How can the outdoors help prevent burnout?
Mental burnout affects people of all walks of life, and is incredibly hard to identify. Left unaddressed, it risks leading to more serious illnesses. Learn how to recognise burnout and what getting outdoors can do to help.
In 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) re-classified mental burnout as an "occupational phenomenon". This was done in order to emphasise that burnout — a state of emotional, mental and sometimes even physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged stress — is strictly a work-based syndrome and not a medical condition. According to WHO, “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” However, some researchers disagree with this constraint.
Numerous studies show that occupational stress has become more prevalent over the past few decades. And it’s really not hard to see why: in today’s increasingly digitised work environment, many of us never truly 'clock off'. While average working hours in the week have actually decreased in Australia according to the ABS, this does not account for the time we spend engaged with work via our phones and computers after hours. For some, there is an emergence of a dangerous 'attendance culture' that almost glorifies being at work despite your state of health. On top of this, there are other pressures in life that may result in the exact same symptoms of burnout. Professor Gordon Parker from the Black Dog Institute notes that "people from all walks of life may experience burnout, and not just from work. For example, burnout may also be experienced by students who are overwhelmed by their study commitments, or a mother (or carer) caring for a severely disabled child."
In a survey of 820 women, Kathmandu found that 56.7% reported having experienced or come close to experiencing burnout. Knowing that our workaday lives can have a negative impact on our mental health, the question then becomes: what can be done to treat the symptoms of burnout before they escalate? Many studies have been conducted in this area and, perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers have found that time spent outdoors might just be the ultimate natural remedy to mental burnout.
What exactly is burnout?
Stress and burnout are not the same things. It’s completely normal to feel stressed at work from time to time, but this stress is typically situational and related to a specific stimulus, such as a difficult project or an upcoming deadline. When this stress accumulates over a long period of time and becomes all-consuming, that is when we refer to it as burnout.
According to WHO, burnout is characterised by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy
While the stressors that typically trigger burnout differ across occupations, they all tend to relate to the demanding and unrelenting nature of a job, combined with a lack of resources and support.
What causes mental burnout?
Well, that’s the thing. It doesn’t just happen. Nobody wakes up one morning to find they suddenly 'have' burnout, unlike how a headache can just happen. Burnout is a chronic condition, the result of stress building up over time. It’s like a pipe that’s slowly dripping, so you don’t notice the damage, rather than a pipe that bursts out of the blue. And also unlike a headache, it doesn’t necessarily 'go away' with time. It requires you to seriously assess the amount of stress in your life, and actively make changes.
Of course, as we are all different in our capacity to deal with stress, some people are innately more susceptible to burnout than others. For instance, Type A personalities and those people who like feeling in control are shown to experience higher rates of stress at work. Additionally, workers who believe they do not have the right resources to cope with their workload, such as an unsupportive workplace, are more likely to succumb to stress-related conditions. For this reason, burnout is as much a workplace's responsibility as it is an individual's.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Because stress and burnout exist along a continuum, it can be hard to differentiate between the two. The difference can be a matter of degree, which is why it’s so important that we are all in tune with how we are feeling, and able to recognise when work stresses have gone beyond situational to become a malicious part of our everyday lives. Thankfully, our bodies and minds do give us warnings.
Common symptoms of burnout include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention
- Physical symptoms, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches
- Loss of appetite
- Increased irritability
- Lack of productivity and poor performance
According to Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, “Burnout is an insidious creature that creeps up on you as you're living your busy life.” Burnout doesn’t discriminate, and we are all capable of falling victim. As such, we all need to take steps now to ensure everyday work stress doesn’t evolve into mental burnout. After all, prevention is always preferable to a cure.
How can getting outdoors help?
Tackling burnout is a job for both employers and employees, as organisations need to ensure they have the right measures in place to combat workplace stresses. However, one thing you can do to protect yourself is to embrace life in the outdoors.
We’ve discussed how nature can positively impact your health, but time spent in nature is of particular use when it comes specifically to stress. A study published in the journal Global Environmental Change in 2013 reported that people feel significantly happier outdoors than they do indoors. While this may feel obvious, what the study also discovered is that, despite this awareness, we spend less than 5% of our waking hours in nature. Ironically, in a time where we need nature more than ever, we are spending less time than ever in it.
A more recent study published in Scientific Reports in 2019 found that spending 120 minutes per week in nature correlates to good self-reported health and high self-reported well-being. What’s more, those 120 minutes don’t need to happen all at once: according to the study’s lead author Dr Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, a series of 30-minute visits outdoors will have the same impact on our health.
“When we’ve put people in [natural] environments, it decreases heart rate, decreases blood pressure, decreases stress cortisol [and] improves psychological well-being,” Dr White explains in an interview with Psychology Today. The study also found that one of the main reasons for these physiological and psychological effects is that time in nature encourages more exercise.
“In terms of the passive benefits, what I think is happening is that modern urban living is placing so many cognitive demands on us,” says Dr White. “[Time spent in nature] is downtime for our brain, giving us the chance to have space to think.” With fewer negative stimuli in nature, we are free to think positively, let our imaginations run wild and mentally work through those issues that feel all too overwhelming in the confines of the city limits.
As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” So, rain, hail and shine, now is the time to lace up your hiking boots and get outside. Your health depends on it.
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