Boggled by Burnout

Posted: October 12, 2016 Author: Patti Dipanfilo


burnout at work can lead to increased risk for mental illness and other diseases

iStock photo

In this age of sparse staffs and limitless job descriptions, more employees are staying at work longer, taking work home with them and making themselves available to the office on days off. They do this to get projects “done by deadline.” That’s a great benefit for the employers, but it can lead the employees straight into job burnout!


Burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion related to work. It causes a lack of motivation, decreased productivity, feelings of helplessness, and negative or cynical attitudes in affected employees. Those with burnout might also begin to doubt their capabilities and the value of their efforts.


A 2016 study, discussed in Frontiers in Psychology, reports that working harder and longer hours are not the only reasons for the development of burnout. This study showed that a mismatch between employees’ unconscious needs and the opportunities and demands at the workplace put them at risk for burnout. For example, it’s a mismatch if you need to develop positive personal relationships to feel like you belong and there are no opportunities to do this in your current job.


Supporting this, the World Health Organization released a comprehensive report on stress in the workplace. In the report, WHO agreed that there were individual and organizational factors involved in the development of burnout. They identified consistent evidence that “high job demands, low control and effort-reward imbalances are risk factors for mental and physical health problems.”


Burnout affects our mental health and with it, our performance on the job. But that’s not all. Continued exposure to the stress associated with burnout can have a negative effect on our physical health as well. It can lead to anxiety, immune disorders, insomnia, brain changes and cognitive deficits, and depression. Further, a 2013 study at Tel Aviv University showed a strong link between burnout and coronary heart disease (CHD).


CHD is the build-up of plaque material in your coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart. CHD can lead to chest pain (angina) and heart attacks. Burnout had already been linked to other heart risk factors, including obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and increased cholesterol. In the 2013 study, subjects identified as being in the top 20 percent on the burnout scale were discovered to have a 79 percent increased risk for CHD.


Burnout also has serious effects on the brain. The latest research, as reported by the Association for Psychological Science, shows that the chronic stress that characterizes burnout causes changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.


Several research studies have looked at certain parts of the brain in people with burnout compared to healthy subjects using specialized MRIs. They have discovered actual physical changes in the size and shape of areas of the brain in overstressed individuals. Alterations have also been noted in certain brain functions such as maintaining the level of glutamate in the body and regulating the neuroendocrine system. This explains how chronic stress leads to changes in mood, learning and memory, which are common with burnout.


There’s a rainbow at the end of this rainstorm, however. Most of the negative effects of burnout can be halted and, in some cases, reversed. The answer isn’t simply quitting your job. That causes a whole different stress. But there are some steps you can take that might help relieve the stress of the situation you’re currently in and help you feel better. Here are a few tips from the Mayo Clinic:


  • Identify the stressors – Once you’ve discovered what’s fueling your burnout, you can create a plan to address those issues.
  • Evaluate your options – Talk to your supervisor about solutions. Maybe there’s an opportunity to change expectations or reach a compromise. Discuss your options for personal and professional growth on the job.
  • Adjust your attitude – Improve your outlook. Think of the things about your work that you find enjoyable and satisfying.
  • Assess your interests, skills and passions – Honestly evaluate if you’re doing a job that reflects your interests and core values.
  • Exercise – Physical activity can help you deal better with stress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *