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On Fire or Burned Out? (update)

Burn-out is a recurring coaching topic with my for-profit and nonprofit sector clients. What is burn-out? It is the opposite of engagement. When employees (including chief executives and senior managers) are exhausted both physically and mentally, ignoring their own self-care, have lost their sense of purpose or joy at work... these are all symptoms of burn-out.

What causes burn-out? According to Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Resilient, How to Grow An Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, all humans have three basic needs: safety, satisfaction and connection. There is a direct connection between these needs and brain neuroscience - how our brain reacts when we are or are not meeting our needs which can translate into either helpful or destructive behaviors.

Safety can be considered as a range of conditions from existential threats to knowing we can take a risk at work (speaking up or proposing a new strategy) without major professional or personal repercussions. Satisfaction is achieved in a variety of ways from eating and enjoying food to achieving small and large goals. Connection is how we attach to others and feel worthy and loved. When these needs are met, we feel balanced and in what Hanson calls the "green zone or responsive zone." Our bodies release feel good hormones like dopamine, norepinephrine and natural opioids. When they are threatened, we can move into the "red zone or reactive zone" and our bodies release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

When we live in the red zone, we experience moderate to extreme stress and can lose sight of our joy or purpose, undermining our basic needs. What can we do to stay resilient - to stay in a peaceful, content place (responsive) and avoid fear, frustration or hurt (reactive)?

Raising your awareness about when you are moving into a reactive mode is a first important step and can be accomplished through mindfulness practices. For example, you can develop a "noticing" practice. When you are feeling irritated with a colleague or when you are getting overwhelmed what do you notice? Is there tightness in your chest, shoulders, neck or stomach? Is your breathing shallow or are you holding your breathe? Once you notice, you can shift focus with a variety of techniques, like extending your exhale, listening to music or taking a walk to calm down and re-center. When you notice feelings of boredom, disappointment or frustration, you can think about a time when you were engaged, met a goal and felt a sense of accomplishment. Take a few minutes to re-experience those feelings of satisfaction. When you feel hurt, resentful, or lonely remember a time when you felt loved and cared for and take in those positive emotions. This letting go of negative thoughts and emotions and letting in the positive builds resilience.

These mindfulness practices are relatively simple and can significantly reduce anger or fear, shifting your mind into a more responsive place. When our basic needs are met, we stay in the responsive green zone and can maintain a sense of well-being and connectedness.

Increasing your awareness about how you are experiencing your world and perhaps more importantly how others are experiencing you is a key element. Noticing when you slip into a reactive red zone will provide perspective and allow you to take action, re-center and calm your brain. Make the green zone your goal and embrace a safer, more satisfying and connected work and personal life.

The workshop I offered at Vermont Technical College in October was a big success and I'd like to deliver something similar in the spring. For more information about building personal and workplace resilience, contact me directly to schedule a customized training or take my 9 question survey here: Resilience Workshop Survey.

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