Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive demands and prolonged stress that leads to serious, often long-term, health challenges. It’s recognized as a widespread problem in many fields and all age groups. Early recognition and intervention at an individual, corporate, and societal level is key to avoiding the more serious health problems it causes.
But what about ‘boreout’? Essentially the opposite of burnout but, in many cases, with similar symptoms, this less well-known issue refers to mental underload at work due to lack of a sufficient workload or challenge.
Most of us have experienced excess stress and, at one time or another, felt under–challenged. In short bursts, this isn’t an issue. But if it becomes a chronic situation, lasting for long periods of time, both too much and too little stress can cause serious health problems. Making it more complicated is the fact that what is “too much” or “not enough” stress depends on the individual. We all respond to stress differently.
Spotting the Signs
Perhaps because of the Coronavirus-related lockdown, we’ve seen some evidence of boreout here at Firstbeat this spring, with some measurements showing increased ‘green moments’. However, interpreting the data must be done with caution.
It is important to remember that the green color in a Firstbeat graph simply means that the parasympathetic (‘rest & digest’) nervous system is dominant over the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) system. In most cases this tells us a person is experiencing good recovery, but in some cases, it might indicate boreout as well.
Just as stress (shown as red in a Firstbeat graph) can be positive or negative, recovery, too, can have many shades and levels. We need to understand the context during the measurement, as well as individual differences in stress response – and then find the right individual balance between stress and recovery.
Good Recovery, Different Context
Figure 1 below illustrates the importance of context. It shows a busy woman who has managed to integrate recovery into her day through peaceful, focused work in the morning and a conscious relaxation break after work. This is a good result and illustrates that we can learn to manage our stress levels by structuring our days in a meaningful way.
Figure 2 below shows a person whose routines changed dramatically in the lockdown. Her result shows more recovery in her workday compared to usual, but her subjective experience was that she missed her usual activity and felt bored. This – to her – was a sign that she needed to challenge herself more despite the graph looking like a good result at first glance.
If she keeps feeling under-challenged and experiencing boreout, this can actually start to have a negative effect on her performance, stress level and sleep. In fact, an appropriately active and challenging day builds sleep pressure, which helps us get to sleep in the evening. On the other hand, lack of sufficient activity prevents sleep pressure from building naturally.
Real Health and Performance Impact
A lot of action-driven extroverts will relate to the second example. Even if it is caused by the unusual reality of this spring and will likely pass as the situation “normalizes”, it raises a valuable point.
While boreout might seem like a very unrealistic problem for many who struggle with constant stress and overload, it’s a reality for others whose job is monotonous and lacks challenge. If boreout persists and becomes chronic, it can start turning into physical and mental stress.
Studies have reported an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease and unhealthy lifestyles with employees who show boreout symptoms. Lower job satisfaction and work performance and higher absence rates have also been reported. Sound familiar? Burnout causes a similar list of issues. Job circumstances should be looked at critically to ensure that a person’s workload is appropriate. But, at the same time, we need to recognize that our individual ability to handle stress varies, as does our reaction to it.
Find Your Zone
Some people thrive on action and perform at their best when under pressure, whereas others feel overwhelmed if they face too much stress. The key is to understand what your “optimal performance zone” is (illustrated below). How much stress and challenge do you need to reach peak performance and what activities help you manage your stress load?
Data can provide valuable insights and help us find the answer to this question because we don’t always know how our body is coping. When you start understanding how much stress you personally need to support good performance and well-being, you can take a more active role in making sure you do not go over (or under) board.
One way to get started is to reflect on the questions below and start identifying your triggers:
- Do you tend to overdo it? Or do you find yourself in a rut, craving a bigger challenge?
- What helps you feel good and stay in your optimal zone? (e.g. enough sleep, regular breaks, activities that help you relax, exercise, nutrition, social and emotional needs)
- What are the warning signs that show you’ve drifted from your optimal zone and need to ramp up or slow down?
The exceptional circumstances of spring 2020 have brought to the surface some important issues we can learn from as we continue to balance our own lives. For example, some people realized they slept better because their days were not packed with activity. Going forward, as their schedules fill up again, hopefully they will remember that a packed schedule is not a badge of honor and can accept down time as a “productive activity”.
Others might have realized how much better they focus when they are alone and not constantly interrupted and can build this into their future work routines. Conversely, those who have struggled with boredom can hopefully start filling their days with much needed activity and interaction in the not–too–distant future.
Whatever the takeaways, when we learn more about ourselves and recognize our warning signs, we can avoid bore– and burnout and, ultimately, enjoy optimal performance and well-being.
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Stress can be defined as a situation where the demands that a person is faced with are greater than the available resources. Stress can also be described as the body’s physical and mental adaptation to real or perceived change.