Work burnout can take many forms: a general lack of enthusiasm for your work, cynicism about your co-workers, or the general fatigue associated with showing up every day to a job that has overworked you to the point of exhaustion. Depending on how bad the situation is, solutions can range from leaving the company altogether to finding ways to establish firmer boundaries between work and home. Before making a drastic change, though, a few small changes might have a bigger impact than you’d expect: As research is showing, small acts of compassion to yourself or your co-workers can actually help reduce feelings of burnout.
“Being kind to other people can help with burnout by helping you feel more connected,” said Yu Tse Heng, a faculty member at the University of Virginia who studies burnout. In turn, this can reduce feelings of cynicism, which is one of the major symptoms of burnout.
How small acts of kindness can reduce your burnout
There are three major components to burnout: exhaustion, inefficacy, and cynicism. Exhaustion usually develops due to overworking, inefficacy develops due to a general feeling of being mismatched for a job, and cynicism usually develops from dealing with difficult relationships at work. Burnout can often develop from one major component, such as toxic co-workers or being in a job that doesn’t fit your abilities, but it has a way of expanding until it affects other aspects of your life.
As Heng’s research is showing, small acts of kindness to others in the workplace can help people feel less cynical, and might also help people feel more effective at their jobs. Examples of small acts of kindness include taking a few moments to check in with a coworker to see how they are doing, getting a desk-mate a cup of coffee while you are getting one for yourself, or offering a sincere compliment.
“Doing good tends to feel good,” said Amit Kumar, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research focuses on the impacts of kindness. As Kumar notes, people who are being kind tend to feel good about the kindness, while people who are receiving the kindness tend to feel good, as well, to an extent that the people being kind often underestimate. “What seems really small to the person who is being kind can really matter a lot to those on the receiving end,” Kumar said.
Acts of self-compassion are also important
Meanwhile, acts of self-compassion—taking the time to enjoy a nice meal, taking a nap, or carving out time for hobbies—can help reduce feelings of exhaustion, which is the third major component to burnout. As Heng notes, acts of self-compassion are often harder to do than we admit.
“It feels easier to be compassionate to a friend than yourself, but in reality, we also need compassion,” Heng said. “Self-compassion allows you to take a moment for yourself.” What this act of self-compassion looks like will vary depending on what your preferences are, but it is important to try and find the time to do something nice for yourself, even if it is as simple as taking a little time to sit in a quiet room, free of the usual high-pressure demands of daily life.
Burnout is a systemic issue
Although acts of kindness can help, the reality is that burnout at work is a systemic issue. This could be due to a workplace culture of overworking, which leads to exhaustion; a workplace system that puts employees directly in competition with each other, which leads to a toxic environment; or an employer who doesn’t appropriately use their employees’ skills, which leads to feelings of inefficacy.
“Burnout is usually something that the organization should be tackling, rather than the employee, who has less flexibility and ability to do so,” Heng said. Although kindness at an individual level can offer some help, fostering 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 it into their own hands,” Heng said.