How Burnout in the Workplace Affects Your Brain

Burnout has become a growing concern for individuals balancing their busy, professional, and personal lives. While burnout is often thought of as a mental health issue, it can also profoundly impact the body and brain. As a result, burnout has become one of the most important occupational hazards today and can generate a significant cost to individuals and organizations alike.

Key takeaways:

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term stress and work-related demands. It is considered a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been managed successfully. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout should be specifically related to workplace stressors and should not be used to describe other areas of life stressors. Burnout is not considered a mental health disorder; however, it can lead to mental health disorders such as depression if left untreated.

Burnout can cause cognitive, emotional, and attitudinal changes, which can cause negative behavior toward work peers and family. In addition, the syndrome can cause decreased performance in the professional role. However, it is not a personal problem but a consequence of being overworked and the pressures of the role.

Cortisol & burnout relation

When a person experiences burnout, the body releases excessive cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone naturally produced in the brain that helps with metabolism and immune response. However, when released under prolonged stress, it can cause weight gain, mood swings, muscle weakness, increased blood pressure, and many other unhealthy changes.

Burnout can negatively affect the brain in many ways. Studies have shown that high cortisol levels can lead to:

  • memory problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • decreased ability to think creatively

Those experiencing burnout tend to feel stressed out more often from day-to-day activities and feel anxiety about going to work and performing routine, everyday tasks.

When burnout is prolonged and not treated, it can lead to chronic anxiety and depression and is even known to cause conditions that effect areas related to memory and learning. This can make it even harder for individuals to complete tasks or cope with day-to-day life.

On a more severe level, burnout has been shown to cause an enlarged amygdala. This is the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions. When this happens, people can have heightened anxiety and emotional reactivity, such as anger.

What triggers a burnout at work?

Burnout is thought to happen for many different reasons, and researchers have classified the following categories as areas in the workplace that are known to trigger burnout if experienced for prolonged periods:

  • Poor relationships between peers, management, or clients
  • Work overload
  • Feeling the need to control or “hide” emotions in the workplace for an extended period
  • Lack of freedom to perform tasks at work
  • Lack of understanding of the workplace role or task
  • Issues with supervision, i.e., excessive direction or feelings of constantly being watched by management
  • Lack of social support
  • Poor working hours

How to identify a burnout

There are three main characteristics of burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion. It is the chronic state of emotional depletion resulting from excessive workplace demands.
  2. Depersonalization. It is the state of or feeling that you no longer have empathy or compassion or no longer care about activities you usually would care about. This state can lead to feelings of cynicism related to the workplace conditions or the people you work with.
  3. A decreased sense of accomplishment. Describes the tendency to value your work no longer or feel a sense of insufficiency in the work you complete. This can lead to decreased performance and a lack of care for your job and workplace.

Burnout is highly prevalent in high-stress jobs. For example, twenty to thirty percent of teachers and professors have experienced burnout, and those in medical and healthcare jobs have reported up to fifty-two percent burnout rate.

Burnout doesn’t just affect the person experiencing the syndrome; it can also cause tension for those around them. With a loss of motivation and feelings of failure, people experiencing burnout are more susceptible to depression and negative relationships with family and peers.

Ways to decrease burnout symptoms

It’s essential to know the signs and symptoms of burnout and try to get ahead of managing it before it becomes a severe health concern. If you’re experiencing burnout, it’s essential to discuss it with a medical professional immediately. You can also follow the steps below to help improve your overall well-being and help decrease burnout symptoms.

  • Physical exercise. Studies show that physical activity has a lasting and valuable effect on burnout and the overall health of workers. In addition, physical activity can increase endorphins, which can help improve sleep, improve relationships, and enhance overall brain function.
  • Mindfulness training. Mindfulness practices can reduce burnout syndrome, mitigate adverse emotional effects, and increase positive emotions, such as empathy and concentration.
  • Self-assessment. This involves the observation of possible signs of burnout and why it’s happening. This can include journaling and be necessary to get to the root cause of the issues causing burnout.
  • Adequate rest. According to Dr. Amelia Nagoski, author of Burnout, The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, getting enough sleep is essential, and resting your brain is vital to your overall health. Scientists say you should rest your brain as much as 42% of the time. This means that in 24 hours, it’s important to get around 10 hours of rest or downtime away from your work.
  • Therapy. Speaking to a trained professional can help with self-regulation and relaxation skills and help to decide if moving positions or changing jobs is necessary.

Burnout is a serious issue that can have severe side effects on the body and brain. Therefore, it is crucial that individuals experiencing burnout take steps to manage their stress and seek support from friends, family, and mental health professionals.

In addition, simple self-care practices such as exercise, healthy eating, memory pills, and mindfulness can help reduce the impact of burnout and improve overall health and well-being.



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