Yoga therapy points the way to addressing burnout in healthcare facilities
By Anne-Laure Peaucelle
People choosing helping professions often do so to make a difference and to support others—and for a purpose bigger than themselves. This desire to give and passion to help others can drive us to stretch ourselves thin simply because we love what we do.
In healthcare professions, burnout has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2021 survey, 55% of healthcare professionals reported experiencing burnout, an understandable result of frustration at an overloaded system combined with witnessing human suffering, illness, and death every day. With fewer resources and staff available, those left to carry the load may feel defeated and powerless and struggle with empathy burnout or compassion fatigue.
A different look at burnout
According to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, the widely used diagnosis-coding system, burnout is “chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed.”
To those struggling, this definition can feel dismissive: It doesn’t take into account each individual’s capacity or systemic issues; it places little responsibility on the organization they’re a part of; and it can feel like they’re on their own, trying to “manage stress better.”
Many of the yoga therapy clients I work with believe that it’s completely on them to feel better. If only they did more meditation, moved more, had better boundaries, ate better, took better care of themselves, etc., then they would just feel better.
Of course, none of these things are wrong to do, but the solutions are not so straightforward. Yes, there’s a lot we can do to take care of ourselves, AND let’s not forget the systems in which we operate. Yoga therapy can give us tools for self-care and a framework to re-imagine how organizations could support their staff.
How yoga therapy fits in—and can lead the way
Yoga therapy centers the whole person, existing within a system, with every aspect of health woven together. It considers all of who we are:
- physical body,
- breath and physiology,
- emotions and thoughts,
- beliefs and ideas, and
- purpose and connection to something greater.
Looking at burnout through the holistic lens of yoga, we can see that it affects every level of being. Burnout is more than feelings of exhaustion; it could be chronic pain, digestive problems, or sleep issues. Burnout is more than increased mental distance from one’s job; it could be a foggy mind, racing thoughts, frustration, and difficulty making decisions. Burnout is more than cynicism related to one’s profession; it could be a loss of engagement and trust in the systems that are supposed to support us. And burnout is deeper than reduced professional efficacy; it could be a loss of connection with ourselves and our communities, a loss of satisfaction and creativity.
To address or prevent burnout in healthcare organizations, solutions need to empower the individual while addressing the bigger picture of why the problem is so prevalent. Taking time off or changing jobs—when that’s even an option—is simply not the full answer.
We need to start building new ways of operating, for both employees and employers, and yoga therapy can be a framework. This framework would call for spaces in which individuals can reclaim their choices and personal agency within a system that is not necessarily supportive to their well-being. Facilities can also provide care and support for their staff so that they feel valued and appreciated.
What could this look like?
The principles of yoga can support individuals and organizations to
- cultivate awareness,
- remember that choices are available,
- take effective action, and
- co-create practices and daily rhythms that support holistic well-being.
On one hand, the practice of yoga therapy can help individuals gradually reconnect with their bodies and their needs. For example, you can spend a couple of minutes each day to notice how you are feeling. Pause and ask yourself: How do I feel right now? What do I need? What would feel supportive?
On the other hand, the same framework can be used at an organizational level to provide ways to meaningfully support employees, including holistic models of care that don’t forget the body. It’s time for healthcare leaders to fully understand burnout and rethink self-care in the workplace.
Anne-Laure Peaucelle, C-IAYT, works with healthcare facilities to bring holistic support to staff and holistic care to patients. She also supports individuals through anxiety, depression, burnout, and trauma recovery.