This may surprise you, but stress is one of the greatest threats to workplace safety. At work, stress manifests itself as burnout.
The data on wellbeing and satisfaction in the workplace shows that a large proportion of workers experience burnout in most industrialized countries. In Germany, research shows that 2.7 million workers report feeling the effects of burnout. In the UK, nearly 30% of all the workers surveyed reported burnout.
What is burnout?
Burnout is an insidious condition. It develops slowly, usually over a long period of time but the consequences for your health can be life-long.
The term burnout was first used by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, defining the loss of motivation and an increasing sense of emotional depletion and cynicism he observed in his patients.
Christina Maslach, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the foremost researchers on burnout, began studying this phenomenon in the 1970s. Later on, she published her research in an article titled “Burned Out,” in the magazine Human Behavior in 1976, followed by the Maslach Burnout Inventory in 1981. In her research, Professor Maslach noticed a trend: the workers she surveyed often reported profound emotional exhaustion, feelings of negativity and cynicism, detachment from their professional achievements, and a lack of self-esteem.
The highest rates of burnout are seen in workers of professions that involve caregiving — nurses, teachers, therapists, social workers, and physicians — but burnout doesn’t discriminate among types of jobs or genders.
In fact, independently from gender, work-related stress and burnout are very common. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that monitors stress in the workplace:
• 40 percent of workers reported their jobs being very or extremely stressful
• 25 percent of workers view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives
• 29 percent of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work
• 26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.
And it is not just the workers that say their stress is on the rise. In fact, 75 percent of employers believe that workers are exposed to more on-the-job stress than just a generation ago.
Research also shows that among all workers, working mothers, regardless of whether they are married or single, face higher stress levels both in the workplace and at home, particularly when they do not have a lot of support from others.
There are three types of burnout that have been identified
1. The first type is caused by OVERLOAD, which means that people work extremely long hours and are not taking enough recovery time between working days. These are the people we identify as workaholics. These people are generally willing to risk their health and personal life balance for their ambition. According to research, certain personality traits, like being a Type A high-achiever, represents a higher risk for this type of burnout. Usually, the coping mechanism for this type of burnout is to complain about the amount of workload they do.
2. The second type of burnout manifests when people feel that their work is a CHALLENGE either because they don’t feel valued or because they feel that their job lacks professional or personal growth and learning. These people find no passion or motivation in their work. They cope with these feelings by distancing themselves from their job. This particular type of occupational stress leads workers to develop feelings of negativity, cynicism, and disengagement from their role and responsibilities.
3. The third type of burnout is the one that results from feelings of HOPELESSNESS at work either because the worker feels incompetent or unable to fulfill the demands of their job or because they feel helpless and end up being passive and lacking motivation.
Two researchers, Nelson & Burke, wrote a fantastic book on work-related stress called Gender, Work Stress, and Health. Among the many work-related stressors, they cite:
• issues of gender differences like glass ceilings or gender pay gap;
• discrimination, including issues of corporate masculinity and gender role strain;
• social-sexual behaviors in the workplace;
• economy-related job insecurity;
Nelson and Burke also talk about two interesting work-related stress phenomena: the stress of work-home conflicts and the problem of cross-over stress (i.e., the stress from work that individuals transfer to their partner at home).
Moreover, science shows that burnout is not just an emotional response to long hours of work but it also has a ripple effect on the brain and body as well.
Burnout affects workers’ professional growth and chronic psychosocial stress can impair their personal and social functioning. In addition, the physical exhaustion that characterizes burnout can affect their cognitive skills and create a chronic overactivation of their stress response.
This can have toxic effects on their neuroendocrine and immune systems and can lead to long term negative effects on the health of their brain and body. The effects are so serious that burnout is now recognized as a medical disorder defined as “a state of vital exhaustion.”
How can you tell if you are burned out?
The symptoms of burnout are very similar to those of depression and include
- 1. Physical symptoms (e.g., extreme exhaustion, frequent headaches, and pain issues)
- 2. Frequent illnesses
- 3. A generalized sense of overwhelm
- 4. Dissatisfaction, loss of motivation or feeling helpless
- 5. Withdrawal from responsibilities and interactions with people
- 6. Procrastination
- 7. Lack of concentration
- 8. Growing cynicism and negativity toward your workplace or your career
- 9. Changes in self-care habits (e.g., eating, exercising and sleeping)
- 10. Mood disorders (e.g., anger, irritability, anxiety, and depression)
Burnout and The Brain
The stress that leads to burnout makes workers feel threatened by the unpredictable nature of future demands, which in turn threatens their sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Over time, employees lose their sense of control and feel inadequate to fulfill excessive or unreasonable demands and deadlines, or they don’t feel valued for their continued efforts. Thus, they start experiencing feelings of negativity and hopelessness to the point that all job-related matters become stressors.
Ultimately, burnout is the result of your stress response being activated in a chronic way that is toxic to your brain. As for all types of toxic stress, burnout shows up when the demands (i.e., the stressors) outweigh the capacity of our nervous system to cope with them.
Richard Gunderman, a professor at Indiana University, defines burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own.”
Professor Armita Golkar, from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University in Sweden, using functional MRIs, studied a group of 40 subjects with diagnosed burnout symptoms due to stressful working conditions (such as long hours of work per week for several years), and compared them with healthy control subjects with no history of chronic stress.
The results showed that those diagnosed with burnout had more difficulty regulating their negative emotions compared with the healthy control subjects, and the MRIs of the two groups showed differences in their amygdala — a brain structure important for emotional reactions such as fear.
The group of subjects diagnosed with burnout had an enlarged amygdala, and less connections between the amygdala and other regions of the brain such as the anterior cingulate cortex (an area of the brain linked to emotional stress) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) — the part of our brain that controls our executive functions such as cognition, attention, creativity, problem solving, and memory.
These changes are probably due to the effects of stress on the brain that cause an increased release of glutamate, a neurochemical that is toxic for some brain regions and damages them. The chronic effects of burnout on the brain are similar to those of exposure to severe trauma.
These effects are due to the fact that our brain is very plastic and the connections between areas can change based on the conditions to which our brain is exposed.
This capacity of the brain is what is called neuroplasticity.
In addition to dysregulation in brain function, science suggests that burnout also leads to an imbalance of the body’s neuroendocrine system because it dysregulates the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal (HPA) axis that controls our stress response and the release of the “stress hormone” cortisol.
When we are exposed to chronic and toxic stress, such as in burnout, the HPA axis is overactivated and creates a chronic cycle of negative effects that increases the risk for health conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke.
The good news is that the effects of burnout are reversible!
Professor Bruce McEwen from Rockefeller University researches the effects of stress hormones on the brain and the body. His research shows that the chronic stress associated with burnout impacts specific areas of the brain — leading to the changes in mood, learning, and memory.
McEwen has found evidence that the negative effects of toxic stress may be reversible with adequate recovery and self-care that restores balance to our nervous system.
Basically, we can activate the same neuroplasticity that creates negative conditions in the burnout state to rewire our brain for growth and wellbeing.
By practicing the rituals that I share in my free audio-training you can activate your brain’s neuroplasticity and literally rewire it. You will strengthen your nervous system’s capacity to handle stress and you may experience what is called stress-related growth.
This growth manifests when you overcome a challenge in your life that makes you feel satisfied and empowered. Like hiking to the top of a mountain, getting an A on a test, or any other accomplishment you have worked hard for.
This feeling of satisfaction and self-worthiness is the result of the release of a substance called dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is released when your brain feels pleasure or is rewarded. Like when you are at in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship or when you win an athletic competition or finish a marathon.
The very nature of practicing rituals is that it creates for your brain a constant and predictable experience of progress and success, which is the exact opposite of the experience of stress that leads to burnout. When you choose to practice my rituals you are creating the conditions to counteract the effects of burnout.
As always make sure that you are very specific about what your goal and the meaning is for your ritual.
For example, you may choose to reduce your stress at work by managing your negative thoughts related to yourself or your workplace. For this goal, you could you use the “Tame Your Brain” Ritual that I share in the audio-training. You can use this ritual for any excessive activity of your brain: limiting beliefs, anxiety, rumination, and intrusive thoughts.
Using this technique you are telling your brain that you are in charge and instead of trying to make the thoughts go away you will switch to healthier behaviors. As a result, you begin to re-value yourself and with time, you will learn to create an environment for yourself that fosters better and healthier boundaries, more assertiveness for your needs, and possibly renewed joy and passion in what you do.
Other ways to counterbalance the effects of burnout are
1. Schedule a time for a hobby or a playtime activity;
2. Practice meditation and mindfulness exercises;
3. Incorporate more time outdoors and in nature;
4. Spend more time with your friends or your loved ones. Healthy relationships are the key to stress reduction.
5. Finally—if you realize that the symptoms you are experiencing are serious and limiting your growth or impacting your health—please consider talking with a mental health professional about what you are experiencing.
Asking for help is the best act of self-care that you can learn.
No matter which strategy you decide to practice, over time your brain will become used to experiencing positive feelings of satisfaction and will build new neural connections that can support your neuroplasticity and rewire you for optimism.
You might also experience a positive effect on your work performance because with time your executive functions will become stronger and you will be faster at accessing your own wisdom, creativity, and problem-solving ability.
The key here is to persevere in the practice of your rituals of wellbeing and learn to become aware of when you need to take a break and recover your energies.
This is what I call transforming your stress into your superpower with the practice of authentic self-care.
Remember my friend: you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!
Now, tell me. What do you do when you are at work and you need to take a break?
Write your comment in the comment box below and let me know.