Gratitude and restoration this season as a salve for burnout
As we enter the Fall season, another year moves gradually into the rearview. The upcoming holidays offer us a chance to welcome space for reflection and gratitude. For many of us, holidays are also a busy time filled with gatherings, elaborate meals, craft projects, shopping, gifting, and racing from one thing to the next. It can feel like a joyous frenzy and before we know it, it’s all boxed up and done. I often hear of people returning to work after the holidays feeling more exhausted, and while they enjoyed making precious memories, they feel physically and mentally depleted.
This season, let’s be mindful of the old adage that “less is more.” We know that instances of burnout are on the rise and that one of the most insidious symptoms is that things that once brought us joy no longer do so in the same way. We can have the best of intentions for setting our minds on joy this season, but if we are running on an empty tank, it can be very difficult to take pleasure in the simple things around us. So, with sensitivity toward our collective state of burnout, I’d like to offer some strategies for making this time one of restoration.
First, try to incorporate activities that nurture your relationships as well as your own well-being. Creative play like staying in for a game night or curling up for a movie with a cozy beverage are all things you can do to celebrate the holidays while promoting self-care and connection with others.
Second, focus on rest. The best cure for burnout is to rest and recharge so give yourself permission to get plenty of sleep. I think the reason that Noodle the Pug has become so popular is because we all hunger for No Bones Days, and lots of them. Instead of filling your holidays with lots of activities, consider filling them with rest instead.
Third, spend time in nature. Scientists have discovered that the magic formula is 20 minutes outside three times per week. It has the greatest impact on reducing cortisol, the stress hormone and is another important tool in our quest to recover from burnout.
Finally, gratitude is also a simple but powerful practice when we feel fatigued, not only because it feels good, but because it’s a scientifically proven way to manage distressing events.
Turning our attention to what we are grateful for, especially in the midst of challenges that leave us feeling drained, brings many benefits including stress reduction and a boost to our immune systems. We are highly adaptive creatures and giving thanks is rooted in our biology. In a year that has challenged most, bringing more gratitude into our lives and workplaces can make for tangible benefits.
Collectively, we have been through so much over the past couple of years. As I look back, I am amazed by the resilience of the human spirit in enduring the most challenging circumstances and the power we have in choosing our mindset.
Let this holiday season be a time when you emerge more grounded, rested, and connected than ever before.
How Neuroscience Defines Gratitude
According to UC Berkeley’s Dr. Summer Allen, “...studies suggest that gratitude is an intrinsic part of being human, part of the very building blocks of human biology.” Neuroscientists have found that gratitude activates different areas of the brain including those affiliated with forming social bonds and assessing the moral intentions and actions of others. With limited or changed access to social interactions, and navigating new forms of connection in a physically distanced world, this is really important. In addition, gratitude creates a feeling of reward in the brain, which is enhanced in people who are more grateful.
Doctors Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough define gratitude as a two-step cognitive process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” In essence, gratitude is about expressing thankfulness—it’s the state of being grateful, being appreciative of benefits received. Some researchers further distill gratitude into three types:
- A trait, which is one’s overall tendency to have a grateful disposition,
- A mood, or the daily fluctuations in overall gratitude, and
- An emotion, which is a temporary feeling that one may feel after receiving a gift or a favor.
The Benefits of Gratitude
In addition, several studies have shown that both gratitude and mindfulness make the brain more receptive to learning, which is vital during change, as we gain new skills and habits. Dr. Alex Korb synthesized some of the key findings on gratitude in his Psychology Today article titled “The Grateful Brain: The Neuroscience of Giving Thanks.” Studies have shown that intentional gratitude practices boost attention, determination, and enthusiasm and reduce anxiety, depression, and physical ailments.
Fifteen years of gratitude research have highlighted its many benefits. While many of us give thanks before we dig into our holiday meal, we may not be aware that gratitude can also buffer us from life’s challenges. Studies show that gratitude improves the quality of sleep, reduces stress, boosts our immune systems, and increases our overall sense of well-being. And it plays a major role in psychological well-being, including making us happier, calmer, and improving our relationships.
Gratitude has also been shown to lower levels of drug use and can help people recover from addiction, which could be a powerful tool in shifting the opioid crisis. It also has been proven to reduce depression as well as suicidal thoughts and actions, which is especially helpful now that the pandemic has created a rise in depression, anxiet, and suicide.
Gratitude’s protective factor is immensely helpful in the midst of chaos, as environmental crises and political stressors present us with new challenges we haven’t faced before. Simply put, gratitude helps us recover more quickly from traumatic events.
Making Gratitude a Regular Practice
Bringing the benefits of gratitude into our lives and work settings may be more important than ever. How do we bring gratitude to work now that work is vastly different than before? It’s easier than you think but the most important thing to do is to make it a regular practice. At a time when normal routines are already disrupted and we must develop new habits and routines out of necessity, it may also be a great opportunity to start a gratitude practice.
Dr. Ryan Fehr at the University of Washington studies gratitude in the workplace, working with managers from tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon. He says that the first rule is to create a gratitude habit, which is “a stable tendency to feel grateful within a particular context.” We all certainly can do this for ourselves, and I encourage you to think about how to establish your own personal habit (I’ve listed some options below).
Dr. Fehr goes on to say that when organizations take the time to help their employees develop a gratitude habit, it can shift the culture in powerful ways, where “persistent gratitude is shared by members of an organization.” This leads to increased engagement, retention, positivity, and even better health.
Six strategies to bring more gratitude to your workplace:
Start Meetings with Gratitude
Whether your meetings are in person or online, consider starting a meeting by asking people to share something they are grateful for, rather than the typical introductions or project updates. This helps people get to know each other, fostering connection even when people are not working in the same location. Kicking off a meeting with a gratitude practice will also help people become more present and less stressed. It’s almost impossible to stay flustered or worried when you authentically express gratitude for something. It actually shifts our biology, lowering blood pressure and releasing dopamine and oxytocin. Even if starting a meeting with a gratitude practice feels unfamiliar in your workplace, I encourage you to give it a try—your colleagues may surprise you with their receptivity, and hearing their comments may inspire you to find new things to be grateful for.
Engage in Acts of Appreciation
We live in a culture where it’s common to point out problems but rare to highlight the positive. Even when the weight of problems seems daunting, there are always positive aspects to celebrate. When was the last time you expressed gratitude to your colleagues for a job well done or the gifts and talents they bring to the team? How often do you comment on the positive qualities of your family members or neighbors without adding a “but” or request at the end?
All of us hunger to be seen and heard, so take time to tell someone what you value about them. If we express our gratitude for another person to that person, they get a positive boost. At work, this can yield all kinds of benefits. According to Dr. Camille Preston, “Gratitude builds engagement and trust, increases retention and results in higher quality work.”
How can you make expressing gratitude to others a regular practice? Consider using online tools or smartphone apps for coworker appreciation. Sending a quick email or voice message can really make someone feel great and you will enjoy acknowledging them too. If your organization still gathers in a workplace, put up a bulletin board for kudos, stocked with colorful post-it notes, pens, and hand sanitizer for ongoing, safe expression. Or build a time into project meetings for people to appreciate others, perhaps particularly for something accomplished that week.
Another simple option: encourage thank you messages. Written notes are so rare these days that they have become highly valued. As an example, one senior executive at a Silicon Valley tech giant wrote handwritten notes of appreciation to each of their top-performing engineers. People felt so honored that, over time, this specific initiative drove higher engagement scores and retention levels. Buy a box of thank you notes and see what happens when you mail them.
Find Gratitude in Challenging Times
It’s easy to be thankful when things are going well. But it’s important to cultivate an appreciation for the experiences that also teach us something, even when those things feel harder to be grateful for. As the challenges of this year have piled on, we may find ourselves in unfamiliar territory—working from home, modifying our social activities, contending with political stressors. While it’s important to allow ourselves to feel whatever emotions arise, even the uncomfortable ones, remember that we always have a choice about where to direct our attention. Even in the darkest of times, there are things to be grateful for all around us. Start small if you need to, and build from there. It can be as simple as expressing gratitude for the dandelion that has pushed up through the cracks in the concrete to bloom. Choosing to seek out and focus on the silver lining will shift you out of negativity and pivot you in the direction of receiving the many benefits that gratitude has to offer.
Look for the Impact
Several studies show that when we can see the impact of our efforts on others, we can feel gratitude and enjoy the many health benefits it provides. People in the helping professions, like first responders or health care workers, can often directly see the impact of their efforts. But regardless of our specific jobs, all of us do things that impact others, whether it’s making the project go smoothly, or supporting a coworker who is having a bad day, or playing our specific role in the mission or vision of the organization where we work. Managers and senior leaders can help make this last connection more clear, by talking about the successes of the organization and the impact it’s having on the world. One way to do this is through “voice of the customer” programs, which can be as simple as posting customer letters on a bulletin board or website to create elaborate video documentaries about customer stories. In addition, organizations can support employee volunteerism and demonstrate corporate responsibility through a variety of programs like adopting a local non-profit organization, participating in socially distanced neighborhood cleanup activities, and providing donation fund matching. The goal is to help every employee see the good work they participate in.
Get More Mindful & Amplify the Power of Gratitude
The benefits of gratitude and mindfulness are so closely aligned that scientists call them “sisters.” Mindfulness practices can take many forms from yoga to meditation, and from a formal sitting ritual to just washing the dishes. When you combine them, by doing a meditation on gratitude, for example, the positive impact is even stronger. Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has found that mindfulness can alter the brain in significant ways (I recommend his book Altered Traits). A study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation can alter the physical composition of the brain, actually shrinking the amygdala, making it less reactive to anxiety and stress. In addition, several studies have shown that both gratitude and mindfulness make the brain more receptive to learning, which is vital during times of change, as we gain new skills and habits. I encourage you to be open to exploring new avenues of mindfulness as many yoga studios, meditation teachers and mindfulness practitioners are offering their services and sessions in low-cost live streams online during this time.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
Studies have shown that keeping a gratitude journal can be an easy way to build a regular practice. Results from this research study found that participants who kept a gratitude journal reported better physical health (e.g., lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, as well as reduced congestion, sore muscles, and nausea) in as little as two weeks.
I keep a gratitude journal by my bedside. Every night I write three things I am grateful for—either from that day or from life in general. Because our jobs can be so stressful, I think it’s important to bring gratitude to work, so I make a point of having at least one thing be about work. This practice has brought the additional benefits of helping me wind down after a busy day and sleep more peacefully.
One of the things that I am always grateful for is this network of like-minded professionals. I am thankful that we have this opportunity to connect with each other, learn together, and support one another, especially during these changing times.
Learn more by reading this recent article about gratitude published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
To learn more about your own level of gratitude, take this 20-question gratitude quiz from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
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