Jacob Stinson was considered to be the star in his recruiting class five years ago, but recently his performance had begun to decline. His latest performance review had been the first one where he received less than stellar comments and scores. As a high achiever, he felt he had to do something and decided to seek counseling from the company’s employee assistance program (EAP). He knew that he had become burned out but didn’t have a way to deal with this.

The EAP counselor, Natalie Fullmer, began her meeting with Jacob by asking him to describe his previous day at work. Then she asked him what he would do as soon as their meeting was over.

NF:         Jacob, it’s clear that you have many balls in the air. You are obviously good at multitasking. And it seems like everyone counts on you. You seem to be wired to respond to a wide cross-section of stimuli. What do you do for relaxation?

JS:           I don’t have a lot of time to relax, but when I do I like to play video games.

After some additional questions, Natalie had some ideas for Jacob.

NF:         It seems like you are experiencing something called Directed Attention Fatigue. Think of your attention as if it were a muscle. When you are constantly on alert to your environment, your attention muscle begins to tire. That creates the burnout you are describing.

When you describe your work day, your brain may not be able to cope with the high level of attention you are asking of it.

JS:           WOW!! I think you have nailed what’s going on, but I don’t see what I can do to change what I’m doing now. My job demands a lot of attention.

NF:         I understand, but you need to dial back on what is creating your attention fatigue. Your job may be demanding, but you can control what fascinates you.

JS:           What? Now you are beginning to sound like a new-age guru. What does fascination have to do with burnout?

NF:         You told me that you enjoy playing video games. That requires a lot of attention. You are just wearing down your attention muscle even more by what fascinates you. We call this hard fascination because it’s highly stimulating. What you need to do is take time for soft fascination.

JS:           Can you give me an example of soft fascination?

NF:         Sure. It’s something that is just stimulating enough to engage the brain without requiring a lot of attention. Some researchers suggest that spending time in nature is a good way to practice soft fascination. They call this Attention Restoration Therapy. Research has actually shown that soft fascination can restore attention.

JS:           What else is an example of soft fascination?

NF:         Anything that allows your mind to wander can be restorative. Household chores like doing the dishes or laundry. Watching birds at a feeder or looking at cloud patterns are other examples. There is a lot of environmental music you might enjoy. For me, I enjoy watching the ballet. But what you need to do is an experiment. Find what helps you wind down.

JS:           Natalie, I have to be honest, I never thought that our EAP program was something I needed, but you’ve proven me wrong.

* * *

“Take a rest; A field that has rested grows a beautiful crop.” – Ovid (Roman Poet)

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