Professional Development
Health / Workplace culture

Take a break: How 15 minutes can help prevent occupational burnout

You're getting things done, but at what cost? A corporate trainer-slash-human performance pro offers advice.

Do you need a break? (Image by Holly Quinn, made with Stable Diffusion 2.1)

Fall brings with it a sense of a fresh start. The weather starts to cool down, work starts to pick up, and for some, the kids are finally back to school. But if you’ve been taking it easy over the summer with the intention of fully hitting the grindstone when football season kicks off, it’s a good idea to keep at least a little bit of that relaxed attitude in your routine.

If you neglect to give yourself downtime, you risk burnout, an occupational phenomenon that can lead to chronic physical and mental fatigue, depression and disruption to your work and family life. The World Health Organization defines it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Nick Propper, the Connecticut-based cofounder and CEO of corporate training company Impact Human Performance and former performance coach at the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, warned of the risks of sudden burnout in his MILLSUMMIT 2023 talk, “Knock, Knock, Who’s There? Burnout.”

“You are getting things done, but the question is at what cost?” Propper said. “Right now you’re all operating somewhat out of what we would call an unsustainable energy system, which is a heavy combination of great willpower, determination and a bucketload of stress hormones.”

At the center of Propper’s anti-burnout method are what he calls four quadrants of human energy, based on energy level (high/low) and quality of energy (positive/negative). Recovery, he said, is an important part in keeping the quality of your energy more balanced and less negative.

“When we have a good quality of energy, this is where we feel very positive, very connected, very collaborative,” he said. “And this is essentially when we move into growth mode — this opens us up to being able to grow as humans. And then of course, things can happen, and it can happen in the blink of an eye, and we get pulled all the way across to a much more negative quality of energy.”

Here’s Propper’s advice to avoid that latter situation.

Balance high-performance periods with recovery periods

When you work hard and your stress levels rise, they can keep on rising until you hit burnout. The preventative, he said, is to break up the stress by giving yourself recovery periods.

“A truly sustainable high-performance system is pushing into the high-performance zone and then coming down into recovery to reset, refuel, re-engage, then we push again,” Propper said. “All day long, we want to be looking for this oscillation.”

Reset with breaks

Propper’s method to reset: Take 15-minute recovery breaks that might include deep breathing, stretching and drinking water for stress reduction.

“The only way we get into the recovery zone is if we do something thoughtful and intentional that we recognize for ourselves brings a moment of reset and a moment of recharging,” he said.  “Just not being stressed is not recovering.”

Mentally train yourself

Keep recovery reminders — even something as simple as sticky notes — in your workspace to help you build the discipline to recover regularly throughout the day. Ultimately, taking those breaks should become automatic when you reach a high negative energy point, Propper said.

“When the minute comes, it’s that ability to instinctively have a plan and know what I’m going to do now — I’m going to open the book, I’m going to stand up and stretch, I’m going to pet the dog. I’m going to grab a cup of coffee, I’m going to make a cup of tea,” he said. “It’s the discipline to just instinctively roll into recovery.”

Start and end the day with mindfulness

While multiple breaks throughout the workday may not be compatible with your workflow, the exec believes recovery should at least bracket your day, with morning “recovery” sessions that allow you to start fresh.

“When we think about 15 minutes of recovery, we all realize there aren’t going to be many 15-minute breaks that you can have during the day,” Propper said. “So think of this more as the beginning and the end of your day. How can you start your day with some grace? How can you create some space from opening your eyes before you switch on to the chaos?”

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