By Leah Fessler
If you're exhausted, overwhelmed, or unsure how to manage a team that's also burnt out, you're not alone. We spent months talking about the "new normal," and now it's here. It's not great.
While there's no "magic pill" for burnout, new research suggests one strategy can provide more sustainable (and affordable) relief than vacation, childcare, or wine: Learning something new.
To understand why learning something new has such a positive impact on burnout, it's important to first understand what burnout is. "Part of the struggle with burnout is that it's often used as a catchall term," says LifeLabs Learning Leadership Trainer Rachel Abrahams, MPH, who recently led a Chief event on the subject. "However, the World Health Organization specifically defines burnout as the result of poorly managed chronic stress." This chronic stress has three dimensions: extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment and cynicism ("I don't even care anymore"), and loss of self-efficacy ("I'm not even good at my job," or "I'll probably screw up my kid anyway").
Put together, these three dimensions of burnout create a flywheel reinforcing negative beliefs about yourself and your work. The more habitually we think thoughts like "I can't do all this," or "It doesn't matter," the more we solidify those neural pathways. Over time, burnout becomes our default mindset in the face of new challenges.
Combating burnout requires addressing this underlying chronic stress and creating new, less solidified neural pathways. That's exactly what happens when you learn something new — which can mean "picking up a new skill, gathering new information, or seeking out intellectual challenges," as organizational management professors Chen Zhang, Christopher Myers, and David Mayer write in Harvard Business Review.
To test the influence of learning something new, Zhang, Myers, and Mayer conducted two interconnected studies — one with professionals across industries, and one focused on a subset of America's most stressed out professionals: medical residents.
In the first study, the researchers found that regardless of profession, employees experienced less anxiety and distress and engaged in less unethical behavior (a common symptom of chronic stress) when they engaged in more learning activities at work. In the second study, medical residents demonstrated significant decreases in stress and anxiety when they were given the opportunity to learn new ideas and practices, especially when working as a group. "In contrast, relaxing activities beyond learning new things did not buffer the detrimental consequences of stress," the researchers explain in HBR.
"When we're burned out, we lose our self-confidence. But when we learn something new, our brain moves away from the negative," Abrahams explains. "We're able to realize that we can grow and evolve. We don't need to take a course to 'learn something new' — we could teach ourselves a new skill, read an article, or even Google weird facts. The idea is that the process of learning forces us into new neural pathways, moving us from 'I can't do this' to 'I haven't done this before, but it's possible.'"
Learning in groups is even more beneficial because it encourages us to extract more learnings. While there are various ways to promote learning within your organization, Abrahams shares two practices that have proven particularly impactful on her own teams.
First, instead of starting team meetings with "How's everyone doing," try starting them with "What's one thing everyone learned this past week." "Routinely asking this question motivates your team to go out and read or try new things on a regular basis," says Abrahams. Second, whenever you're reviewing work products with your direct reports, be sure to ask, "What did you learn?" Even if the project didn't go well or the product needs to be scrapped because of changing priorities, whoever did the work likely picked up new skills — be it adaptivity, rotational resilience, or simplifying complexity. Extracting these learnings makes the exercise feel like an accomplishment, even if it's not an obvious win.
For leaders who are managing themselves, another effective way to fight burnout through learning is to keep a performance journal. This is basically a Google sheet listing all of your accomplishments, however small or large. Abrahams' has three columns — a name, a short description, the date, and the skill she claimed. You may also add in feelings associated with the process. "Elementary as it seems, this journal really helps when leaders are in periods where they're floundering, not feeling progress, and not feeling like they're learning," says Abrahams. "Keeping track of your learnings shouldn't be another burden, but it helps you re-live the stress-reducing benefit of gaining new knowledge every time you look back on it." She also suggests finding a peer outside your organization, perhaps within the Chief community, with whom you can share accomplishments every month to hold one another accountable.
Learning new things is just one deposit in the burnout reduction bank. We need many different and diverse deposits to truly destress, but the key is realizing that progress doesn't need to be massive to make a difference. With every short article read, fact learned, or day taken off, you're making a difference in your own resiliency.
Originally Published: September 18, 2020