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Nature's Remedy for Burnout

Especially in the run-up to the holidays, "Burnout Epidemics" spread like wildfire throughout major metropolitan areas like Detroit. Fortunately for all of us, mother nature's life-saving antidote is available for immediate consumption just outside the door.

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In 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously penned that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Fast forward to 2022, Mr. Franklin’s now-famous idiom has stood the test of time, although a third certainty has emereged that we all will face at one point or another in modern life:

Burnout. The 21st century’s dreaded killer of motivation, destroyer of optimism, grim reaper of productivity.

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What Exactly is Burnout?

Theatrics aside, Psychology Today defines “Burnout” as a “state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Burnout manifests through symptoms like physical and mental exhaustion, headaches, fatigue, heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, an increased potential for alcohol, drug, or food misuse, a sense of dread about work, and frequent feelings of cynicism, anger, or irritability. Common causes of Burnout include situations where a person does not have control over how a task is carried out, their daily tasks directly conflict with their sense of self or long-term goals, or a consistent lack of support in professional or family life.

While Burnout has long been a workplace harm, the COVID-19 pandemic elevated the condition’s status from “likely nuisance” to “Franklin-level certainty” in modern society. As noted by the American Psychological Association, a byproduct of the pandemic included the normalization of longer work hours while simultaneously juggling increased demands at home. In 2021, 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress, nearly 60% of employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.

Even before the pandemic, this time of year already constituted "Burnout Season" due to the cumulative effect of year-end deadlines, the holidays, and the Winter Solstice. As much as we have been preaching the #EmbraceTheDark mantra, we are not immune to the reality of Seasonal Affective Disorder and that these darker, colder days can induce its corresponding depression, anxiety, and dissociation.

To summarize, the bad news is that the mental state of the American workforce is in far less than ideal shape - and the prognosis for a trend reversal in the near future is equally dire.

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Is There any Good News?

Fortunately, yes, and the most effective cure is literally right outside your door. The great outdoors has already provided a cure for this ailment: simply stepping away from the desktop and getting out there.

Now I am in complete agreement that such a simple, “duh” statement could be viewed as borderline insulting for a readership that already has a strong affinity for the outdoors. However, for anyone questioning whether to trade the known monotony of a draining workplace for the unpredictable weather and buggy conditions of the outdoors, scientific research has overwhelmingly affirmed the psychological benefits of regular engagement with our natural environment.

Here are the key takeaways:

  • A 90-minute forest walk versus an urban walk leads not only to decreased negative thoughts, but also decreased neural activity in the part of the brain associated with anxiety and depression (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

  • Emotional well-being has the most consistent positive connection to physical activity in nature, whereas general health is positively associated with physical activity in both indoor and outdoor settings (International Association of Applied Psychology).

  • Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments is associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy, positive engagement, and decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression (Science Daily).

  • Even just 5 hours of outdoor exercise per month provides tangible benefits for one’s psychological and physical health, although there is a dose-response effect where the more time that you spend in nature, the better off your mental and physical health will be (Brad Stulberg, The Cut).

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Action Steps

So, if you are experiencing the onset or an extreme case of Burnout, here are five simple outdoor practices that you can start implementing today:

1. Block Off a Mid-Day Outdoor Break.

Commonly referred to as a “Mental Health Walk,” even 30 minutes of outdoor activity during the middle of the work day can induce the psychological benefits listed above. Especially if you have the flexibility to work from home, blocking off at least 30 minutes of time where you are away from your desk and surrounded by nature will result in a boost of positivity and motivation for finishing the work day.

2. Maximize Your Weekends.

For most workers, Saturdays and Sundays serve as well-deserved recharge periods for overworked brains. While it may be tempting (and occasionally necessary) to utilize weekends to “get ahead” on next week’s workload, investing that time instead in an outdoor experience will pay dividends through detoxing any lingering negative emotions and enhancing feelings of revitalization for the week ahead. Remember, there is a positive correlation between the quantity of time spent outdoors and the longevity of psychological benefits received. Purposefully dedicating at least 90 minutes of your weekend to the outdoors will continue to provide mental health benefits well into your work week.

3. Aim for Full Immersion.