I’ve been in dance therapy for all of 90 seconds when I embarrass myself. The group is doing a follow-the-leader exercise, with one person picking a dance move that everyone else must mimic. When my name is called, I panic and launch into an extremely uncool move that could be generously described as disco-inspired, my cheeks flaming as a group of strangers mirror it back at me.
I’d traveled to the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine to take this humiliating stab at vulnerability in the name of science (and my own sanity). The Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab (CORAL), an ongoing research project at the school, aims to help people who are burned out from their jobs build resilience and improve their mental well-being. For three months, participants meet weekly for 90-minute sessions that weave together therapy, community, and art to provide an outlet for the stressors of working in health care.
But this week, the group includes one participant who doesn’t work in health care: me, a health journalist with a personal interest in whether CORAL’s program really works.
After writing about the pandemic for three years, I had started seeing in myself some of the warning signs of burnout, as compiled by Christina Maslach, who has researched burnout for four decades: emotional and mental exhaustion, feeling negative or cynical about work, and believing your work doesn’t matter or your efforts aren’t enough. Tick, tick, and tick. Toward the end of 2022, I experienced significant writer’s block for the first time. The “quiet quitting” trend—doing the bare minimum at work—spoke to me more than it should have. And as the world forgot about COVID-19, I sometimes wondered if there was any point in continuing to cover it.
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I genuinely love my job, so I wanted to fix those issues before they got worse. But when I asked Dr. Google “how to cure burnout,” I couldn’t find much. That’s because it’s not totally up to me, Maslach says. Fixing burnout is truly possible only when employers eliminate the conditions that produce it in the first place and pare down workloads, support and listen to employees, and give people control over their work and time, Maslach told me.
“It’s not that coping is not important,” she says. But if we see it as the solution, we’re blaming workers and “not actually changing the stressors themselves.”
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But what if the stressors don’t change, no matter how much we want them to? In an ideal world, sure, every boss would want to eliminate burnout. But businesses are driven by profits, employees are often told to do more with less, and too many people scrape by on minimum wage and no benefits. Leaving workers responsible for their own burnout may not be the answer, but in many cases, waiting for work to change feels like an equally hopeless path. Is there anything I—and the 42% of office workers who said they felt burned out in a late-2022 survey—could do to make an imperfect situation better?
I turned to the scientific literature for answers. Plenty of researchers have looked for ways that individuals can ease their burnout, but many don’t seem to work. A 2022 research review analyzed 30 previous studies on burnout interventions for doctors. Many of the programs—free food, subsidized gym memberships, weekly meetings with a psychologist—didn’t yield significant results. Nearly all of those that did involved a group element, like wellness classes or mentorship programs. That makes sense, even though it’s harder to DIY; other research also suggests social support can improve mental health and protect against burnout.
But some individual interventions make a difference. Studies suggest physical activity, a proven mood booster and stress reducer, can decrease burnout. Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga have been shown in some, but not all, studies to help, apparently by building resilience and improving emotional regulation. Creativity practices may also chip away at burnout by reigniting passions and facilitating “flow,” or being engrossed in a task.
So: socializing, exercise, meditation, and arts and crafts. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff. The first three are foundational aspects of good health, recommended by nearly every expert I’ve ever interviewed. Despite how familiar they felt, I used them as the protocol for my highly unscientific burnout-busting experiment: I’d work out at least three times a week and do yoga at least once a week, meditate daily, and complete a daily creativity exercise. (I chose to doodle my emotions.)
Since my experiment coincided with TIME’s return-to-office plans—mandating my presence in the office three days a week—I figured I’d get my workplace social-interaction fix whether I liked it or not. As a longtime gymgoer, I also found my exercise quota manageable. The idea of meditating and doodling, however, filled me with dread. The most in touch I’ve ever been with my artsy side was when I started painting by numbers during the desperate boredom of lockdown. And you know how mindfulness experts often say there’s no wrong way to meditate? They’ve never been inside my anxious brain as it ping-pongs from what to make for dinner to whether I forgot to feed the cat to an awkward thing I said six years ago. But—at least at the beginning—I was committed.
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Socializing at work was by far the easiest part. I found it energizing and soul-nourishing to see co-workers face-to-face, even if we mostly chatted about bad Keurig coffee and reality television. I also felt virtuous about taking leisurely lunch breaks with colleagues.
However, adding in a long commute made every other element of my plan harder. Exercising four times a week became a scheduling headache. Meditating and drawing fell even lower down my priority list. Sometimes I listened to a guided meditation during my subway ride home, which was futile. And on more than one occasion, I actually said the words “Ugh, I still have to doodle,” out loud to my fiancé at the end of the day.
Exercise, at least, reliably lifted my mood and eased my stress when I managed to squeeze it in. But meditating often felt more boring than centering, and I frequently stared down at a blank page in my notebook, wondering what the heck my emotions looked like. Katina Bajaj, a clinical psychology researcher who launched a startup aimed at using creativity to bust burnout, was the one who suggested my daily doodling. The instructions she sent recommended starting by “drawing repetitive lines, dots, shapes or blocks, and notic[ing] how your mind begins to create more space.”
I tried—I really did. But doodling and deep breathing didn’t cancel out the drains of deadline pressures, rude emails, and constant bad news. If anything, my regimen made it clear that adding to my to-do list made my stress worse.
My experiment had failed. Which brought me to the dance circle at the University of Colorado.
The burnout study there had the extreme misfortune of trying to launch in March 2020, just as the U.S. was shutting down. Dr. Marc Moss, a critical-care physician and CORAL’s principal investigator, had intended to study burnout reduction among intensive-care providers. But by the time COVID-19 was controlled enough in Colorado to get the program up and running in -September 2020, “the whole world was stressed out,” Moss says. He and his colleagues decided to open the first few study sessions to any patient–facing health care workers, then broadened the eligibility criteria over time. Now in its sixth round, CORAL welcomes anyone in the Denver area who works in the health care field, from researchers and lab technicians to food–service workers and case managers.
When people sign up for CORAL, they’re assigned to a group focusing on visual arts, writing, dance, or music. For 12 weeks, facilitators use creative exercises to help people express their identity and values, channel negative emotions, build resilience, and develop self-care routines. To build community, participants are also encouraged to share experiences from their lives and jobs and take part in a group project, such as contributing a work of art to an album or performing a dance.
“We’re building resilience more than curing burnout,” says Katherine Reed, an art therapist who runs CORAL’s visual-arts group. But the data suggest one leads to the other: for almost 150 health care providers who joined the study from September 2020 to July 2021, the approach led to small but significant decreases in anxiety, depression, and burnout, according to a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Medicine. If the framework proves effective for people in a wider swath of health care jobs, Moss says CORAL’s approach could feasibly be adopted by burned-out workers in any industry. That’s what made me want to try the program. Burnout has been studied extensively among health care workers, but few researchers have looked at interventions for the general public.
During my visit in March, I dropped in on the music, writing, and dance groups. (I missed visual art because of a flight delay, because apparently the universe wanted my baseline state to be as stressed as possible.) For three days, I used all of my senses to describe how humor looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes; wrote about my emotions as if they were characters in a short story; and practiced vulnerability by dancing in front of strangers. I listened as members of the study talked about frustrating moments in their days, applauding along with everyone else when people described emotional breakthroughs with their bosses or co-workers. Even as an aggressively uncrafty, professionally skeptical person, I felt calm and happy during my time with CORAL—a combination, probably, of getting away from my daily routine, paying attention to my emotions, and trying something new.
I was encouraged. But when I asked Moss and his team if the CORAL curriculum could be distilled into something I, or any individual, could do on my own, I was met with a resounding no. The program’s magic, its facilitators said, is in bringing people together to feel the solidarity and community so often lacking in modern life. People can draw or dance or write or sing on their own, but it likely won’t have the same transformative effect without a human connection.
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That’s what Dr. Colin West, who researches physician well-being at the Mayo Clinic, found in 2021, when he published a study on what happened when physicians met up for group discussions over meals. Their burnout symptoms improved, but it wasn’t necessarily the food that made the difference—it was support. “We have so many shared experiences and so many stressors that are in common, and yet physicians will often feel like, Well, I can’t talk to anybody about this,” West says. Bringing people together to share their experiences can help.
West believes there are other reasons the program worked: it was easy for people to join, since they had to eat anyway, and the hospital made meals free for study participants. “The individual needs to contribute something, and the organization needs to contribute something,” West says. That two-sided approach helps people feel supported and valued by their organization, which can go a long way toward easing some of the bitterness and cynicism that accompany burnout.
Since my solo study didn’t work, and I couldn’t take off 12 weeks to join CORAL for real, I felt resigned to the relief I’d gained from exercise and my in-person days at the office. But over time, something changed at work. My editor—tipped off to my burnout when I pitched the story you’re reading—encouraged me to take a step back from the COVID-19 news cycle and pursue other topics. As I settled into my less-COVID-centric routine, it felt easier to get excited about pitching ideas and writing stories, and to show up each day feeling more engaged and energized.
In a way, my experiment proved that burnout expert Maslach was right all along: the self-care tactics I used on my own were less effective than workplace adjustments. But after visiting CORAL, I believe the solution to burnout isn’t just to sit back and hope employers make the right changes.
Moss, the research lead for CORAL, thinks about it like this: a hospital could make administrative tweaks to lighten doctors’ workloads, but it can’t protect them from the death and sadness they see every day. “We see things that are not normal, and we see a lot of tragedy,” Moss says. “I can’t work in an intensive-care unit and not have that happen.” The stressors baked into other industries might be different or less intense, but they’re present in some form, no matter the job. Maybe it’s obnoxious customers, or exhausting overnight shifts, or bureaucratic red tape; there’s always something. When done right, interventions like the ones used in CORAL can provide communal outlets for the stressors that won’t ever go away.
I’m hoping happier health news lands on my desk soon. But in the meantime, I’m pursuing better ways to manage stress and searching for people willing to join me. So long, solo doodling. I’m thinking of joining a book club instead—or maybe a dance class.
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