How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

This is related to the article, Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness.

Do you or any of your friends have any of the following symptoms of chronic stress or burn-out?

  1. Do you have to drag yourself to work and, when you get home, do you have no energy left to do much other than flop in front of some entertainment?
  2. Have you become irritable or impatient, critical or cynical?
  3. Do you feel emotionally or physically exhausted?
  4. Do you feel disillusioned, discouraged or dissatisfied with your job?
  5. Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

In this article I’ll try and explore an effective solution based on Buddhist meditation practice. There are also external triggers for stress and burn-out that you can find solutions for elsewhere on the web.

Symptoms of stress and burnout

Everywhere, working people sometimes suffer from long-term stress and burn-outs. They push too much, overdo it, and find themselves running on empty. Some hallmarks are that they feel inefficient, unenergetic and useless — their sense of accomplishment and interest wasted — and they feel emotionally and physically exhausted. Sometimes people get ill, sometimes they have to quit for good, never is it a pleasurable experience. The results can last for years. And it can happen anywhere, in any job, even in a non-profit or Buddhist Center.

We can also become a less nice person when we are burning out. Our tolerance and flexibility diminishes — we want everyone to do things our way because we think that’ll make our life more manageable. Sometimes we hold others at a distance out of a misguided self-protection but then feel isolated, as if we are doing all the work and no one is stepping up to help us.

Snowball delegation

Not to get too sidetracked from the main point of this article, but this ties in with our (in)ability to delegate and empower others. When we are stressed it seems we tend to delegate less rather than more, trust others less rather than more; but we still might get heavy with them and make them feel guilty because we don’t think they’re doing enough. Overly controlling our job and the people helping with our job is a bit like trying to push a snowball all the way down the hill ourselves — not letting go of it or giving it a gentle push and letting it just roll for a while so it picks up momentum and snow on its own. A snowball doesn’t actually grow bigger that way.

Solving the problem

Luckily this counter-productive syndrome can be averted. If we are practicing Buddha’s advice, we can stay relaxed and centered even in the midst of the busiest or most responsible job. We can maintain joyous effort, the fuel we need for both the short and the long-haul, and bring out the best in others too.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a perfect example of this. Even retired, aged 80, he still accomplishes more in any given minute than the rest of us accomplish in a day ;-), yet he is always entirely relaxed, blissful, and patient, and of course the master of instigation and delegation.

Over the decades of being in various positions and jobs, I and others have tried to observe how Geshe Kelsang does it so we can emulate him. In discussion with a good friend and successful long-term meditation teacher (who like me has had any number of “responsible” jobs and positions within the New Kadampa Tradition in the last 30 years), we have come up with the following suggestions.

Identify with your potential, always

The key is to feel centered and happy in the heart, and identified with our potential rather than our limitations.

This entails relying upon at least a little meditation practice, not neglecting it however busy or responsible we feel. Even ten to fifteen minutes sitting quietly before we start work is immensely helpful if we do it properly and take refuge in it. Even a few five-minute breaks through the day can be the difference between a joyful, balanced, creative day and a day that is just stressful and draining. (Make the restroom live up to its name if you need to, go meditate in there!) And even a ten-minute unwind and let-go meditation between work and settling in for the evening or weekend (or whatever little downtime you have) can help you disengage and relax such that you enjoy your time off from work and it rejuvenates you.

You can start with some breathing meditation, such as the simple meditation taught here. If you like, you can combine this meditation with visualization: examine your mind to see what stress, problems and limited self you’re holding onto and then breathe these out in the form of dark smoke, feeling that you’ve completely let them go. Breathe in the peaceful light of wisdom and compassion blessings into your spacious heart. Then spend a bit of time simply enjoying that peace with a still mind, however slight or relative it is. Give yourself permission to be happy.

This is the important part: We need to recognize that this peace is our Buddha nature, that this slightly peaceful mind represents our actual nature, our potential for vast peace and happiness; and that therefore we are not stuck in our unhappiness or frustration, but rather we can change. We identify with this.

Meditating skilfully

The main point here is that we don’t need to be great meditator to discover our potential. In truth, even if we are just able to stay with the breath for three consecutive rounds, our mind will become slightly more peaceful than it was. If we give ourselves permission and a few moments to abide with that slight peace, to savor it with a still mind, to enjoy it, we will discover that the actual nature of our mind is peaceful. It is only the delusions that produce agitation.

If we have time to go onto other meditations, the rest of our meditation, whatever it is, happens from that peaceful, happy place onwards. It is easy to develop any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations.

In fact when we “try” to generate a mind of renunciation, for example, while grasping at ourself as an inherently angry, unhappy or unlovable person, we end up relating to liberation dualistically, as something other than and outside of our own mind.

I am always here, freedom is always there, never the twain shall meet.

Consequently our meditation gives rise to tension or guilt, rather than an authentic and deeply joyful and relaxing peace.

We don’t need to give ourselves a hard time – our delusions do a very good job of that already, that’s why they’re called our “inner enemies”. Don’t let them. They are no match for our pure potential, any more than clouds are a match for the sky.

Try an experiment

To see if this is true, those of you who know the Lamrim cycle already, try this experiment. Meditate on your precious human life while not identifying with your potential but identifying with your limited, faulty self. What happens? Do you feel guilty for not doing enough, do you start giving yourself an even harder time? Meditate on your impending death with a mind of not identifying with your potential and what happens? Do you feel doomed?!

But meditate on your precious human life from the vantage point of being naturally pure, and what happens? You feel very joyful and lucky, your effort increases. Meditate on death from this vantage point and what happens? Your joyful effort increases even more, you know you can make the most of the time you have, everything falls into perspective and your worries and negative thoughts diminish. You can try this experiment with any of the Lamrim or Tantric meditations!

Back to work

When you rise from a meditation like this, I promise you’ll feel far more ready for what comes next, you are ready to be productive at work again. It is amazing how much burn-out will be averted if we actually experience the restorative powers of our own pure natures. And when we are happy, we naturally engage with the world, feel involved, and are efficient.

And when you start to stress out again later in the day, because it is a bad habit, take yourself off to rest in that room for five minutes! It is always going to be worth it.

Please let us know in the comments section if this method works for you and/or if you’ve had other successful ways of overcoming stress and burn-out.

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do!

Anyone can try!

(Anyone who is stressed out can learn to do five or ten minutes simple meditation a day and hopefully get something out of this article. I met someone in the ocean just yesterday who has never meditated and knows nothing about Buddhism, but he is experiencing stress at work due to new bossy middle management, so I gave him advice based on this article and he seemed very ready to try it out.)

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

47 thoughts on “How to avoid stress and burn-out at work”

  1. Thank You, of course this is helpful to only read & feel the sense of this perception, to practice it I believe would have positive outcomes. Merry Christmas all.

  2. Thank you Luna Kadampa as always. A beautifully written article so well timed for an age where people are being required to do far more than is healthy. I think these are all really important and valuable techniques.

    However I would want to add that sometimes it is just not appropriate to stay in a position that demands too much of us. We can be responsible for our peace of mind completely but should we be enabling situations that are simply unhealthy? If our employers or managers are requiring us to do too much, or are failing to support us with appropriate delegation and strategies, then we can be assertive and ask for the situation to change. If it is not changed or cannot be changed then it is also appropriate to leave.

    As Dharma practitioners we understand that whilst we are responsible for our own Peace of mind we can influence others, we do not want that influence to be that of enabling the unhealthy. It doesn’t help others who may be trapped in the same situation.

    I will be frank and say that too often I have seen people struggling but feeling it is their ‘duty’ to keep going or they are not good practitioners. Eventually they can burn out and feel like failures. We need to help prevent this by actively encouraging and supporting others to get help and by showing through our own example of setting healthy boundaries.

  3. Than you so much for this Luna. It’s sometimes so hard to apply Dharma to a stress burn out situation with work.
    I have found having left a job that was too demanding to go to another job, having took my mind with me that’s used to bad habits, I started to see problems that were not really problems at all with the new job. Even though the new job was giving me perfect conditions for practicing Dharma, with less work load, better hours that were flexible and much better external conditions i had not addressed my inner problem. I felt no relief from the bad feelings.
    Attended a limitless drop in classes and had some awesome meditations just as you say and instant relief.
    I feel better about my new job and more positive. And I see the benefits of having less mental business as I was able to take so much more information in at FP this week.

    I still think leaving my old job was the best thing due to the conditions, and I don’t think I was able to find that space to practice Dharma very well feeling so burnt out. My old employer is actually going to split my old role in 2 now.

    Thank you so much Luna xxx

    1. Oh good!

      Yes, sometimes we have to fix the outer problem as well as the inner one — in this case you were able to leave a job that was too demanding.

  4. Wish Id known about this method of meditating years ago when workload went beyond the reasonable.It would have been both meaningful and beneficial.Thank you,Luna.May this benefit everyone Buddhist or

    1. That is a lovely comment and I wish you had known too to save the stress — but i also know that the past has gone and today is what counts, including that compassionate wish you have for everyone 🙂

  5. Thank you for publishing this article, very useful advice. So true that It is so important to identify with our pure potential and not our limited “self”, which makes it miserable. Much gratitude for your articles!

  6. Thank you for publishing this article, very useful. So important to identify with our pure potential, it’s miserable to identify with our limited “self”. Distance to observe our delusions rather than get caught into them. Love reading your articles, many thanks

  7. This article n wisdom advice has come at a perfect timing for me.

    I work in a highly strung (prison officer) environment and deal daily with less fortunate people suffering consequences of their actions whilst trying to practice compassion.
    Burn out is high among officers
    I often play dharma Cd’s to n from work on my commute.
    Definately helps me.

    1. Please do let us know back here in the comments how you get on with applying this advice in a very challenging environment. (Everything else will seem like a walk in the park for you once you manage to pull this off!) The prison is very lucky to have you.

  8. We don’t call it the restroom in the UK but I might start now 😉 This is a lovely article and so, so timely – I’ve been battling with these issues for a number of years now and had sort of formulated a plan for meditation like this myself (but have been ‘too stressed’ to put it into practice…) but hearing it from someone else was just what I needed. Thank you 🙂

  9. I had an extreme job for many years dealing with people arrested in a busy city centre. I was interested in Buddhism but could not find any teachings. My instincts were telling me I was starting to burn out:the hours were long, shift work and suddenly after a reorganisation the workload trebled and we started to see more and more very serious(even heinous) crimes become commonplace. Thankfully for me, teetering on the brink of becoming overworked (you couldn’t delegate by nature of the legal functions) I fell across a handwritten piece of dharma publicity,went to a class and fortunately met my kind Teacher.

    I struggled on, exhausted really and unable to shake off troubling ear infections that became chronic. However, just hearing the teachings on compassion and knowing that such a person as Geshe-la existed must have blessed me! I was able to generate compassionate thoughts for even the perpetrators of most unspeakable crimes(I wouldn’t repeat for disturbing your mind) and not become angry or frustrated. I still did my job to ensure justice functioned correctly but Dharma had entered my mind and my life was now blessed by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. It wasn’t pleasant giving up a job I believed in and had given many years to. I believe I benefitted others but basically I saw daily what life is like for those without a Spiritual Guide (myself included), the actions they perform, he immediate effects and, n contemplating Dharma, the unbearable suffering they face. Now,when I read a paper or hear of people performing very non virtuous actions, I just remember they don’t have a spiritual guide so they are completely unprotected from suffering : this allows compassion to arise and not judgement. I do my best now to help others access the teachings and come under the influence of the Sangha Jewels. He saved my life and has given it great meaning.

    So for others who have to give up their day job, there is another more effective and meaningful way of using your life to benefit others.. look no further than serving the Spiritual Guide. I rejoice!

    1. Thank you for sharing this account of your very interesting and challenging work environment, Jan, and how you approached it before and after finding Buddhism. It seems you found out how to have justice without judgement.

      (Perhaps I digress, but I would just add that even for people who don’t give up their demanding day job, I think that their day job can also be serving the Spiritual Guide if done out of compassion. I like what Jesus said when he told his disciples something like “Whatever you did for this lowliest of people, you did that also for me.” It reminds me of Shantideva explaining how nothing pleases a Buddha more than when we cherish others, just as a mother is most pleased with us if we help her child — and if we don’t help her child, not to mention if we harm her child, no amount of praise and so on will please her.)

  10. I have read this article several times already (when at work!) and apply the advice regularly. Some days it’s easier to tap into my true nature than others but it does work every time and even a relatively fleeting moment of peace is far better than none! Thank you kindly for this article. I consider it a blessing.

  11. Definitely all advice I need to take to heart Luna, thank you.

    I realised v recently that I’d had a moment where I believed it was OK for me to be happy and that was in fact a rarity. Weird or what. At least that has been unearthed and I can work on it because it’s a pretty big obstacle if left.

    I think the above obstacle is very much tied in with my experience of chronic stress, I will try to focus on my potential more in order to move towards happiness for myself and others.

    1. Hey, that’s good you said that, Eileen, because your experience is surprisingly common! That’s a big reason i wrote the article, as it is happens so often that people deny themselves the happiness they have inside them.

  12. I’ve led a group breathing meditation here at work for about a year now! It’s been really fun. I do a basic 10 minute teaching, followed by a breathing meditation. Dharma at work!

  13. Thanks Luna what a great article, try to put in practice.
    Every day, living with so many different situations … need to take a break… “being naturally pure”… turns to be so easy.. to think about it… it is like being there… great…!

  14. Wonderful! Will help make some changes I need to make. Everyone expereinces some type of burnout. I think we can suffer from mini ones a couple of times a week.

    This approach will help prevent mini-burnouts too!

    Thanks for the post!

  15. Thank you, Luna! I loved this article and will share it and use it for myself and others.
    I always find it especially helpful to locate that stressed feeling or thought, see it in the aspect of thick black smoke, and breathe it out. It is not me!
    The trick is to remember to do this, rather than taking in the “terrible situation” as real and external.

  16. Thanks for this article! I’m moving to a new job soon and hope to put this in practice from day zero.

  17. Yes, will try this technique more often, identifying with pure nature. Like the bit about delegating. Sometimes I have found we can get too into our own practice and our own merit and not want to share it with anybody, but if we practice the great scope as well as initial and intermediate, then unconditional love and compassion can give rise to delegation, encouraging and empowering others. Thank you for this reminder! x

    1. I think you’re right that good delegation is part of our compassion and love, it is part of giving.

      It also doesn’t have to be a lazy means of giving away all the hard work 😉 Geshe-la once said that I was a good delegator. I thought at the time that this was probably his polite way of saying I’m lazy! And it probably was/is…. But it was probably also a way of bringing the result into the path, so I’ll keep trying!

  18. You’ve pin-pointed exactly what I’m experiencing at the moment- and why! I can see the truth in this advice and I will use it to get back on track. Thank you so much

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