Thought Leadership

Preventing Burnout in a Frantic Age

Lynette Ooi – Amazon Head of Legal, ASEAN, Consumer

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on many segments of society. In the corporate world, it has exacerbated some of the more unsustainable aspects of our working lives – the urge to be “always on”, the volume of communications we work with, and the lack of holistic consideration of the corporate and domestic workload on each individual. While the pandemic has given rise to unique challenges, such as the lack of physical connection with colleagues, it has also laid bare the general lack of safeguards against mental, physical and emotional burnout of human workers.

According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index report published in September 2020, over 30% of “Firstline” and information workers said the pandemic has increased their feelings of burnout at work. Top workplace stressors include a lack of separation between work and life, along with unmanageable work hours. The situation is particularly severe for women, as attested to by various studies – for example, a report published by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org found that COVID-19 has intensified work, childcare and housework pressures, and mothers are significantly more likely than fathers to be thinking about downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

While organizations have their part to play in addressing systemic issues, it is more urgent than ever for individuals to be equipped to manage their own well-being and create a more sustainable vision of success. I recently held a discussion with my Women In Law Circle on the topic of “Managing Well-being and Preventing Burnout”. Here are some of the tips and insights from our discussion, based on my own research from the past few months.

1. Defining and living by a strong purpose can have tremendous benefits. Vic Strecher of the University of Michigan runs an online course on Finding Purpose and Meaning in Life. In his course and Ted Talk, he shares the science and philosophy behind living purposefully. Numerous studies reveal that having a strong “transcending” purpose (one that looks beyond the individual) is linked to positive outcomes in health, behaviors, relationships, organizations, and even incomes. In particular, having a strong purpose has been shown to significantly reduce the mental and emotional impact of stressful situations. So how do you define your own purpose in life? Strecher recommends a process of “self-affirmation” to identify your core values and the “Headstone Test” in which you reflect on how you would want to be remembered. A good professional/life coach can also work with you to define your purpose through visualization and other exercises. By shaping your career to align with your purpose in life, you can create a resonance that gives rise to a sense of fulfillment and acts as a buffer against stress. Your purpose will also act as a guide to resource allocation – for example, if your purpose is to build strong and collaborative teams, you may choose to devote a larger portion of your time at work to team-building efforts.

2. Prioritize ruthlessly, and delegate or simplify less important tasks. People are getting busier, thanks to the information age and virtual “self-service” tools that replace human support. In the past, we hired travel agents to book flights and hotels, and administrative professionals to manage routine office tasks like filing and expense claims. Today, these tasks are performed by harried office workers, burdening their cognitive loads with an ever-increasing suite of software applications and online experiences. Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball, advocates that people prioritize by focusing on their “highest and best use”, which is a combination of what you do extraordinarily well with very little effort, and the things that only you have the ability to do. For example, you might decide that conducting impactful presentations and teaching your children values are your highest and best uses. All other tasks can either be delegated or simplified through “satisficing”, a decision-making approach that aims for a satisfactory or adequate result (rather than optimal solutions). In practice, this means that if you aren’t sure if you’ve chosen the ideal office equipment or signed up for the perfect fitness class, just settle for “good enough”. This will save you time and reduce the mental burden of your to-do list. As a surprising benefit, as pointed out by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, people who satisfice tend to be more content, while “maximizers”, people who strive for the best option, tend to be less satisfied with their choices and more likely to be clinically depressed.

3. Minimize multi-tasking to get more done and avoid mental exhaustion. As a working mother of two young children, I frequently rely on multi-tasking to feel like I’m keeping pace with my various responsibilities. However, if I am honest with myself, I often feel the most depleted after a day of intense multi-tasking. Recent scientific research reveals why. According to Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind, the belief that we can do many things at once is a “persistent myth”. As he explains, “What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result: We don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any task.” It turns out that multi-taskers often think they are doing great, but this is merely an illusion fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop. On the flip side, by taking frequent breaks and focusing on one task at a time, we activate the brain’s natural daydreaming state, leading to better and more creative work. Levitin also recommends “chunking” similar chores or tasks together, and staying focused on that single type of work through to completion. What this means in practice is that you might set aside one afternoon to deal with managerial duties, and a separate two-hour block to clear emails. This allows us to get more done and avoid the mental exhaustion that comes from “attentional switching”.

4. Meditation can reduce stress and promote well-being. In the Microsoft survey, 70% of respondents said meditation could help decrease their work-related stress. This number increased to 83% for those managing childcare or homeschooling. This is consistent with a growing body of evidence linking mindfulness training to lower levels of stress, irritability, and fatigue. In our Women In Law discussion, participants shared different types of meditation techniques they adopt and reported benefits such as enhanced clarity of thought, burnout alleviation, and falling asleep more quickly. As someone who has trouble focusing on only my breathing, I practice “loving-kindness meditation”, which involves mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating a series of mantras. Someone I met recently also recommended gratitude meditation, for example just before a big work presentation, because it’s “impossible to be grateful and stressed at the same time” – I find this to be true myself!

I hope that the above tips/resources will help you on your journey to manage your own well-being and avoid the perils of burnout as we pursue our career aspirations and take care of others.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and not her employer.

Originally published 23 Jan 2021

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