This article is part of a series exploring the relationship between work culture and the outdoors.
Written by Dave Fatula,
founder of Guineafowl Adventure Company
Many of us remember when leaving the office meant leaving work. Unfortunately, fewer of us remember what it felt like to spend time at home without work texts, emails, and meetings lurking. The ubiquitous adoption of technology over just a few years makes carrying our computers in our back pockets feel natural.
Our brains haven’t evolved as fast as our dependence on technology, which leaves most of us feeling burnt out. Access to information is a double-edged sword in modern life. Email, text messages, cloud-based file sharing, and digital databases allow for efficient workflow. But, conversely, the time we’ve created for relaxation and enjoyment is filled with more work. So are we getting more done?
Even before the COVID19 pandemic added challenges to our work lives, employees showed the negative side-effects of the American workaholic mindset. A Harvard Business Review study found 84% of employees reporting at least one workplace factor that negatively impacted their mental health. Post pandemic numbers promise to rise as remote work creates communication challenges and limits our ability to connect with colleagues for support.
Workplace burnout is not a result of the pandemic; instead, the pandemic was the hurricane that revealed the buried shipwreck on the beach. Lying just beneath that stack of papers on your desk and the growing number of unread emails in your inbox is the fear that you’ll never get ahead of your workload. Seemingly, you’re the only one who is struggling to keep your boat from sinking. So you continue to fling buckets of ocean water out of your boat. After 5 pm, after you’ve crawled in bed, after your daughter’s Saturday soccer game. You won’t allow yourself to drown.
That’s how burnout feels. The crushing burden of a endless to-do list, growing with every email, text, slack message, and zoom meeting. Of course, it’s cured by deleting those apps on your phone–but who is brave enough to do such a thing in 2022?
Perhaps we can put them on mute for a weekend instead of deleting apps. Then, instead of buying a bigger bucket to scoop water out of our boats, we can row to shore and plug the hole causing the leak.
We can take a vacation, and give our work a chance to miss us (I promise, it will be ok without you for a few days).
Our reliance on technology is evident in those muscle-memory reactions when our devices ding or vibrate to life with a notification. Without thinking, our hand reaches for the device to absolve the small alert and respond to the message. Sometimes, the noise or vibration sparks an emotional reaction–be it dread or delight. We are Pavlov's dogs, salivating at the sound of big-tech’s drumbeat.
The reset button for our bodies and brains has been in plain sight the whole time, yet few look closely enough to discover it. Ferris Bueller said it well in the now-famous movie about his day off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Removing the beehive of distractions in our tech devices and allowing our brains to slow down to their natural rhythm is essential to restoring our bodies balance. When was the last time you were bored enough to turn off your work-brain and play?
Play, in its proper childhood form, has always been a cure. First, we engage our bodies and brains in unison to create rules for games we’ve made up, and then we gallop through the woods, creating castles out of branches and rocks.
Adult forms of playing – such as hiking, biking, and running – stimulate the production of endorphins and endocannabinoids – the feel-good hormones. Endorphins reduce the pain our bodies experience during physical exercise. But endocannabinoids, which improve mood and calm anxiety, play a role in that post-exercise sense of happiness – the runner’s high if you will.
Spending time outdoors evokes a powerful psychological response. The American Psychological Association found links between time spent outdoors and mental health benefits, such as “improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation.” So the fight against burnout and depression gets a one-two punch when you take your exercise to nature.
If you ask an athlete about their body’s ability to perform under stress, they’ll tell you it’s good for training until it’s not. For example, competitive runners spend three to five weeks increasing their workload – stress – then reduce stress for a week, allowing their bodies to recover. It’s called periodized training. We can apply the same concept to other stressors, like work.
Some stress in our lives is good. But achieving progress – in aerobic capacity or work output – requires a delicate balance of work and recovery. When done correctly, a balance of work and vacation creates a sustainable way of working, living, and enjoying both.
In response to their research, Harvard Business Review suggests employers change their work culture to be more flexible. “Promoting autonomy, establishing boundaries, and creating norms around communications, responsiveness, and urgency can go a long way toward building a mentally healthy culture,” HBR writes.
Work culture is the combination of top-down and bottom-up changes. So when managers lead by example – eliminating after-hours emails and unplugging on vacations – it encourages employees to do the same.
While taking a week-long vacation every month may not be practical, employers and employees can learn from elite athletes. Long-term stress creates diminishing returns. Instead, time away from work is shown to boost productivity. But, of course, like most antidotes, one treatment isn’t enough. So, repeat as necessary.
Guineafowl Adventure Company provides full-service, turnkey guided day hikes in the White Mountains and beyond for people of all abilities and experience levels. We take care of all the planning and preparation for hiking and provide round-trip transportation from the Greater Boston area, day packs with hydration and snacks, safety and convenience items, and friendly, knowledgeable, and experienced guides to lead the way!
Guineafowl's mission is to remove the barriers and obstacles that keep people from exploring nature, so they can feel comfortable, safe, and relaxed while experiencing the physical and mental health benefits of hiking and connecting with nature.