John is just out of college and has landed his dream job. It is demanding, rewarding and he is buzzing at the end of every day. The better he gets at his job the more work he is given and the more he demands of himself. At first he is happy with the challenge but soon he starts to work late into the evening. As every big project finishes a new one begins and he no longer feels the satisfaction of a job well done. He stops seeing his friends, he can’t switch off at the end of the day and if he’s not working at the weekend he’s catching up on sleep. Gradually he begins to feel more and more exhausted. He has to drag himself into a workplace that he is starting to resent. He sleeps and works, sleeps and works. He is a walking zombie.
Have you felt like this or do you know someone who has? “Burnout” is an often-used phrase to describe a state of chronic exhaustion combined with depleted enthusiasm, most often for a job. John is an extreme example of someone with chronic stress and burnout. Many of us have described ourselves as ‘burnt out’ at one time or another after a bout of heavy work but we quickly bounce back when we take time to relax. Stress is a natural and normal part of everyday life, we all experience stress and it’s not always a bad thing. But chronic stress, when not managed, can lead to burnout. John may end up doing poorly in his job and maybe even quitting. He is likely to be an irritable colleague and friend and his stress levels may even affect his health . Today’s blog is going to focus on what burnout is and, more importantly, what you can do to prevent it.
What is burnout?
Psychologists tend to describe three main symptoms of burnout :
- Exhaustion – feeling overextended and depleted of energy.
- Detachment – feeling detached and negative about other people and the job.
- Lack of Accomplishment – feeling unproductive and hopeless about work.
These symptoms don’t appear in a flash but may build up slowly over a number of months. People who are burnt out may have worse sleep, more headaches, feel unable to concentrate and be generally fatigued .
Burnout also affects how your body works in response to stress. We’ve written about the HPA axis in a previous blog post. It is the circuit in our bodies that reacts to a stressful situation by releasing stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline. This is the ‘fight or flight’ response that we are all familiar with.
The system is designed for short bursts of stress like escaping from a tiger or fighting an opponent so it switches on for the duration of the danger and then switches off when we are safe. Short bursts of stress and cortisol can be good for us . But when we are chronically stressed the HPA axis doesn’t know how to respond. A healthy HPA axis releases cortisol in the morning and then releases less over the course of the day. When something during the day is stressful we may have a temporary spike in cortisol levels but they soon return to normal. We therefore see a healthy curve of cortisol production in most people.
But when the HPA axis is constantly releasing cortisol because people are chronically stressed it too becomes ‘burnt out’ . In other words, we don’t see the normal increase and decrease in cortisol throughout the day, instead we see a flatter line of cortisol output.
What does burnout do to the body?
Too high or too low levels of cortisol can make you less well able to concentrate and remember things [3, 4]. Too high or too low levels of cortisol also affect the immune system. Cortisol usually helps the immune system by telling it when to switch on and when to switch off. Chronic stress and ‘flatter’ cortisol curves stops the body from knowing when to switch on and when to switch off so the immune system remains constantly semi-on . Although we need the immune system to be on when we are under attack by disease we also need it to switch off before it starts to damage our own healthy cells and make us sick .
How can we prevent burnout?
As with many things in life stress is good in moderation. Too little and we are not challenged, too much and we are overwhelmed. The good news is that stress is manageable and it is possible to stay in the healthy zone and avoid burnout . Feeling stressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you are burnt out but feeling stressed all of the time can sometimes lead to burnout. The most important way to prevent burnout is to manage your stress in whatever way works for you. Here are 6 ideas to help reduce your risk of burnout:
Take a vacation
Play some music!
Who cares if you sing like a canary or grunt like a gorilla, it’s all about the participation. One study found that a group of employees who joined in a drumming session for an hour each week had lower levels of burnout in the following weeks .
Move your body
Whether it’s yoga, the gym or going for a stroll both exercise and muscle relaxation help reduce stress and the risk of burnout .
Take a course in mindfulness
Research shows that a structured mindfulness based stress reduction course can reduce burnout for up to 3 months .
Be a good boss
If you’re the boss you can reduce burnout in your employees by changing the management style and workplace habits of your organisation. Most interventions focus on 6 areas of work: workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values along with training programmes to help employees deal with stress. Studies have shown a success rate of 80% for interventions aimed at reducing burnout and the most successful are those that combine individual changes with organizational changes .
Enjoy the challenge work brings but try to switch off at the end of the day and you’ll find your own Goldilocks zone of stress.
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- Pruessner, J.C., D.H. Hellhammer, and C. Kirschbaum, Burnout, perceived stress, and cortisol responses to awakening. Psychosomatic medicine, 1999. 61(2): p. 197-204.
- Lupien, S., et al., Stress-Induced Declarative Memory Impairment in Healthy Elderly Subjects: Relationship to Cortisol Reactivity 1. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 1997. 82(7): p. 2070-2075.
- Mackenzie, C.S., et al., Cognitive functioning under stress: Evidence from informal caregivers of palliative patients. Journal of palliative medicine, 2007. 10(3): p. 749-758.
- Miller, G.E., S. Cohen, and A.K. Ritchey, Chronic psychological stress and the regulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines: a glucocorticoid-resistance model. Health Psychology, 2002. 21(6): p. 531.
- Awa, W.L., M. Plaumann, and U. Walter, Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient education and counseling, 2010. 78(2): p. 184-190.
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- Bittman, B., et al., Recreational music-making: a cost-effective group interdisciplinary strategy for reducing burnout and improving mood states in long-term care workers. Advances in Mind Body Medicine, 2003. 19(3/4): p. 4-15.
- Van Rhenen, W., et al., The effect of a cognitive and a physical stress-reducing programme on psychological complaints. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 2005. 78(2): p. 139-148.
- Cohen-Katz, J., et al., The Effects of Mindfulness‐based Stress Reduction on Nurse Stress and Burnout, Part II: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study. Holistic nursing practice, 2005. 19(1): p. 26-35.