To Beat Burnout, Be Good at Ignoring Things

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Nurse Jackie.Photo: Showtime

While the quantitative estimates on what burnout costs U.S. businesses vary widely, from $150 to $550 billion a year, the qualitative truth is that burnout sucks. Burnout happens when you feel emotionally exhausted, you’re not stretching your abilities, and you no longer give a damn about the people benefiting from the fruits of your labor. It might have something to do with how Americans work more weekends, vacation less, and retire closer to their deaths than those unserious Europeans.

Finding the ways that people deal with it could be helpful to not only those mired in its more extreme forms, but to the 70 percent of Americans who show up to work feeling less than engaged. Canada, as usual, is full of clues.

In a new study in the journal Health Care Management Review written up by Stat’s Casey Ross, 596 Canadian nurses completed two mail surveys over the course of a year. It revealed, in Ross’s estimation, a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: The nurses who thought they could ignore “workplace incivility” (read: their co-workers’ bullshit) were less bothered by it and reported lower rates of burnout. If you think that your colleagues’ rudeness won’t get under your skin, it’s less likely to.

This is a survey-based, self-reported study, so it would be great to see an experimental follow-up to get better understanding of how these dynamics work. At the same time, there’s reason to believe that nurses are an especially good population for understanding the interpersonal dynamics of burnout, since their work is so social and medical culture is still so unfortunately harsh.

The stakes are high: A big-time 2015 study found that rudeness can kill patients, since it harms your ability to handle information and make good decisions. “You can be highly motivated to work, but if rudeness damages your cognitive system then you can’t function appropriately in a complex situation,” co-author Amir Erez, a management professor at the University of Florida, told Science of Us at the time. “And that hurts patients.”

It’s all further evidence that your emotions are part of how you think, and that taking care of them allows you to do better, more sustaining work. So if your co-workers get on your nerves, take a step back and consider — well, maybe they don’t.