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Burnout prevention through stress management

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, VCU Health team members share strategies to create work-life balance to reduce effects from burnout.

A stressed out healthcare worker being comforted by colleague. Symptoms of burnout include feelings of general discomfort, fatigue, frustration, cynicism and powerlessness. (Getty Images)

By William Nay, Ph.D. LCP, and Matthew Way, M.D. 

Several recent studies show burnout and stress were at an all-time high for American workers over the past few years.

To raise awareness of and reduce stigmas surrounding behavioral health issues, this Mental Health Awareness Month VCU Health team members want to remind colleagues, patients and community members to be mindful of their health and seek help if needed.

Clinical psychologist William Nay, Ph.D. LCP, and physician Matthew Way, M.D., from the VCU Health Department of Psychiatry share ways you can recognize burnout and how to incorporate stress management practices into your daily routine.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a collection of symptoms that arises from excessive demands in the workplace.  A common and related issue with burnout is compassion fatigue, which is a lack of empathy toward patients.  

Some researchers have suggested a better term for burnout may be moral injury. Moral injury describes the challenge of simultaneously knowing what care patients need but being unable to provide it due to constraints that are beyond our control. * 

Recognize the causes 

Recognition of the causes of burnout can be helpful in reframing the issue from one of lacking self-resiliency to one where institutional optimization should be targeted. Typical symptoms of burnout include feelings of general discomfort, fatigue (emotional and physical), frustration, cynicism and powerlessness. 

The American Medical Association notes that "while burnout manifests in individuals, it originates in systems. Burnout is not the result of a deficiency in resiliency among physicians, rather it is due to the systems in which physicians work."  

In other words, the structure of a workplace environment can have an overall impact on an employee’s mental health and wellbeing. Reducing or minimizing nonessential tasks at the organizational level can help with reducing excessive demands that could spiral into feelings of burnout.  

Another strategy to address burnout is to advocate for and prioritize mental health training early on for employees, trainees and students. 

Stress management methods at work and home 

It can be difficult to set boundaries when time spent at work can be demanding, both emotionally and physically, but there are several ways to manage stress while on and off the clock that can help prevent symptoms of burnout.  

Practice focusing on what you can control and ask the question, “What is the single next step I can take to improve the state of things?” Along with this, advocating for and establishing work-life balance is important. 

  • By engaging in respectful enforcement of our work boundaries we can help reestablish a sense of balance in daily tasks and expectations. Discussing priorities with managers is crucial to managing workload and reducing excessive demands in the workplace, which can lead to burnout. It is OK to respectfully say “no” to new requests, particularly ones that might be difficult to manage with other assigned tasks.
  • Taking regular breaks at work and eating throughout the day help with keeping up focus and energy. Outside of truly critical situations, try not to skip lunch “to get XYZ done.”
  • Use your paid time off (PTO) and disconnect from the workplace. Surveys show some people feel guilty taking vacation time, but that time away from the office can help reduce overall stress and boost productivity when returning to work.

After the workday ends, consider reframing your time as an investment that will allow you to better care for others in the long term. What does that look like?

  • Consider making a rule not to bring work home. If you must, try to make this an exception to the rule.
  • Take time for yourself and those important to you without latching onto guilt. If guilt arises, practice acknowledging and letting it go.
  • Prioritize getting adequate amounts of sleep, eating healthy meals and exercising. These healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce stress and improve overall wellness.
  • Mindfulness practices can be used to reduce stress and improve coping skills. If using these techniques on your own isn’t enough, reaching out to a mental health professional can be helpful, especially if symptoms become increasingly worse or you are already struggling with mental health concerns.