The pandemic has been hard on all of us. Between the impacts of job loss, health consequences, and the psychological effect of lockdowns, isolation and the lack of social connection, 42% of women and 35% of men reported feeling burned out often or almost always in 2021. That statistic doesn’t even account for the frontline hospital-based healthcare workers. According to research done in Ontario, in spring 2020, the prevalence of severe burnout was 30%-40%. By spring 2021, burnout rates of more than 60% were found in Canadian physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
Burnout is becoming a common mental health challenge for people all over the globe and from all areas of life. Despite your job, field, or lifestyle, you may be experiencing some form of burnout just from managing life and the pandemic. And while burnout can be difficult to overcome, kindness can help us recover faster and even protect us from burnout in the future.
I sat down with Dr. Ty McKinney, a neuroscientist studying burnout in Calgary, Alberta. His research has led him to co-create a new app, 8 Bit Cortex, which is changing our understanding of burnout by gamifying mental wellness. Based on the data collected from the app and personal burnout analytics, the app can give users a warning before they have a mental health challenge. Dr. McKinney explains, “The status quo is that you wait until you’re burned out, then work retroactively to fix what lead you to burnout. This way people can start proactively taking steps to recover and focus on their mental health.”
“Burnout is typically conceptualized as being related to “workplace stress” but, fundamentally, it is a biological process,” Dr. McKinney explains. Burnout occurs when we are chronically stressed and do not have an opportunity to properly recover from it before a new threat appears.
“It is really important to destigmatize burnout. It can happen to anyone dealing with prolonged stress,” Dr. McKinney explains. While burnout is often seen as a failure of our ability to handle stress at work, focusing on the biological aspect can help us to reframe the experience. “People can experience the symptoms of burnout even if the stress didn’t occur in the workplace. For example, caregivers often experience burnout, especially those caring for sick family members, as do athletes. Really, anyone who is giving too much of themselves.”
When we perceive a threat, our brains quickly analyze if this threat is serious. Then our brains determine if we have the necessary resources to deal with it. We then receive a tailored flood of hormones through our bodies.
The major stress hormones that are released in our brains after perceiving a threat are adrenaline and cortisol. Interestingly, oxytocin, the hormone that is released in the brain when we experience kindness, bonding, or positive social interactions, actually works to protect against cortisol. Dr. McKinney explains, “Oxytocin can take stress and change it from something that’s perceived as a threat to something that is seen as a challenge.”
If you live in a community where kindness and oxytocin are a part of everyday life, it can create what Dr. McKinney calls a feed-forward system. “Feed-forward systems tend to be unstable because they are constantly growing. However, if you live in a community setting, and the kindness and oxytocin are flowing around, one act of kindness will breed another. And when one person is feeling more protected from stress, they are in a better position to be kind to others and the feed-forward cycle continues. Eventually, the stress level of the entire community will decrease.” Amazingly, oxytocin can raise our tolerance to cortisol and make stress more manageable.
“When we experience stress our body floods with cortisol. When we experience burnout, the cortisol stays in our body for a prolonged period of time, which can create changes in the way our body and brain operate,” explains Dr. McKinney. “It can impair our ability to engage in focused attention, making it harder to focus on goal-oriented behaviour and even resist temptation.” Burnout can also affect our emotional regulation, plus, it can deeply affect our sense of self and make us feel socially isolated.
While “white-knuckling it” can be beneficial for dealing with anxiety and fear, it does not help in a hormone-based response. Worse still, trying to power through it alone can delay recovery and make the impacts of burnout worse. Dr. McKinney explains how we need to “rest and digest” between stressful experiences. Interestingly, women are more likely to recover by accessing social support which he calls “mend and befriend.”
What does “rest and digest” or “mend and befriend” look like? Dr. McKinney suggests kindness as a way to get directly at the hormones that are causing burnout. “If you want to tackle the root cause, the oxytocin we get from doing or receiving acts of kindness is a great way to protect against cortisol. Additionally, kindness improves our sense of trust in the people around us.”
Other strategies to cope with burnout include meditation and mindfulness to work on our attention and focus. Dr. McKinney also suggests gratitude. “There are gratitude meditations that focus on the feeling of gratitude and recalling things in your life that you are grateful for. There is a lot of scientific evidence that shows how injecting gratitude into your life, doing some kind reflection or journaling, can be protective against burnout and mental health consequences.”
This is where SeeKindness can help. When we write about an act of kindness we experienced, we focus and reflect on the feelings of gratitude and connection. This type of journaling is exactly what Dr. McKinney recommends when experiencing burnout.
Kindness may just be the medicine we need to prevent burnout and help us recover from it. Oxytocin, the hormone released when we experience kindness, protects against cortisol, the stress hormone. Plus, kindness can help us feel a sense of connection with others. Focusing on gratitude can also help us recover from burnout as well as access to social supports like talking to friends or family.
Finally, living through the pandemic has been a challenge. Please remember you are not alone and that it’s okay to get help.