April 14, 2023

Personal Sustainability at Work: Embracing Non-Attachment to Build Resilience without Burnout.

We all know of sustainability in the context of the Earth’s finite resources, but we too often forget that our resources are also finite.

Just as we cannot continue to deplete the Earth’s resources without causing long-term harm to future generations, we cannot continue to push ourselves to burnout without directly and indirectly affecting ourselves, our families, and society as a whole.

Sustaining our energy levels and mental state is critical in the face of increasing pressure and stress from our careers. Too often, the culture of resilience in a work environment is employed as a cover for ever-increasing productivity demands in the workplace and is associated with the loss of personal sustainability and eventual burnout—instead of embracing the positive aspects of resilience, in which people actually recover quickly from change and setbacks, we are increasingly demonstrating resilience without truly feeling resilient.

In the face of an increased workload and a lack of accompanying pay increase, the expected response from workers is to adapt and embrace the change with resilience and a positive attitude. This response is great, but it is only sustainable if these workers have adequate strategies to truly embody these values. Many employees will act resilient, outwardly demonstrate adaptability, and embrace the challenges thrown at them simply because this is the “mask” they are expected to wear at work. They’re playing a role, demonstrating the ideal response while lacking the ability to replenish their energy in a way that reflects the true spirit of resilience.

When we do not have adequate strategies to replenish our energy, fulfill our personal goals, and live in alignment with our values while meeting our career needs, we can quickly become wrapped up in work and reach a stage of burnout, especially when the demands placed on us are continuously increasing with little personal benefit in sight.

The current economy allows little room for negotiating pay increases, and while getting a new job might be the solution in some cases, the reality is that a new job is likely to result in the same kind of scenario—that common feeling of being overworked, underpaid, and lacking in personal time.

So, what can we do to increase our resilience in a way that benefits us instead of simply meeting company goals and facilitating company progress?

Non-attachment is a great method for “letting go” and facilitating a stronger boundary between ourselves and our careers, sustaining our inner selves and promoting adaptability, productivity, and resilience from a place of fulfillment instead of a need to produce and achieve outcomes for companies regardless of the personal cost.

Non-attachment is not the same thing as detachment; non-attachment involves the avoidance of tying ourselves to both positive and negative outcomes to allow ourselves to be present in the moment and free from the effects of our emotions and stress tied to outcome-focused approaches.

Burnout can occur rapidly when we take our work and our feelings about it with us wherever we go. We have a tendency to think about work tasks, such as emails, while we’re socializing with our friends or enjoying a family dinner. With the rise in working from home since COVID-19, it has become increasingly difficult to separate our work lives from our home lives, and remote jobs have a tendency to consume at least part of our personal time each day.

We find ourselves developing thought patterns that lead us to believe there will be negative outcomes if we don’t check Slack before going to bed, or that engaging in work-related conversations out of hours will have positive outcomes. These behaviors creep in over time and can become automatic, especially as work demands increase and we become overwhelmed in response. Attempts at obtaining downtime can become filled with thoughts of “but I have to finish that report tomorrow,” and even though we’re not currently working on that report, it is occupying space in our minds. We are, effectively, working while not working by allowing these thoughts to remain at the forefront of our consciousness. This act of working while not working slowly drains our mental resources and takes from our ability to replenish our energy in between work sessions.

Here’s an example of how to bring non-attachment into your work mindset to reclaim your non-work self and actually feel resilient in the face of ever-increasing demands:

Take a week to evaluate the role of work in your life.

1. Make a note of when you are thinking about work outside of working hours.

2. Note when you are doing work outside of working hours.

3. Ask yourself “Am I doing this for a specific positive outcome?” “Am I doing this to avoid a specific negative outcome?” If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” ask yourself if the perceived outcome is realistically likely to happen and if there is any concrete benefit to you in pursuing this outcome.

4. Make a note of how you are using your working hours.

5. Make a note of how you are using your personal time (including, in particular, how much of your planned personal time ends up becoming somehow work-focused).

6. Make a note of the personal values that you feel excessive attention to work are diminishing. For example, perhaps you value and are fulfilled by family time, yet you’re finding yourself emailing during dinner instead of being present with your family.

7. Review your lists and make a plan to extract work from the areas of your life that work does not belong.

8. Determine the type and amount of personal time you need to feel replenished each day; make a list of your personal values and prioritize them in your personal time plan.

9. Set a daily schedule for checking emails/Slack messages/DMs, and so on that will allow you to accomplish the requirements of your role without encroaching on your personal time.

10. Evaluate each thing that you are tying to outcomes and identify the ones that are not specifically tied to a beneficial outcome or a job requirement. For example, if you are working late to meet a specific deadline, this is a beneficial outcome since you are required to complete this task; however, if you are working late because you think it will look good to your colleagues or because you’re afraid you’ll miss something if you don’t check your email at night, these outcomes are intangible and provide no benefit to you. Instead, this form of working late takes from your mental resources and could make you less productive overall given that you are expending energy on nonspecific/non-beneficial outcomes.

11. Break your attachment to non-beneficial outcomes

12. Keep your list of non-beneficial outcomes that you are attached to somewhere that you can readily refer to it.

13. Every time you find yourself thinking about or doing work outside of your planned working hours, remind yourself that you are using up resources that are tied to non-beneficial outcomes and practice letting go of your attachment. For example, if you find yourself opening up your Slack app before bed, remind yourself that there is nothing on there that can’t wait until your scheduled working hours the following day, put your phone down, and take a moment to refocus yourself on relaxation (or whatever else you were doing). If you find yourself thinking about doing some of tomorrow’s work in the evening, ask yourself if you will actually work less tomorrow as a result or if you will continue to bring the subsequent day’s work into the next day, and the next, and the next until suddenly all your downtime is eaten up by “working ahead to get a break.” Break your attachment to this non-existent break by taking your daily personal time and experiencing it in the moment without focusing on what is on tomorrow’s to-do list.

14. Find a way that works quickly to bring you into a non-attachment state (for example, this could be mentally visualizing picking up a work task and placing it into tomorrow in your mind) and practice it. Over time, you will begin to subconsciously notice when your mind wanders to work tasks during your personal time, and the neural networks you form while practicing non-attachment will allow you to perform this task effortlessly and naturally.

Realistically, we can do very little about the tasks we’re required to do for work. However, we can set boundaries with ourselves to keep work from taking up our valuable downtime. Learning how to practice non-attachment in relation to unrealistic, non-existent, or non-beneficial outcomes can be an excellent way to set that boundary between the personal self and the work self and allow ourselves time for mental and energy replenishment outside of the working environment. This approach benefits our personal lives and our careers as it helps prevent the decrease in joy and productivity that occurs when we burn out.

Developing a mindset and strategy toward work that allows us to replenish our energy, maintain our mental state, and obtain a sense of fulfillment in our personal lives naturally translates into true workplace resilience without the risk of burnout since we are approaching our work with sufficient resources to meet the demands.


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