How Kindness at Work (to Others and to Yourself) Can Help Fight Burnout

Burnout at work can take many forms: a general lack of enthusiasm for work, cynicism towards colleagues, or general fatigue associated with showing up every day at work where you are overworked to the point of exhaustion. Depending on how bad the situation is, decisions can range from leaving the company entirely to finding ways to establish tighter boundaries between work and home. Before making drastic changes, a few small changes can have a bigger impact than you expect: research shows that small acts of compassion for yourself or your co-workers can actually help reduce feelings of burnout.

“Being kind to others can help manage burnout by helping you feel more connected,” said Yu Jie-hyun , a University of Virginia professor who studies burnout. In turn, this can reduce feelings of cynicism, which is one of the main symptoms of burnout.

How small acts of kindness can reduce burnout

Burnout has three main components : exhaustion, inefficiency, and cynicism. Exhaustion usually develops from overwork, inefficiency develops from a general feeling of inadequacy at work, and cynicism usually develops from difficult relationships at work. Burnout can often develop from one main component, such as toxic co-workers or a job that doesn’t match your abilities, but it tends to expand until it affects other aspects of your life.

As Heng’s research shows, small acts of kindness towards others in the workplace can help people feel less cynical and can also help people feel more efficient at their jobs. Examples of small acts of kindness include taking a few minutes to check on a colleague how they are doing, offering a cup of coffee to your desk mate while you make coffee for yourself, or giving a sincere compliment.

“Doing good is generally pleasurable,” said Amit Kumar , a professor at the University of Texas at Austin whose research focuses on the effects of kindness. As Kumar points out, people who show kindness tend to be pleased with their kindness, while people who receive kindness also tend to feel good about themselves to the point that kind people often underestimate . “What seems very small to the person who shows kindness can make a big difference to those who accept it,” Kumar said.

Acts of self-compassion are also important

Meanwhile, acts of self-compassion—taking time to enjoy a delicious meal, take a nap, or make time for hobbies—can help reduce feelings of exhaustion, which is the third major component of burnout. As Heng points out, showing compassion to ourselves is often harder than we admit.

“It’s easier to show compassion to a friend than to yourself, but we actually need compassion too,” Heng said. “Self-compassion allows you to take time for yourself.” What this act of self-compassion looks like depends on your preferences, but it’s important to try and find time to do something nice for yourself, even if it’s as simple as sitting in a chair for a bit. a quiet room, free from the usual demands of everyday life.

Burnout is a systemic problem

While good deeds can help, the reality is that job burnout is a systemic problem. This may be due to a culture of overwork in the workplace that leads to exhaustion; a workplace system that puts employees in direct competition with each other, resulting in a toxic environment; or an employer that does not properly utilize the skills of its employees, resulting in a sense of inefficiency.

“Burnout usually has to be dealt with by the organization, not by the employee, who has less flexibility and ability,” Heng said. While kindness on an individual level can be of some help, creating an environment where kindness is the norm can really only be done at an organizational level. “The problem is that employees often have to take matters into their own hands,” Heng said.

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