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Mindtrip September Reflections on burnout and compassion

mindtrip September reflections on burnout and compassion

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mindtrip reflections of ideas, thoughts, hints and tips and book recommendations focused around building a flourishing work environment.

With the first days of Autumn, we come to a time of nights getting longer, mists and a sense of letting go and releasing things that have been a burden. In this Reflections I want to focus on burnout, why it happens and what we can do to build greater balance in our lives and explore the concept of compassion and particularly self compassion as a mediator to the stresses and strains of our increasingly ‘always on’ world. This Reflections is based on the work of Paul Gilbert ( and Kristin Neff ( .

What do you do when things get tough?

Our brains have evolved to keep us safe from harm, avoid pain and to help us survive. In the process of our evolution, our brains have adapted, like no other animal, and have evolved so that not only are we driven by our basic emotions and our desire for social closeness and belonging, we are also able to imagine, ruminate, reflect and plan. This ability of our ‘new brain’ to self monitor ourselves continually is where our challenges lies. We live in a time where there is an epidemic of this self monitoring system going out of control to such an extent that it creates mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression and alcoholism from the constant internal judgement and criticism.

We are biologically inbuilt with biases for self focus, nepotism and tribalism, all of which can cause cruelty and suffering to others. While this is not our fault it is our responsibility to do something about. So what is the answer? What do you do when the going gets tough? Key is what out motive is and how we are able to take control of our minds when they go out of control. When we are more aware of the nature of our minds and are able to calm ourselves and others, we are more able to reboot our systems and recognise when our self monitoring system has gone out of control.
Understanding our motivations

Our emotions are fundamental to helping us survive and reproduce, they guide us towards our goals and respond when we are succeeding or threatened. We have three types of emotional regulation system:

1. Those that focus on threats and self protection
2. Those that focus on doing and achieving
3. Those that focus on contentment and feeling safe

When we are stressed our threat system goes into overdrive and will override any positive emotions. When we are happy and content we have some balance between all three systems. Key to getting this balance back when we are feeling stressed or moving towards burnout or in fact have burnt out is to get the affiliative system (no 3 above) moving.

How do we do this? Through deliberately training our brain to attend to the positive, to ruminate purposely each day on the positive. To train our mind’s ability to attend (through meditation or any concentration focused discipline) and to build in time to slow down and reflect. In addition evolution has made our brains highly sensitive to external and internal kindness. This is where compassion comes in.

How does this impact organisations?

For many organisations the focus is on achievement, delivery and performance often to the disadvantage of those working within organisations, with stress being a natural by product of a threat and drive based system with little focus on caring, nurturing and people’s wellbeing.

For more information on research looking into the positive impact of compassion based approaches in organisations have a look at this article (–Should-You-Be-Cruel-to-Be-Kind.aspx) and Emma Seppala’s article ( and the work (–who-are-the-best-performers-in-the-workplace-8626318.html) of Adam Grant ( on who is most likely to succeed in organisations- the Givers, the Takers or the Matchers.

What is compassion?

We function best when we are loving and caring (rather than hating) and when we feel loved, cared for and valued. There are a number of definitions of compassion but essentially it boils down to a sensitivity/awareness to the suffering of yourself and others with a deep commitment to try and relieve and prevent this suffering. So essentially it is about engaging and seeing and then taking action to alleviate it, in both yourself and others. To do this takes courage- both emotional and physical. The emotional courage to to sit with your or other’s pain and physical courage in standing up for yourself.

Compassion is not about running away from what is difficult but holding it; it does not come from being submissive but having the courage to face the things that we don’t want to face.

Many organisations are threat and drive focused (1 and 2 above) with an underlying philosophy in many of survival of the fittest. The compassionate approach turns this on its head, recognising the power in the survival of the nurtured, challenging the competitive mind philosophy to a compassionate minded leadership approach. Here, leaders are sensitive to their own distress and are able to help themselves, so as to drive cultures that are more balanced between a focus on drive, threats and nurturing.

Empathic Burnout

For many that work in the helping professions and those that are empathetic, one of the downsides of empathy is emotional contagion from being with the distress of others to the point of empathic distress and burnout.

For many in society, their way of dealing with the distress of others is to turn away. With those that stay and don’t turn away, recent work by Antoine Lutz has found that training in compassion based approaches can help others to have a ‘feeling for’ others without actually putting themselves in others shoes and thereby avoid the dangers of emotional burnout. People become more able to be with other’s pain without increases in their own cortisol and stress response. Compassion creates an internal coping mechanism without burnout.

Self compassion versus self esteem

Kirstin Neff is one of the leading researchers on self compassion and self esteem. Many of us have developed a sense of contingent self worth based on the perceived approval of others. In trying to maintain this sense of self worth many of us believe we have to be special and above average (a logical impossibility) and thereby creates social comparison. All is ok until we fail.

For those that have contingent self esteem based on their success and failures, life becomes a treadmill with a sense of wellbeing that goes up and down dependent on our perceived achievements compared to others, leading to feelings of inadequacy and shame.

This outlook develops attitudes of self judgement, an isolated outlook and over identification. In contrast through developing a more compassionate approach to ourselves, research has found that our outlook becomes one of self kindness which kicks in when we fail, a sense of common humanity (others have this problem too) and more mindfulness (awareness and pausing to care for ourselves before needing to fix). Self compassion provides the safety needed to admit our mistakes, build our own safety nets and the motivation to change. To find out more have a look at this short video ( and if you would like some idea as to how self compassionate you are have a look at this ( and finally have a look at this summary infographic ( with some ideas as to how to build self compassion.

Wisdom, Compassion and Courage are the three recognised moral qualities of men


If you want others to be happy practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion

Dalai Lama

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