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Banishing Burnout Stress

Overworked? Overwhelmed? Meet four people who made radical and not-so-radical changes to ease their job stress—and along the way, transformed their lives.

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For eight years, Karl LaRowe worked in the emergency room at an inner-city hospital in Portland, Oregon. As a crisis intervention counselor, he helped hundreds of people each month cope with everything from domestic violence and depression to psychosis and suicide attempts. Eventually, the constant adrenaline rushes and biweekly 48-hour shifts took their toll. “I wasn’t sleeping well,” says LaRowe. “Thoughts about the patients would come crashing into my mind, and I became acutely aware of noises.” He began to drink heavily and to use drugs, and spiraled into a deep depression.

When antidepressants and talk therapy didn’t help, LaRowe felt he had no choice but to quit his job. After drifting for a while, he remarried and moved to Singapore, where he met a master of qi gong, a Chinese system of exercise and breathing performed in a meditative state. It was this ancient technique, which he now practices for 15 to 20 minutes every day, that LaRowe says gave him back his life. “I got lots of ideas in therapy,” he says. “But nothing was happening. Qi gong was my first experience of really feeling the frozen energy in my body release.” Eventually, LaRowe returned to the health field; he now works two to four
days a week assessing mental health clients in the court system. “Though my schedule is very busy, the difference is that today when my day is done, it’s done,” he says. “I no longer take my patients home with me.” He also leads regular workshops on body awareness, breathing, and compassion fatigue—things he wishes he’d learned about years earlier—for social workers, psychologists, and other professional caregivers.

As LaRowe learned, making your work less stressful doesn’t have to mean leaving it behind for good. (And how many of us can hope to do that, anyway?) Instead, the key is to transform your relationship to the stress so that it no longer overwhelms you. More and more people are discovering that mind-body practices like yoga, qi gong, and meditation can be hugely helpful in shifting the way they react to stress.

The need for anti-stress practices has become increasingly urgent. Americans work nine full weeks more per year than our peers in Western Europe. And even if we get time off, we don’t always use it: At least 30 percent of employed adults don’t take all their vacation days, according to a 2005 Harris Interactive poll. Each year, Americans hand back 421 million days to their employers. Constant emails and ever-increasing workloads have too many of us working through lunch and staying late, yet still feeling as though we can never catch up. The upshot, say experts, is that we’re overscheduled, overworked, and just plain overwhelmed.

“Burnout is the biggest occupational hazard of the 21st century,” says Christina Maslach, Ph.D., coauthor of Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work. “Today’s work environment has lost its human dimension. Global economic pressures, along with technological advances such as pagers and email, have altered the landscape irrevocably. Given these new challenges, it’s no wonder that our relationship with our work is under constant strain.”

The always-on approach brings with it enormous moment-by-moment mental and physical costs. Unyielding stress floods your body with a cascade of hormones: Adrenaline pumps up blood pressure and makes your heart beat faster; cortisol raises your blood sugar level, and, if it remains chronically elevated, can erode your immune system. Not only does such chronic stress make you more susceptible to ailments such as migraine headaches and irritable bowel syndrome, but research increasingly shows it can raise your risk for more serious conditions, including heart disease, osteoporosis, and depression.

A team of researchers at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) found that stress may even accelerate aging at the cellular level. The study found that the blood cells of women who had spent many years caring for a child with a health condition appeared to be, genetically, about 10 years older than the cells of women whose caretaking responsibilities were less prolonged.

Although the study focused on caregivers, the findings apply to overworked employees, too. “People with other sources of life stress showed similar relationships between their levels of stress and cell aging,” says Elissa Epel, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCSF and the study’s lead author.

Stress itself, Epel emphasizes, is neither inherently good nor bad. Instead, how you perceive and react to it determines how it will affect your health. “In the study,” she explains, “the perception of stress was more important than whether one was under the strain of caregiving or not.”

The Merits of Mindfulness

So how do you shift your perceptions so you no longer feel like one big rubber band about to snap? That’s where yoga and other mind-body approaches come in.

You’re likely to feel many of yoga’s benefits the first time you step onto the mat, says Timothy McCall, M.D., Yoga Journal’s medical editor. “When you’re doing Downward-Facing Dog, your mind is saying, ‘I want to come down now; my arms are tired,’ but if your teacher tells you to hold the asana a little longer, you find the strength to do it,” he says. “At that point, you realize that you don’t have to respond to every urge you feel. At other times, when your body says it needs to come down, it really needs to. Yoga teaches you to tune in to what your body is telling you and to act accordingly.”

With practice, this awareness will spread into other areas of your life, including your work. “As you learn to separate the urge to act from the reaction, you begin to find that something like a canceled meeting or having a last-minute project handed to you may not rattle you as much as it once did,” says McCall. “You can detect stressors—what Buddhists call the spark before the flame—earlier, then pause long enough to think, ‘Well, maybe I don’t need to respond.'”

That’s what happened for David Freda, a software engineer in Pasadena, California. He had practiced yoga sporadically to help him deal with job-related anxiety in the past, but after he took a new position at an investment company, he decided to get serious. “I have very high standards as an engineer. As a result, I have a pattern of getting fed up with co-workers and bolting from my jobs,” he says. “When I took this job, I decided to stick it out to see what I could change in myself. I had a strong sense that yoga could help me do that.”

Flush with a holiday bonus check, Freda signed up for a full-year, unlimited-use membership at a yoga studio near his office. He started practicing regularly—sometimes at home, sometimes at the studio—between 60 and 90 minutes each day. Freda is still at his job, and still on the mat.

“When I’m doing a challenging posture such as Revolved Triangle [Parivrtta Trikonasana], I can stay in the posture, focus on my breathing, and perhaps not push quite so hard,” he says. “That approach helps me in my job. When I’m confronting someone who is making a bad technical decision, I consider what I could say that would facilitate what I want to achieve. In the past, my emotions would have gotten the best of me, but now people are more inclined to listen and to engage. Even my boss has commented on the changes.”

Of course, there’s more to yoga than just the asanas, or postures. In Patanjali’sYoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, or eight limbs (“ashta” = eight, “anga” = limb). These eight branches act as guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. The principles can collectively go a long way toward helping you stay centered in the face of cranky bosses, impossible deadlines, and unending piles of paper.

“A good understanding of the eight limbs can strengthen your understanding of yourself; it can allow you to make the choice to be in less stressful circumstances,” says Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute in Makawao, Hawaii, and the author of several books, including Yoga for Transformation. While this insight might lead you to realize that you’re in the wrong job altogether, Kraftsow explains that the yamas and niyamas that form the first and second limbs of ashtanga yoga can also help you overcome the difficulties that led to your stress in the first place. (The five yama disciplines are ethical principles, and the niyama practices are moral observances.)

For example, one of the niyamas, self-study (svadhyaya), can help you understand what triggers your negative moods, so you can avoid those situations at work. “I tend to move very quickly and get agitated if I’m running late,” Kraftsow says. “Since I know that about myself, when I’m going on a business trip, I always show up half an hour earlier than I need to.”

The yamas and niyamas can help in more mundane ways, as well: Cleanliness (saucha) can help you get your desk in order and not double-book your calendar; surrender (Ishvara pranidhana) can teach you that you can’t control everything.

But the main reason for reflecting on these principles is to know yourself more deeply, so you can design your days in a way that suits you. If you know you get exhausted by long stretches toiling in artificial light and stale office air, for instance, you might approach your boss about working from home one day a week. At a minimum, make a point of going outside for a walk before tackling an afternoon of back-to-back deadlines.

Another approach to turning stress inside out is mindfulness-based stress reduction, the name given to an eight-week program rooted in meditation and hatha yoga. Little by little, it teaches you to gain perspective and become more accepting of your thoughts.

The mechanics of the technique are simple. First, find a comfortable seated position (either on the floor or in a chair). Then close your eyes and become aware of your breath, paying attention to it for a few minutes as it enters and leaves your body. You can start with five minutes a day, then increase to longer periods as you feel able. Using this practice to cultivate what creator Jon Kabat-Zinn calls “nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness” can transform the way you handle workday stressors.

“Learning to watch your thoughts, rather than reacting to them, provides a whole other level of freedom,” he says. “At work, if you’re thinking, ‘I hate my boss,’ you can begin to ask yourself, Is that actually true? There’s tremendous satisfaction in taking a step like this right in the middle of feeling overwhelmed by your day-to-day activities.”

Controlling the Uncontrollable

While becoming more mindful can go a long way toward staving off burnout, it can’t solve everything that’s wrong with a job. Today’s workers face some very real external challenges, such as having to do more work with fewer resources in the wake of downsizing, outsourcing, and shrinking corporate budgets. Other workers feel demoralized by their bosses’ unrealistic expectations or because they lack the training they need.

There are times when the best way to banish burnout is to ditch a dead-end job. But if your job is simply so-so, taking an inventory of the areas that bother you most—and coming up with ways to change them—can help you gain greater control. Just the act of taking charge itself, experts say, is one of the best ways to keep from feeling overwhelmed.

Begin by keeping a diary to track your daily stressors and how they affect your mood. Be sure to note any physical sensations you feel in your body, such as back pain or tension in your shoulders. Then write down the thoughts and feelings you had during the stressful event and what you did in response. At the end of seven days, review the diary and look for patterns, both in your job stressors and in your responses to them. You may find that working at a computer for long periods gives you a headache and makes you spacey, for example.

Next, formulate a plan that will help you respond better to the stressors you can anticipate. For instance, instead of drinking coffee when you’re bored and tired, plan to take regular breaks every couple of hours. Or make a date with a friend or co-worker to go to an exercise class during your lunch hour.

Seeking to Simplify

If you find you need support staff or other forms of assistance to put your plan into action, don’t be afraid to speak directly to your employer. “Ask your boss if you can have time off instead of a raise or bonus. Consider job sharing or asking for more-flexible hours. If you’re going for a new job, negotiate more vacation time up front,” says John de Graaf, national coordinator of Take Back Your Time Day ( “Think creatively. I find that people often have more choices than they realize.” (And if you do get those extra vacation days, don’t forget to use them!)

Your choices become even greater once you consider how you might simplify your life, de Graaf says. “Ask yourself, can you do with less money? Less stuff? Figure out what’s really essential,” he suggests.

When Liz Ryan recalls the years she spent as the head of human resources for a start-up software company, she can still feel her body stiffen. “My work life was horrible,” she says. “I’d wake up every morning with a pounding headache and a jaw like iron from grinding my teeth all night. I gained weight, I was a nervous wreck, and I hated myself for being in that job.” She commuted from Chicago to Boston four days a week, so she had little time with her husband and children. “It was all sucking more energy out of my family than it was worth,” she says.

The final straw came when, on the eve of a big electronics show in Las Vegas, Ryan ruptured a disk in her back and ended up in the hospital. When her boss telephoned to chastise her for not being available, she knew that something had to give—namely, her job. Shortly after she gave notice, Ryan decided to move her family to Boulder, Colorado, a place she had enjoyed visiting in the past, and where her sister had moved a few months earlier.

“It was definitely scary, and it was by no means easy to make such a big change, but today our life represents us so much better than it did before,” says Ryan. “Our expenses are a lot lower. We have more time. The stress level is drastically reduced for all of us.”

Even if you can’t or don’t want to quit the job you have, you can change it so it suits you better, says burnout expert Maslach. “Often there is a real imbalance or mismatch with your work, and burnout is tied in to that. Ask yourself: Are you working in conflict with your values?”

Margot Carmichael Lester owned a successful marketing company based in her hometown of Carrboro, North Carolina, but was aware of an uncomfortable disconnect between her values and her work. As her list of clients grew, so did her stress levels and sense of dissatisfaction. Eventually, she found herself working 12 hours a day promoting causes she didn’t believe in. It wasn’t until one of her close friends was killed in a car accident that she forced herself to reexamine her relationship with her job. “I took a month off, and when I returned, I vowed to work only on things I cared about,” she says. “I pushed off the clients I didn’t feel aligned with and kept the ones that represented the causes I believed in.”

Both Lester and Ryan say that despite the shifts they’ve made, they still feel stressed out at times. “But this time, I feel more in control. I’m in charge of my own success or failure,” Ryan says. “Making the changes was terrifying. But ultimately, I had to do it for my own sanity. My health and my life depended on it.”