Data from the World Health Organization revealed that 745,000 people died from long working hours in 2016 (up 29% since 2000) and that working 55 hours a week or more is particularly harmful. The researchers suggested that lockdowns and remote working may have increased this number, although actual data isn’t available yet.
A 2014 study shows that burnout actually creates changes in your brain (and not good ones). So burnout isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of your brain being out of balance and in need of intervention.
Of course, the best thing you can do to avoid and recover from burnout is to reduce the amount you work, change your working conditions and re-evaluate your values and attitude towards work.
But taking care of houseplants or planting and watching a plant grow could be a fun, easy and low-cost supplement to recovery – especially for those who feel they’re too busy to go out in nature.
Burnout on the brain
Feeling tired, helpless and overwhelmed, having crippling self-doubt and a cynical outlook on the world are only some of the symptoms of burnout. These are not caused by a flaw in your character but actual changes in the way your brain functions.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain takes care of cognitive functions including your ability to process information, concentrate, plan, organise and multi-task – basically all the things you need to work successfully.
Prolonged stress and constantly feeling overwhelmed, create a state of fear, which engages the amygdala and weakens the prefrontal cortex. When we face danger or an extremely stressful situation, this response keeps us safe –the survival mechanism is engaged and functions you don’t need at that moment, including your ability to think rationally and logically, are shut down.
So that means the prefrontal cortex doesn’t function well under stress. It’s connected to the limbic system, which is headed up by the amygdala. When you’re functioning healthily, it helps you to control your emotions and avoid becoming overwhelmed.
But when the prefrontal cortex is weakened through over-working, prolonged stress and burnout, it can cause you to spiral downwards. And, according to a psychiatrist, Mark Rego ‘mental illness always involves the weakening of the prefrontal cortex’.
At the same time, the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, becomes strengthened. Its job is to scan the environment for threats and set off the fight/flight/ freeze response. So when it’s hyperactive due to chronic stress, everything around you is interpreted negatively, as a potential threat.
The first signs of a breakdown of this kind are losing the ability to concentrate, emotional exhaustion and feeling drained. This may be followed by having a shorter fuse, becoming easily irritated and more cynical about the world and other people’s intentions. Another feature is feeling like you’re never achieving anything, feeling ineffective and like nothing matters.
When you notice any of these symptoms, it’s time to act. But we must move away from ‘firefighting’ and take an active, preventative approach to our health – intervene before we hit rock bottom.
Nature can reverse the imbalance
There are now many studies that support the restorative effects of nature. Here are a few findings:
According to the biophilia hypothesis, humans are deeply bonded to nature and have an innate tendency and desire to connect with it because of our evolutionary history. Nature is not something apart from us – we are nature. And that’s why it feels so good!
Nature replenishes our cognitive resources, allowing us to be more present, pay attention more fully and concentrate better. It increases the experience of positive emotions while decreasing anxiety and negative emotions, like fear.
One study showed that a one-hour walk in nature decreased the activity of the amygdala, which is overactive when we’re stressed and burnt out, as discussed above.
Another study asked the question ‘by what mechanism(s) might nature experience buffer against the development of mental illness?’ Their findings showed two such mechanisms: decreased rumination and reduced activation of the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC).
Rumination is described as overthinking and being focused on negative, destructive thoughts about the self. And as such, it’s been shown to be a predictor of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders.
The sgPFC is connected to parts of the limbic system, including the amygdala, and is therefore thought to be important in regulating emotions. This study suggests that part of nature’s restorative effects come from reducing rumination and improving emotion regulation by decreasing the activity of this system.
To summarise, nature can reduce the damage caused by burnout and stress by calming down the amygdala, reducing stress, and increasing the experience of positive emotions and a sense of ‘being away’. And in line with the biophilia hypothesis, it gives us effortless satisfaction and a sense of belonging because we’re deeply connected with nature.
Beneficial effects of caring for houseplants
For some readers, even a one-hour walk in nature seems like a big ask.
More than 55% of people now live in urban environments and predictions are that this will be 68% by 2050. Therefore, going out, connecting with and reaping the benefits of nature might seem out of reach to many people. So creating a natural oasis in your own home might be a good alternative.
Active interaction with houseplants (like touching, caring for and smelling) has been shown to reduce physiological and psychological stress. According to this study, these interactions suppress the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (stress response), while decreasing the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (calm-down response), reducing diastolic blood pressure and promoting a soothing feeling and inspiring awe.
Another study showed that houseplants in office spaces increased concentration and productivity, partly due to plants improving air quality and acting as a natural humidifier.
You’re essentially bringing the goodness of being outdoors in nature into your home and this can help you to heal. The positive effects come from being engrossed in the activity so simply having houseplants is good in itself but to get the most out of them, interact and nurture your little green friends.
If you’re not ready for plants, you can also engage with nature in other ways while being in the comfort of your own home. Listening to nature sounds improves health and sleep, increases the experiences of positive emotions, and lowers stress and feeling irritated. Visualising or looking at pictures of nature has been shown to have positive effects, similar to actually being in nature
Houseplants alone are probably not enough to heal burnout but they can make a significant contribution to your overall health. Nature’s calming effects and taking time for yourself, away from work, can give you a chance to re-assess what’s important in life and whether your job is really worth risking your health and potentially your life.
Anna Drescher holds a master’s degree in psychology and mental health. She’s been working in the field for almost 10 years.