Q&A: Tips for beating burnout, optimizing recovery

Vanessa Bohns, a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior at the ILR School, says there are ways – starting with intentional rest and recovery – to recalibrate after nearly two years of a pandemic-induced, always-on work mindset.

Author of “You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters,” published in 2021, Bohns provided tips in a recent interview for getting 2022 off to a healthy start.

Question: We’ve been through so much since March 2020. How many of us are burned out?

Vanessa Bohns

Answer: Trends in the data indicate that burnout is on the rise. In a 2018 survey, 23% of employees reported feeling burned out, but in a survey from 2020, the number was 41%.

Q: You recommend setting goals for active, rather than passive, recovery from the daily grind in order to maximize rejuvenation and protect well-being. How does that work?

A: When we set goals for our time away from work, we tend to spend that time doing things that have been consistently shown to be associated with increased happiness and well-being, such as spending time with friends and family or pursuing a new hobby. Indeed, research shows that simply anticipating and planning ahead for weekend or holiday plans can increase positive emotion, rather than waiting until we have some time off and then wondering what to do with it.

Q: What are the steps in laying out a plan for active recovery in 2022?

A: Taking breaks from work is crucial for both well-being and productivity. That means we should be intentional about giving ourselves breaks. But it also means that we should engage in behaviors that allow our colleagues to take needed breaks from work, as well. One simple thing we can do is to avoid sending work emails on weekends or holidays. Or, if we do feel the need to send a work email to get it off our own plate, clearly indicate that we don’t expect an immediate response from the recipient so that they can enjoy their time off without guilt.

Question: How do you know your plan is working?

A: When people are burned out, they feel exhausted and overwhelmed, and start to disengage from work. By contrast, proactive recovery should make you feel more energized and make you feel re-engaged in your work.

Question: What are the best email practices we learned since the pandemic began? How should we carry them forward for a healthy work/life balance in 2022?

A: We tend to be good at telling recipients of our emails what kind of response we need from them, but bad at telling them when we need a response. That is a problem because my research with Laura Giurge shows that when we are on the receiving end of an email, we overestimate how quickly the sender expects us to respond. While they may be happy for us to respond whenever we have a chance, we may feel the pressure to respond immediately – even if the email comes on the weekend, or when we are working on something else we’d like to complete.

Importantly, the times we do regularly indicate when we expect a response tend to be the times when we need an urgent response. One “best practice” for sending emails is to indicate when you expect a response, even when (or especially when) that expectation is “whenever you have a chance.”

Question: Many employers are relentless. They still want work to be better, faster, more complete. Yet, they urge workers to “unplug.” What should workers tell their bosses that will help balance work and life in 2022?

A: Bosses need to lead by example. Getting work emails in the evening or on the weekends is stressful in general, but it’s even more stressful – and impactful for establishing organizational norms – if those emails come from the boss. Bosses need to be aware of the ways in which they contribute to problematic workplace norms.

Question: You maintain that we have more influence on others than we think. What is some advice for readers on how to wield that power to improve their personal lives in 2022?  

A: When you look around at a problematic workplace dynamic, such as an always-on work culture, think about the ways in which you may be inadvertently contributing to it and the little things you can do to start to create new norms. We are all not only observers of social norms and workplace culture, but also creators of it. Do you regularly send your colleagues emails in the evenings and on weekends? Do you send emails you don’t expect an immediate reply to without making that expectation explicit? By adjusting our own behavior, we can impact the norms around us more than we realize.

Question: Burnout has been deepened by the pandemic. What’s the long-term impact of burnout and how can we reverse burnout in 2022?

A: Just recently, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a chronic occupational condition resulting from “workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” This can cost organizations in the form of decrease productivity and impact employee well-being. Many of us got into bad habits during the pandemic as we tried to fit in work whenever we had a chance, often at home, during the evening, and on weekends. To reverse these trends, we need to reset and start to be more intentional about protecting time during our week for proactive recovery.

Mary Catt is director of communications for the ILR School.

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