How to Prevent Burnout by Spending Time in Nature

Photo of blooming trees showing how spending time in nature can prevent burnout
Photo by Christine John

It was Saturday night. My heart started racing as I realized that tomorrow was Sunday. The more I thought about it the more difficult it became to breathe. Panic started to rise up so I went out on my patio and watched the sunset. As I looked up at the sky, watching the blue turn to pink and then slowly fade, my heart rate slowed down. I didn’t work on Sundays. In fact, it was usually a day reserved for hobbies and doing things I enjoyed. But the dreaded thought that the following day was Monday, was enough to make my heart pound. I found that most of the time, spending time in nature was the only thing that helped prevent what I later learned were symptoms of burnout.

The next morning I set out for a long walk in the woods. Winter was melting into spring and the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn a bright green. I walked leisurely, making sure to stop and notice all of the small details, and took a few photos as well. When I returned home, I felt calm and relaxed. This soon became a necessary part of my weekend routine, as it helped me to manage increasing symptoms of burnout.

At First I Didn’t Notice The Signs of Burnout

The previous fall, I had started a new job, in a new city, doing something a little different and I thought that my symptoms were due to normal anxiety. But as the anxiety grew, I knew that there was more to it. Six months earlier I had started working at a hospital. I was in charge of a group of children, ages 6-12, who struggled with behaviors and mental health issues. In addition, I also worked with families of teens who were staying in the hospital, helping them navigate a very challenging time.

Social work is not new to me. I’ve been doing it for years. And while I have frequently struggled with feelings of stress and concern for others in such a demanding field, I never felt anxiety quite like this. Something about this job had me unable to even sleep at night. As spring approached, our numbers had begun to climb and the size of my group began to grow. At the same time, I struggled to keep up with the sheer numbers of families whose teens had fallen into bouts of anxiety and depression. The higher the numbers grew, the worse my anxiety became. By Sunday night, I was generally unable to even eat, much less get a good night’s sleep. It was during this time that I discovered how spending time in nature can help prevent burnout.

Photo of pond showing how spending time in nature can prevent burnout
Photo by Christine John

76 Percent of Medical Professionals Report Symptoms of Burnout

60 percent of the public sector in the United States and 40 percent of the private sector report experiencing high levels of burnout. That’s a pretty big number. Add to that, a staggering 76 percent of medical professionals who report symptoms of burnout sometime during their career. And those were the statistics prior to COVID 19. Burnout is not only bad for us physically and mentally, but it’s bad for business as well. Burnout can lead to medical errors, substance abuse and even suicide. It has also led to a loss of over $300 billion profits due to employees feeling overworked.

Fortunately, one thing we know for sure is that nature can help. A study in the Journal of Global Environmental Change (2013) reports that people feel significantly happier outdoors than they do indoors. Nature can decrease heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. Exercising while in nature adds an extra benefit as exercise can reduce fatigue and improve cognitive functioning. According to Scientific Report (2019) 120 minutes a week in nature correlates to good health and well-being. Unfortunately, most of us spend less than 5% of our waking hours outside. During times of high stress, it becomes vital that we spend at least 120 minutes a week outdoors. Spending more time in nature can help us to avoid burnout.

Photo of path through trees showing how spending time in nature can prevent burnout
Photo by Christine John

12 Signs of Burnout

How do you know if you are suffering from burnout? Here are some of the signs:

  1. Low motivation
  2. Increased errors at work
  3. Fatigue
  4. Headaches, dizziness, or shortness of breath
  5. Irritability
  6. Increased frustration
  7. Insomnia
  8. Forgetfulness
  9. Anxiety
  10. Depression
  11. Loss of appetite
  12. Increased illness

6 Ways to Prevent Burnout by Spending Time in Nature

The following tips can help to prevent or manage burnout:

  1. Eat healthy. The tendency to just grab something and eat at our desk in order to keep working can actually work against us. Take some time to visit a community garden or local farmer’s market and buy healthy produce for the week.
  2. Take time away from work. It’s important to take short breaks and get outdoors on a regular basis. It’s also equally important to make sure you are taking vacations and holidays to give yourself a chance to recuperate. Schedule time for both short and long adventures outdoors.
  3. Exercise outdoors. Exercise can increase focus, lift mood and lower stress levels. Exercising outdoors magnifies these benefits.
  4. Find a creative outlet and include nature. It doesn’t matter what you do or if you are good at it, but be sure to spend some time doing something creative. Incorporate nature by doing something creative outdoors.
  5. Take up gardening. The magic of gardening is that it provides a way to eat healthier, exercise, get creative and spend time outdoors.
  6. Just get outside. Take a walk, nap in the sunshine, eat your lunch at the park. Be sure that you are outdoors at least 120 minutes a week.