How to avoid post-lockdown burnout

Resilience expert says the risk of burnout has intensified despite the country starting to open

How to avoid post-lockdown burnout

While NSW and Victoria are inching closer to gaining back freedoms that haven’t been seen in months, the risk of burnout is not likely to decrease. In fact, according to neuroscientist and founder of The Mind-Body-Brain Performance Institute, Paul Taylor (pictured), a range of factors have led to the risk of post-lockdown burnout occurring after workers in impacted areas return to the office or hybrid arrangements.

“The thing with burnout is that it is a slow process of cumulative stress,” he told MPA. “Uncertainty will amplify any stressor. Then you throw into it having to change workplace practice which has impacted some people more than others. Then as we come out of lockdown, what is the new normal? I think all of that together is creating a toll on people.”

The risk of burnout is something that industry leaders have been warning brokers about for quite some time. In June this year, Mortgage Choice CEO Susan Mitchell told MPA that surging mortgage activity from a heated property market had left brokers under the pump and that they should be careful not to burn the candle at both ends. Loan Market executive chairman Sam White said that he thought broker burnout was the biggest issue facing the industry at the time and Connective executive director Mark Haron urged brokers to consider hiring more staff to deal with their ever-increasing workloads.

Just last month, FBAA managing director Peter White AM told MPA that many brokers had found the lockdowns of 2021 more taxing than those of 2020.

“The longevity of this has taken an enormous strain on brokers’ mental health,” he said. “We’re all tired, we’re lethargic, we’re worn down by the process without being able to move around like we used to.”

Read more: “We're all tired, we're lethargic, we're worn down by the process”

The cumulative impact of increasing workloads, the disruption of snap lockdowns and the uncertainty of what life with COVID will look like once we reach 80% vaccinated is sure to have had a massive impact on brokers and their staff.

As with most chronic health conditions, prevention is far better than a cure. According to Taylor, there are some warning signs brokers can look for.

He said the Maslach Burnout Inventory looked at three components: emotional exhaustion, professional efficacy and cynicism.

“The thing that impacts the individuals the most is that emotional exhaustion,” he said. “In Northern Europe, it’s a syndrome in itself.”

Emotional exhaustion is marked by feelings of chronic tiredness and emotional outbursts. The desire to undertake self-care activity such as healthy eating and exercise also drops off. This can come with some major consequences, said Taylor.

“It starts to affect the brain,” he said. “There have been a number of studies looking at changes in brain function over time with people experiencing significant workplace stress. What we see is a shrinking of the pre-frontal cortex and an area called the amygdala. The amygdala is about sensing and responding to stress. It actually grows bigger.”

The good news, said Taylor, is that this structural and functional change is at least partially reversable, however, early intervention is key.

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He recommended taking the time to implement the following measures if you think you are on the way to burning out.

  1. Learn to manage stress

There are two main types of stressors in life, said Taylor. The things we can control and the things we can’t. Simply put, the things we can control are our thoughts, behaviours and the way in which we react to our circumstances. The things we can’t control are everything else.

Taylor said it was essentially a waste of energy to worry about things outside our control, such as daily COVID case numbers and social restrictions. He said it was much better to focus on the things that were within our control and practice positive thought behaviours that helped us deal with stress.

  1. Prioritise exercise

Not only is exercise essential to our physical health, it also has amazing benefits to our mood and the way our brain functions.

“Exercise for me is fundamental for a number of reasons,” said Taylor. “Exercise helps to grow volume in your frontal lobes, and we know that with burnout, these are the areas that are affected by it.”

It also acts as a stress busting tool while controlling your gene expression.

“It actually upregulates protective genes every time you exercise, and those changes can persist for 24 hours or so,” he said. “It has a huge impact on your brain function. I like to tell people, ‘the time you tell me you don’t have time to exercise, that is the time you need to make time for exercise’.”

  1. Keep good sleep hygiene

Poor sleep can exacerbate feelings of stress and burnout – but on the flipside, stress and burnout can cause poor sleep, said Taylor.

“You’ve got this nasty sleep, stress cycle going on in that when people are chronically stressed, they have trouble getting to sleep or they wake up more often thinking about stuff,” he said. “Then if you have bad night’s sleep it actually changes a whole heap of your hormones. Your stress response system is super activated, it’s more hyper vigilant so you’re more sensitive to stress.”

Poor sleep can also cause the release hormones that makes you want to lounge around all day and eat sugary food – which is not the best strategy to fight burnout.

To improve sleep, Taylor said it was important to keep regular sleep and wake times and said that exposure to early morning sunlight and late evening sunlight helped to regulate our circadian rhythm. Minimising alcohol also helped to improve sleep quality.

  1. Eat well

Taylor said it was vital to eat a diet that supported good brain function and good gut function.

“Just changing your microbiome can affect your mood,” he said. “I like to say just eat a low HI diet, where HI stands for Human Interference. Particularly when thinking about your gut, fermented foods seem to have the quickest positive impact on gut bacteria.”

Foods such as Kefir, Kombucha, sauerkraut, hard cheeses and vinegars are all good for the gut. He said minimising processed carbohydrates and sugars and eating plenty of fibre was also important.

“I would also say, to support good brain function we need good levels of Omega 3 fatty acids,” he said. “The other thing I would say is consider Vitamin D supplementation, because Vitamin D has a real impact on your immune system, which becomes compromised by burnout.”

  1. Take cold showers

Taylor pointed to research that showed people who have cold showers have almost a 30% reduction in sickness and absenteeism.

“When you expose yourself to cold water, really powerful stress response proteins are released,” he said. “They have widespread effects on gene expression. Your immune system gets a boost when you expose yourself to cold water and your mood gets a boost as well.”

This mood boost occurs when noradrenaline is released in the brain. While noradrenaline is a stress chemical, it’s a “feel-good stress chemical,” said Taylor. This chemical is actually a key ingredient in the SNRI class of antidepressants.

“This is why cold showers have actually been touted as a cure for depression,” he said.