Scientific Insights on Productivity and Burnout

Being highly productive at work without burning out requires balance. And if we look at the latest data, it quickly becomes evident that achieving harmony between working efficiently and working too much is something that most people struggle with.

According to Gallup’s latest worker survey, worker engagement has noticeably declined over the past three years. Not only are fewer people actively engaged at work than they were pre-pandemic, but even more worryingly, 18% of U.S. employees were actively disengaged in 2022. Furthermore, a survey from Future Forum discovered that as many as 40% of the global workforce experienced burnout in the past year.

For any organization, this is alarming news, and not just because burnout and low productivity yield poor financial performance. It’s also because, as we saw last year, they can easily lead to workplace behavioral changes like quiet quitting.

So, what can you do to avoid these undesirable outcomes? Let’s investigate the key insights from the biggest scientific studies on productivity and burnout and explore ways to implement them to help yourself (or your team) thrive.

Burnout Is Triggered by Both Organizational and Personal Factors

According to a 2022 scientific review of the papers discussing occupational health, multiple factors can lead to burnout. 

On the one hand, these can be organizational triggers. They include quantitative and qualitative work overload, emotional labor, lack of autonomy, role ambiguity or conflict, unfair treatment, lack of social support, and poor working hours.

However, there are individual characteristics that can lead to burnout as well. According to the research, introverts are more likely to experience burnout, as are those with low emotional stability or high expectations regarding their work.

So, what do these findings mean for business owners and leaders? Well, in addition to underlining the importance of building a healthy organizational culture, they also highlight the necessity of eliminating toxic workplace behavior

Moreover, there’s a strong case for empowering workers via autonomy and flexibility, offering mentorship and support, and minimizing workloads, especially for teams who deal with challenging tasks or emotionally-draining situations (like handling unhappy customers).

Self-Care Is as Much About Prevention as It Is About Recovery

Most people only think about self-care (or their well-being in general) when trying to solve a problem. 

For example, someone not getting enough done during the workday might start taking more frequent breaks to boost productivity. Or, a person on the cusp of work-induced exhaustion may pursue stress-relieving activities like yoga or meditation.

However, these acts of self-care are reactive. And while they do offer significant benefits, the key to burnout prevention and consistent productivity is to be proactive with self-care.

But what does proactive self-care mean in practice? Well, a few behavioral changes could be the key to maximizing cognitive capacity, efficiency, and emotional stability and preventing burnout.

1. Sleep

Even though many people believe that the secret to getting more work done is to wake up early, science suggests that the key to high productivity levels (as well as sufficient recovery) is to get enough high-quality sleep every night. For most people, this is between 7 and 9 hours in a 24-hour time span. 

Moreover, research suggests sleep hygiene improves worker productivity, highlighting the importance of prioritizing quality sleep.

2. Exercise

The benefits of regularly working out are usually discussed from a physical and emotional well-being perspective. However, there’s more to regular exercise than staving off heart attacks and looking good at the beach. 

According to a 2019 scientific paper, physical activity positively impacts cognitive function, concentration, and willpower. In turn, gains in cognitive function and effortful control effectiveness make it easier to maintain physical activity over time. 

So, finding an enjoyable physical hobby — like learning to paddleboard or going hiking — could be seen as a productivity-enhancing self-care strategy.

3. Nutrition and Hydration

Fuel is one of the keys to optimal performance. And while there’s a lot of research around nutrition and hydration optimization for athletic performance, most people disregard the positive and negative effects food and beverages can have on productivity. 

For example, one study from 2010 discovered that the combination of caffeine and glucose positively affected sustained attention and memory. In 2014, scientists found that EPA-rich supplementation led to improved cognitive performance. And in 2015, researchers discovered an association between vitamin E (an antioxidant) intake and mental performance, namely memory, recall, and language fluency. 

While there is still plenty of research that needs to be done to pinpoint the nutrients that can enhance workplace productivity, it’s safe to say that practicing healthy eating habits offers significant benefits for improving work performance.

Less Work Can Help You Get More Done

Everyone and their uncle has heard that, to get better results, they need to “work smarter, not harder.” And, sure, productivity hacks like automating or outsourcing low-value tasks from your agenda can lead to improvements in your output. 

But science suggests that the key to working “smarter” isn’t to find ways to check items off your to-do list faster. After all, task switching or multitasking has been found to decrease productivity by 40% and reduce cognitive performance.  

Based on recent research, the secret to doing more high-quality work is taking more breaks.

In a 2023 research study, 75% of people who applied the Pomodoro method while completing check-processing tasks accomplished more work than those not required to rest. Even more impressively, the structured schedule led to a decrease in unprogrammed break time, meaning that participants instructed to take a brief breather spent more time actively working than their peers.

Or, if you’re interested in adopting a more biological approach to productivity (as well as preventing excessive stress), you could choose to structure your workday according to the ultradian rhythm. This strategy involves limiting your focus-intense work periods to three 90-minute sprint sessions per day, using the time in between to rest and recharge. 

Finally, don’t forget that one of the best ways to boost productivity and prevent burnout (or, if it comes to it, recover from it) is to take extended breaks in the form of a vacation or sabbatical. 

Scientifically speaking, there are two elements required to ensure that a holiday results in genuine stress relief and improved productivity once back at the office. The first is time, with the sweet spot for health and well-being benefits being eight days or more. The second is distance, with more being better. In 2013, geolocation-based Twitter research discovered that people used more words to express their happiness when they were farther away from home.

Of course, it should be noted that the benefits of vacations tend to fade out within a month, signaling that the best burnout-prevention strategy involves combining micro, short, and long breaks, preferably with a good measure of distance added to the mix. While this may seem inaccessible to a lot of people, it’s worth noting that there are ways to travel on a budget. However, it does take a bit more flexibility than standard holiday planning methods so using tools like Google Flights can be helpful.

In Closing

In summary, maximizing productivity and preventing burnout requires a proactive approach to self-care. 

Prioritizing physical and emotional well-being is a start. But the best way to do great work (without risking exhaustion) is to take regular micro, mini, and long-form breaks, as well as to eliminate organizational triggers that lead to physical and emotional overload.

This was a guest blog. Please review our guest blog disclaimer.

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About the Author: Natasha Lane

natasha lane
Natasha is a lady of a keyboard and one hell of a geek. She has been working for, and collaborating with, individual clients and companies of all sizes for more than a decade. Natasha specializes in writing about branding, business growth and productivity. She is also addicted to art in all its forms and grilled tofu.

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