In the past two and a half years, I’ve given more than 360 virtual and in-person talks, workshops, and seminars about emotional fitness, well-being, and avoiding burnout. I’ve had the privilege of working with people from every kind of industry, including doctors on the frontlines of Covid, employees at large and small companies, and nonprofit professionals. And I’ve had the gift of staying connected with many of them to learn about which emotional fitness practices had a positive impact on their well-being.
And here’s my big learning: When it comes to improving well-being at work, small things make a big difference if you practice them consistently.
To be clear: Employee well-being is an organizational issue, not just an individual one. Many factors impact and influence it, including your workload and flexibility, your manager, and the culture within your team.
But while you may not have the ability to change your organization or your boss, there are some simple, science-backed things you can do daily to improve your emotional fitness and well-being.
I define emotional fitness as the skill of creating a more supportive relationship with yourself, your thoughts and emotions, and other people. When you improve your physical fitness, you improve your ability to handle physical challenges. When you improve your emotional fitness, you improve your ability to handle emotional challenges with less struggle, stress, and overwhelm.
Here are six simple yet surprisingly powerful emotional fitness practices to help you better manage stress and improve your well-being:
Check in with yourself daily.
Ask yourself: How am I doing today? How am I feeling? Don’t judge your answers or immediately try to “fix” how you’re feeling. Just become aware.
I shared this practice during a recent keynote and a young woman came up to me afterward to say that she’d heard me talk about it before.
“At that time, I was feeling so burned out,” she told me. “I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but I decided to give this daily check-in a try. I was surprised at how much it helped me feel better. Instead of being consumed by my feelings of stress or overwhelm, I become aware of them and now feel more in control.”
Research supports what she experienced: People who practice emotional awareness are more likely to report greater well-being. Becoming aware of your difficult feelings reduces the intensity with which you experience them and gives you an opportunity to do something to support yourself to feel a little better.
Take a few short, quality breaks during the day.
The key word here is “quality.” This means doing something that helps you disconnect from work, refuel, and recharge. Scrolling social media or reading the news is not a quality break, and neither is catching up on your to-do list.
The human brain needs to take a break every 90 to 120 minutes to function at its best and avoid accumulated stress and overwhelm. Microsoft recently conducted a large-scale study and found that taking five- to 10-minute breaks between meetings significantly reduced accumulated stress and overwhelm and improved focus.
My favorite way to disconnect from work during the day is to take a short walk outside. As mountains of research show, it boosts your mood, improves focus and motivation, and has lots of health benefits if you do it consistently.
Practice acceptance to focus on what you can control.
Acceptance involves two steps: First, acknowledge the situation with clarity, focusing on the facts you know to be true. Second, identify one step you could take to move forward with less stress and struggle.
We tend to underestimate how much ruminating on stressful situations drains our energy. Practicing these two steps of acceptance when you find yourself caught in a loop of negative thoughts helps to focus your attention on what you can control and take a productive action, however small. This small win gives your brain a sense of progress, which feels good and often motivates you to find other useful steps you can take.
One of the women who participated in my leadership program where we learned the skill of acceptance told me recently that it’s been her main go-to skill during the ongoing challenges and uncertainty at work. “Whenever I become overwhelmed with stress about work situations, the economy, or things with my team, I pause, take a breath, and ask myself what step I could take to move forward given how things are and what is in my control. Asking this question as a team has also been helpful for our team focus and stress level,” she told me.
Prioritize micro-moments of connection with colleagues.
Make it a point to greet your colleagues with genuine enthusiasm when you’re on a call or when you see them for the first time during the day. In virtual meetings, where there is a tendency to just dive into the agenda, begin by asking everyone to share something good from their week so far. Be intentional about reaching out to a colleague to just check in, without focusing your conversation on work.
We’re all starved for human connection after the years of pandemic isolation and it’s negatively impacting our well-being. As human beings, we’re wired to connect, and studies show that social support and feeling connected improve mental health and reduce stress and anxiety.
So, take the initiative and create a daily moment of connection with a colleague. It doesn’t take a lot of effort or time, but you’ll feel uplifted and help the other person feel less alone.
Practice gratitude to counter your brain’s negativity bias.
If you don’t have one, create a daily gratitude practice, which can be as simple as writing down three things you appreciate every morning or in the evening.
Developing a grateful mindset is always beneficial for your well-being, but even more so during these uncertain times. Uncertainty is extremely stressful and energy-draining — it’s the hardest thing for the human brain to handle. When your brain encounters uncertainty, it focuses on finding possible danger and enters the “fight or flight state” so it can protect you. This can lead to increased anxiety and rumination about negative outcomes and worst-case scenarios.
By practicing gratitude, you ask your brain to widen its lens and focus its attention on things that are positive, meaningful, or comforting. The goal isn’t to deny the difficulties you might be facing, but to remind yourself that they are not the entirety of your life. This fuels your emotional energy and helps improve your resilience, which is your ability to positively adapt amidst challenges.
Practice active rest outside of work.
Finally, it’s important to spend time outside of work doing things you love. Spend time on your favorite hobby. Dedicate time to reading or gardening. Try a new creative activity, like watercolor or writing. The key is to do something that actively fuels your energy and feeds parts of you other than just your work self. (In contrast, zoning out in front of Netflix for hours is not active rest, although watching an episode of your favorite show from time to time is a great option.)
I picked up painting after my own burnout, and having something that allows me to completely disconnect from work and feed the creative/artist part of myself has been a huge gift for my well-being. A recent study of burnout in nurses supports what I’ve found to be true in my experience: Nurses who spent time actively resting when they weren’t working, either by engaging in hobbies or spending time with friends or family, were less likely to burn out than nurses who weren’t intentional about disconnecting from work after their shift was finished.
. . .
As the cliche goes: “You are not your job.” Even, and perhaps especially, if you’re passionate about your work, you need to be intentional about doing things you enjoy outside of work. If your productivity-obsessed brain objects, remind yourself that active rest is an investment in your ability to bring your full capacity to your work for a long period of time.