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What can NHS staff learn about tackling burnout from elite sports people?

Written by: Karen Meager
Published on: 21 May 2024


As a psychologist and researcher into burnout recovery, I’ve long been curious about why some people can bounce back quickly after a period of exertion while others find it hard and remain drained for longer. 

In clinical professions, the problem is exacerbated by unending pressure, dealing with distressed people and, in the current NHS workplace, the inability to feel like you are delivering what you ought to for patients.

Traditional remedies for burnout are frequently unrealistic and assume you have a lot of control over your time or you have to leave your job, which sadly many people working in the NHS feel forced to do. 

In the quest to find ways to help clinicians avoid and recover well from the pressures of their work, I delved into the world of elite sports to see whether I could learn any interesting lessons about rest that could be applied to a healthcare setting.

What the sports world can teach us

In elite sports, athletes only ‘perform’ during a  competition, race or match. At other times they are either resting or practising. They spend far longer in these rest and practice phases than in performing mode, but what they do in this time is a critical part of what helps them to perform when it matters. 

These phases are simple to see in sport which makes it a great case study, but how do you adapt this approach into the messy reality of working in an NHS  role? One of the key takeaways is to think about your work in terms of two phases.

1. Find your version of the ‘performance window’

A performance window is when you are doing your most intensive and focused work, where you need to be fully present. You may enjoy this work phase
as it is usually when you are doing the work that only you can do. 

It’s common for people to believe they are performing all the time, but if you analyse your tasks throughout the day, you will probably find times when you do not need to be operating at 100%. 

Rather than differentiating between activities that require 100% effort and those that don’t, people who burn out often work at 100% all the time. The key is in knowing where you need to be ‘full on’ and where you can ‘power down’.

2. Take as much of the right type of rest as you can

Sports professionals don’t just stop when they are in a rest phase. Many of them remain fairly active but rest essential parts – usually whatever muscles are activated in their particular sport. They also need a rest from the pressure of competition. 

Working in the NHS means there is not much time for planned breaks, but if you can analyse the work you do in your performance window and how it drains you, you can find ways to recuperate while doing other tasks. 

The type of rest you need is specific to each of us. Some people need social or emotional rest, so doing routine work that you can do alone will provide that. Some people need mental rest, if their work requires a lot of focus and concentration. Others will need physical rest, so it helps to build in short periods of sitting or standing amidst all the rushing around when you can. 

A surgeon might find operating mentally taxing but get ‘rest’ when talking to patients or consulting with colleagues, for example. Alternatively, they may find the surgery itself quite restful, but dealing with people is emotionally draining. Once you know the type of rest you need, you can reduce the amount of energy you expend on some tasks, leaving you with a bit more in the tank at the end of shift.

Everyone’s energy is different, therefore any remedy to tiredness or exhaustion must be tailored. Thinking about your work in terms of how it drains you, will help you to identify your performance window and work around it, getting the right kind of rest when you can. 

About the author

Karen Meager is co-author of ‘Rest. Practise. Perform.: What elite sport can teach leaders about sustainable wellbeing and performance’. Karen holds Masters degrees in psychology and health research, and her specialist research area is mental health and burnout in organisations.