors are incompatible, a logical cure would be to make the automatic behavior controlled.

And that’s it. If you work hard (really hard) to deliberately hiccup when you are in the grip of automatic hiccuping, the hiccups will go away.

But you have to work really hard to make a hiccup deliberate. Here’s how I would use Automaticity Interruptus on my friend, Mo:

Me: “Got the hiccups, huh?”

Mo: “Yeah – {hic}”

Me: “I’ll bet you $10 that you can’t hiccup after I start a rigorous technique on you. Don’t worry, you won’t get hurt and don’t even have to move. All you have to do is follow my orders.”

Mo: “OK”

Me: “When I say “go” I want you to hiccup as quickly as you can”

Mo: “OK {hic}”

Me: “GO! Hiccup NOW! C’mon. Do it NOW! Quick. I want you to REALLY TRY to hiccup. I dare you. I double dare you. I TRIPLE DOG DARE you! What’s the matter? Just DO IT. Hiccup damnit!”

Mo: "Gosh, Chris, you're amazing! How is it that someone can be so sharp and good looking?"

The “patient,” Mo, will NOT be able to hiccup under conditions of strained, deliberate effort. No matter how hard they (or you) try, you can’t hiccup on command. Try it now. You can’t do it. AND if you try it even when you already have the hiccups, you can’t do it.

But you have to REALLY TRY to hiccup. Give it your full attention.

This will flip an automatic behavior to a controlled one. And no one can hiccup by simply trying (eating a dozen donuts doesn’t count).

This technique is the driving force behind the downfall many experts with highly skilled behavior when put in a stressful situation. “Icing the kicker.” "Game winning free-throw." Even simple acts like, “breathe normally” get twisted when a lot of deliberate effort steps in.

Automaticity Interruptus.

Psychology at work.

This simple hack* will reduce stress and improve health

Smiley face to reduce your stress

Most {known} psychological research confirms what people already know. Yep. Most psychological research could receive the “No-duh”  vs. the “Nobel” award. Beyond the obvious, others are obtuse. Good luck with their titles, less the method (that consumes most of the article. But sometimes something else happens. Here, I share a study, well done AND revealing; useful for everyday application. This research yields a simple exercise that, if done, WILL reduce stress and improve your health.

I’ve offered tips to manage mood and to reduce stress before: 3 (easy) office tips to enhance your influence, 3 Surprising Motivation Killers and a couple more. But I must confess that these “tips” are mostly the result of personal experience or general knowledge acquired from multiple sources.

This is different. Or as Dorothy so astutely mentions to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, “… we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Scariest movie I’ve ever seen…)

Although most research reveals the obvious, what’s surprising is what we do (or don’t do) with this obvious information. Just to check me, I bet you can’t think of three things off the top of your head that would make you or someone else a better person.

You did, didn’t you? (smirk)

No kidding: Why haven’t you done them? If you have, why aren’t you still doing them?

You’re probably wondering, “why is Chris shooting himself in the foot?” It kinda sounds like he’s “giving up” his own profession; “psychological research is unsurprising and insignificant.”

Not quite.

One doesn’t fold with a straight flush, and I wouldn’t with a pair of aces (or would I?). I’ve come too far (and learned too much) to give in now.

Most of you will see through my thinly veiled attempt to entice and titillate as an effort to stir up your emotions. (Not sorry)

Beyond the sarcasm, pointing this out to you is making you even more emotional, even a bit demeaned. (Still, not sorry)

There’s an old saying in psychology, “All’s fair that changes behavior the way we want.” (Well, that’s what it should say.)

No. I’m no martyr. Not at all. I’m “the Fool.”

Here, I re-present one of many findings from I-O psychology that, if applied, would help so many. But it’s buried in an academic journal that few will notice. (I won’t mention it’s not even a journal of psychology, but that’s another story.)

Per Issac Newton, … “a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force.”

Transferring to psychology, human-kind is a pretty big, “body.” Consider this, “the force.”

What follows is solid I-O psychology research with implications that can really make a difference.

Now that I hope to have gained your attention, here’s the simple activity that will make you happier and healthier:

At the end of every day, write down three (3) good things that happened and why they did.

That’s it. Easy as Pi. (What does that mean, anyway?)

Really?

Yes, that’s it. Record and reflect on three good things that happened. Your spirits will lift and your blood pressure will drop. You can reduce stress. Measure it.

Bono, Glomb, Shen, Kim and Koch. 2013. “Building Positive Resources: Effects of Positive Events and Positive Reflection on Work Stress and Health.” Academy of Management Journal, 56: 1601-1627.

Don’t get me started on why this isn’t published in a journal known for PSYCHOLOGY!

Just get on with it. Prove me wrong.

  • Yes. I am cool because I used the word “hack” vs. “tactic.”

Throw for the Catch

Receiver making a catch

It’s fourth and goal.

Time for one play to determine the winner of the game. You drop back to pass. One receiver’s wide open. You throw a “frozen rope” spiral — right on target. You hit the receiver so hard in the chest that there’s no way they don’t make the catch.

But they don’t. And you lose. (More than the game).

You race to the “would be” receiver, now crying and laying on the ground. “What’s wrong?!” you ask, amazed that the catch wasn’t made.

“You fwew it too hawd”, your 2-year old (nearly 3) whimpers.

How would this make you feel? Good play?

So, why? WHY, do we insist on presenting, solving, doing things our way when success so clearly depends on more than just you?

Continue reading “Throw for the Catch”

“I’m okay” – “I’m not okay”: The ultimate test

Picture of a US penny

At the end of the day, our ultimate test of well being boils down to one of two sentiments: “I’m okay” – “I’m not okay“.

This may seem a bit simplistic, but if you really dig deep into your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, this simple phrase sits at the crux of our prevailing psychological state. It’s so pervasive, that it even presents itself through our reflexes, and more complex states of unconsciousness.

Of course there are varying levels of “okay-ed-ness.”

One may be a little on edge, or, completely terrified. On the positive side, sentiments range from “whew, that was a close call” to “I’m on the top of the world” (see “Titanic”, or the Oscars that year). Regardless, there is a ‘tipping point‘ upon which our sense of well-being teeters.

So: When do we most often experience this? Continue reading ““I’m okay” – “I’m not okay”: The ultimate test”