Beating stress and burnout with BASICS

Our brain processes an enormous number of stimuli each day. The resulting mental stress is often a major contributor to burnout. International well-being researcher and psychologist, and author of ‘Zooikoorts’, Hein Zegers shares his insights on the topic.

In your opinion, what are the main causes behind the sharp increase in burnouts?

Hein Zegers: “The reasons why people experience burnouts are complex and are often difficult to demonstrate scientifically. You could compare an employee who is suffering from burnout with a tree that has caught fire: a lit cigarette end could have been the cause. But it’s also possible that the tree caught fire because of prolonged drought in the area, which may in turn have been caused by climate change. As you can see, establishing a causal link is not always easy.

Some personality traits may lead to an increased risk of burnout, just like one timber species might be more susceptible to fire than others. However, that doesn’t mean we can simply identify these people based on their characteristics.”

What is the role of digitisation and our growing dependence on smartphones, social media, etc. in this phenomenon?

“Being available to everyone at every moment of the day, having too much on your agenda and dealing with endless to-do lists, that is what I refer to as ‘zooikoorts’, or digital overwhelm. Our brain does not differentiate between email discussions and conversations taking place face to face. Our smartphones and overflowing inboxes cause our brains to believe that we are having multiple conversations with hundreds of email contacts, Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections, all at once. It is not surprising that we feel overwhelmed.

Like the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere, the degree of digital overwhelm among workers continues to rise. It’s equally difficult to establish the causal link between global warming and wildfires as it is to do so between digital overwhelm and burnouts. But, it’s highly likely that they are closely linked.”

How can we guard ourselves against ‘digital overwhelm’?

“Simply switching off every now and then will do you a world of good. And I mean this quite literally: close your email client, turn off push notifications, put your phone on silent, etc. The Minister for Employment aims to combat the burnout epidemic by introducing the right for employees to be ‘unavailable’. However, for this measure to be effective, it’s essential for workers to be able to choose when they want to exercise this right. If you impose this unavailability at fixed times, you may be restricting your employees’ freedom to choose the time that suits them best, therefore increasing the risk of burnout even more.

In my book, I elaborate on the BASICS therapeutic approach, a routine based on empirical research conducted among people who consciously choose a more brain-friendly environment. BASICS is the acronym for Back (taking a step back), Attention, Select (what is really essential), Invest (in what is essential) and Cut (what is not essential). By cutting down on the number of activities or tasks on your to-do list, you will experience more Sense (meaningfulness). Within a work context, the BASICS method often translates into the 80/20 rule: 20% of your carefully selected activities produce 80% of your positive results.”

Is creating a brain-friendly work environment merely a matter of self-discipline?

“Becoming more aware of the situation is definitely a good starting point, but some employers take things even further. They introduce email policies recommending workers to only check their inboxes twice a day. Alternately, they allow ‘no screen’ meetings as long as this fits in with the demands of the business, and employees get to decide how to organise their to-do lists. Either way, if we want to prevent stress and burnout from becoming even more prevalent in the future, we need to take action now.”

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