“Burnout” isn’t a term you’ll find in the manual that psychiatrists in North America use for a standard classification of mental disorders. Technically, there is no such diagnosis.
Doctors, however, are increasingly using the term to refer to a set of patients who suffer from severe chronic stress, according to Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the subject of workplace and mental health.
“We are recognizing burnout as something that’s just like diabetes,” she told Global News.
Type 2 diabetes, the more common manifestation of the metabolic disorder, used to be considered a purely biological condition before researchers understood that diet and other lifestyle choices are a risk factor.
“The same connection is emerging with the mental health diagnosis – burnout is a lifestyle-related condition,” said Kang.
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What burnout does to your brain and body
Burnout can have a lasting impact on the brain’s physical structure, Kang recently wrote in a blog post.
“Severe chronic stress has been shown to cause the shrinkage or enlargement, thinning and premature aging in the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – areas of the brain which modulate our stress response.
“There is also a strong correlation between long-term stress and significant loss of grey matter, making our brains more vulnerable to neurotoxins.”
Burnout is the result of chronic stress.
“You don’t wake up one morning and all of a sudden ‘have burnout.’ Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it much harder to recognize,” Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, wrote in Psychology Today.
While our bodies are fully equipped to cope with short-term stress, they don’t react well to constant stress, explained Kang.
Short-term stress is the fight-or-flight response that provokes higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol, according to the Mayo Clinic. Adrenaline pumps up your heart rate and blood pressure to give you an energy boost. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, enhances the level of sugars (glucose) in your bloodstream and you brain’s use of glucose, among other things.
This improved our club-wielding ancestors’ chances of making it out alive if confronted by a bear or other man-eating predator. Today, it’s what we use to cope with high-pressure situations that require quick thinking.
The trouble is, when we’re constantly bombarded with things that make our body activate its stress-response system, things often go haywire.
Persistently high levels of cortisol interfere with normal body functions, such as sleep, digestion and the immune system.
Burnout is the state where the body starts to have trouble producing cortisol, something know as adrenal fatigue, according to Kang.
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Though the symptoms of burnout vary for different people, among the most common are:
- Signs of physical exhaustion. These can include chronic fatigue, insomnia, constantly falling ill, and weight gain or loss of appetite.
- Signs of emotional exhaustion. These may manifest themselves as anxiety, depression, and anger issues. There is also a tendency to toward pessimism, cynicism and detachment, according to Bourg Carter.
- A drop in productivity. Your overworked brain starts forgetting important tasks on a regular basis. That, along with an inability to concentrate and pay attention, generally leads to a vicious cycle, where the workload only gets bigger. “At times, it seems that as hard as you try, you can’t climb out from under the pile,” writes Bourg Carter.
Lifestyle choices that can prevent burnout
If you have burnout, what you need to overcome it is much the same as what you should do to prevent it. According to Kang, this means making sure your daily life includes the following:
- Play. This involves stimulating the brain in novel and diverse ways, she said. It could mean embracing a hobby that has nothing to do with the tasks you perform at work.
- Others. Having “positive, meaningful social connections” is also a proven way to keep stress levels down, said Kang. This generally needs to go beyond one’s partner and kids, she added. “As mammals, we’re meant to live in a community.” Be it friends or extended family, everyone needs a “village” of sorts.
- Downtime. This doesn’t mean vacation, said Kang. Though unplugging for a few days or weeks is certainly helpful, our brain needs to unwind and recharge on a daily basis. This may mean taking a lunch break instead of gulping down your meal in front of the keyboard; going for a short walk in the evening; or even taking a shower and reading a book instead of spending the last few moments of the day surfing the web. Still, building time for downtime in our busy routines isn’t easy. It requires a conscious effort, said Kang, who advises her patients to literally draw up a 24-hour pie chart of their day, and make time for a few moments of down time but cutting out whatever tasks aren’t absolutely necessary.
The “cutting out” part trips up a lot of people, said Kang, which is why carving some space for downtime often involves enforcing boundaries. Those who wind up with burnout often feel that they have no control of their schedule – and that’s because they don’t know when to say “no.”
“Occasionally feeling pressured to be agreeable or say yes to things you don’t want to can be considered healthy compromise; constantly feeling pressured to say yes to things you don’t want to deteriorates self-worth and mental wellbeing,” Kang wrote in a recent post on burnout.
Being able to say no in a direct but diplomatic matter is “the quickest way to avoid burnout,” she added. For those who struggle maintaining boundaries, Kang suggests “the sandwich method of saying no.” In other words, stick your denial between two layers of positive statements.
For example, if a friend asks you to help her move on the one afternoon you had carved out for some “me time,” you could respond as follows: Tell her that she can crash at your place if needed (positive layer No. 1); that unfortunately you can’t make it on the particular afternoon (denial); but that you could help her on the evening of the day before (positive statement No. 2).
Ability to manage stress becoming increasingly important professional skill
Preventing burnout and incorporating downtime into your day isn’t just about preserving your mental and physical health, noted Kang. It could be crucially important for your job, as well.
Wondering why Silicon Valley employers have introduced lunch breaks, nap pods and pay bonuses for taking meditation classes and joining walking groups?
It’s because research shows workplace mental health has considerable returns, said Kang.
Mental illness accounts for roughly 30 per cent of short- and long-term disability claims in Canada. In terms of lost productivity and higher turnover, that’s estimated to cost Canadian companies over $6 billion a year.
But downtime is also a productivity booster. It’s in a state of “relaxed wakefulness,” when we’re awake but not engaged in any particular tasks, that our best thinking occurs, said Kang. That’s why for many people the “a-ha!” moment comes when they’re taking a stroll, staring out the window of a moving vehicle, or having a bath. Downtime is often when we perform our finest problem-solving, come up with the best ideas, and reflect about our interactions and relationships with other people.
And those are the skills employers are increasingly looking for, noted Kang.
“Way back when, a burned out employee wasn’t so important to employers. If your job is to screw a bolt into a machine, you can do that even if you’re burned out.”
But automation means those jobs are disappearing and companies are increasingly looking for workers with strong problem-solving abilities, creativity and people skills, she said.
Burnout could harm not only your health, but your career, too.