How to avoid burnout: why embracing curiosity could help us handle stress

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Lauren Geall
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Curiosity could be the secret to avoiding burnout and dealing with stress – here’s how to unlock this potential superpower.

“Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures,” is a quote which dominates the pages of inspirational quote sites and Instagram feeds alike. It’s usually pasted on a mysterious background of a person walking off into the wilderness, or a pair of teenagers treading their way along an abandoned train track.

For years, curiosity has remained an almost unattainable ideal – a quality reserved for the most daring adventure seekers and wanderlust-filled travelers, searching for the deepest, most mysterious depths of the world.

But what if I was to tell you that curiosity is actually a quality we could – and should – be nurturing on a daily basis? That being curious is actually vitally important for your mental health? That asking questions, researching new ideas and tackling problems in the workplace is just as curious a venture as setting off across the world?

“Curiosity has many benefits,” explains Lucy Hackshaw, Leadership Futurist and Executive Coach at Flux.“It helps us see problems as opportunities. It enables ‘flow’, which encourages creative and strategic thinking to problem solve and adapt.

“And studies are now showing us that curiosity displaces stress, anxiety and depression,” she continues, “all of which limit cognitive potential and the ability to access high cognitive skills such as advanced communication and negotiation.”

Woman stressed
Curiosity in the workplace could help you to avoid career-based burnout

Hackshaw knows a thing or two about the power of curiosity to refresh both your personal and professional lives. Having experienced extreme chronic burnout after launching a stressful (but extremely successful) retail business, Hackshaw decided she needed a change. Now, she’s spearheading a campaign to help female leaders and managers off the path to burnout – by nurturing their innate curiosity.

“Humans are born curious, keen to explore, and to seek new and novel ways of doing things. But curiosity needs to be cultivated, especially in today’s society where cognitive overload and burnout are rife,” she explains.

Burnout – defined by the World Health Organisation as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” – is the direct result of our current tendencies to work longer, take on more responsibilities and feel extreme pressure to succeed. Characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, feelings of negativity  and decreased productivity and success in the workplace, burnout can lead to some serious mental health problems.

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While in an ideal world we would all reduce our working hours and take on less responsibility, that’s not always an option, especially if you work in a high-pressure industry – and that’s where nurturing your natural curiosity could come in to the equation.

“Cultivating curiosity can help us off the path to burnout both in work life and our day to day lives,” explains Hackshaw. “It can help restore a sense of calm, increase creativity and develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

“In the workplace curiosity is best when directed, as it focuses our attention and behaviour toward activities that facilitate learning, competence, and self-determination, providing a sense of meaning and wellbeing,” she adds. “This is key to sustainable performance, growth and innovation.”

And its not only our career-lives where curiosity can help us get a hold of stress and help us to avoid burnout – its an important skill for navigating the world on a day-to-day basis. Asking “why?” or “how?” is more than just a venture in finding out information: in fact, it can help us to develop key interpersonal skills such as understanding and empathy. 

Woman being curious and doing a sculpture
Nurture your curiosity by seeking out knowledge on tasks and topics you're intrigued by.

So, how exactly do we go about nurturing our curiosity? For Hackshaw, it comes from our ability to admit the things we don’t know.

“Start by owning your human fallibility, your citizenship, open up to what you don’t know and can’t control,” she tells Stylist. “Say to yourself, ‘what do I know about x’ – notice the gaps and seek out that information. Curiosity is only possible if we’re honest and take responsibility for what we know, and are honest about what we don’t.”

Activities such as trying a new class, visiting a place you’ve never been before, or simply trying a new recipe are all things which nurture our curiosity, Hackshaw adds. You could even try out a new form of exercise (weight lifting, anyone?) or visit the first restaurant in your area that pops up on Google.

“Start small and allow yourself the opportunity to notice what interests you, what you’d like to know more about, and how you can gather that information,” Hackshaw advises. 

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Changing the way we approach the world might not be an overnight task, but its clear that taking the time to explore and learn new things every once in a while is an extremely worthwhile endeavour.

With our toxic overtime culture, tumultuous political atmosphere and background stress about the environment and the climate crisis, burnout is more prevalent than ever. And while making sure you take part in some dedicated self-care and look after your body and mind is still extremely important, curiosity could be the key to your own personal adventure, even if it’s only a psychological one.

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This article was originally published on 11 September 2019, and has been updated throughout.

Images: Getty


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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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