Why It Is Critical to Know Burnout for What It Is

Trust me when I say this: burnout is a bitch, insidious and heartless. Before you know it, it wraps you in its sticky embrace, leaving you utterly crushed with little left to give, aspire to or enthuse about. A habitue of start-ups and attempted career switches, it is capable of sapping even the most energetic souls. It creeps up on you with such stealth that at first you think you’ve just had a hard week, but then can’t help but wonder whether it’s possible for every subsequent week to be harder than the previous one. Then you ask yourself what it is that you do all the time that still leaves you with droves of unfinished or even untouched tasks and deadlines missed beyond the point of no return.

“When you are given too many responsibilities or forced to juggle too many exhausting interpersonal connections, it is easy to one by one start dropping the hats you are wearing.”

Burnout has become a staple of Friday-night beers and is talked about so often that it has acquired a mysterious air of something everyone has heard of, but knows little about when it comes to specifics. While it still isn’t recognised as a disorder, it is informally defined as the state associated with fatigue, mental exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy from exposure to work-related stress over a long period of time.

Sadly, burnout is misunderstood in a number of ways. It is too often mistaken for plain laziness or passive disinterest. Think about the time (likely somewhere at the beginning of your career) when you passed judgement on a colleague of yours who always seemed too lethargic whatever the day of the week was.

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Your thoughts probably ranged from something like “If you don’t like your job so much, why are you even doing it?” to “Why can’t you just enjoy the atmosphere and be like everyone else?”. What you might have failed to consider from the height of job novelty and excitement was this person’s history and the fact that they were in a place where you might one day venture into by getting too involved and missing out on balancing your life.

When given too many responsibilities or forced to juggle too many exhausting interpersonal connections, it is easy to one by one start dropping the hats you’re wearing. What’s important, though, is to understand that your always-tired-or-sleepy coworker is not being lazy or stupid. They are being apathetic and procrastinating for a reason.

“If not addressed in time, individual cases can turn into a burnout wildfire, with people underperforming or quitting and turnover stalling the company’s operations.”

What’s even more crucial to realize is that burnout is never an isolated state. If we consider that in the workplace human interactions of all sorts occur much more often than any solo work, it will become obvious that psychological states have every condition to be contagious.

In fact, it is the interaction component itself that creates greater levels of stress in the first place. The frustration that comes with the need to negotiate and align every tiny bit of work with a multitude of managers and departments is one of the most significant contributors to long-term work stress.

Burnout is not something that only happens to individual employees. It is something that happens to managers as well and easily trickles down to their subordinates. If not addressed in time, individual cases can turn into a burnout wildfire, with people underperforming or quitting and turnover stalling whatever operations the company does.

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The third and probably the most critical aspect of burnout which is not seen for what it is is the danger to health that lurks behind it. To make my point clear, I’ll have to first ask you to think about the natural world for a second.

It is well-known that everything in life strives for equilibrium. In biology this state of dynamic balance is called homeostasis. In the wild this is seen, for instance, in the increase in predator population whenever prey becomes overly abundant. In the human body this same process can be seen in the way body temperature is regulated and the way highs in some organs’ functioning make up for the lows in the others’. In the more abstract realm of human behavior homeostasis is what explains any of the major lifestyle changes you’ve ever attempted, but failed to go through with. All of this is simply the nature’s way of re-establishing the status quo.

The way our body deals with stress is all about natural homeostasis driven by the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, also known as the stress axis. When we encounter a stressful situation, our brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which is outwardly represented by a pounding chest, fast breathing, tense muscles, and sweating.

Adrenaline and norepinephrine are the hormones responsible for heart rate, muscle contraction, and respiration; and cortisol is the hormone that regulates lipid and glucose metabolism, essentially giving the body the energy to use while dealing with a stressful situation. This process is healthy and helps our body cope better with the unexpected.

“Everything in life strives for equilibrium. Being the result of the body’s repeated attempts to re-establish the status quo, burnout is not an exception.”

The trouble begins when exposure to stress is too frequent or virtually constant. In this case cortisol levels increase. Since the hormone has a vast impact on many of the body’s systems, and when we say many, we mean immune, cardiovascular, metabolic, reproductive and central nervous systems, it can disrupt our body’s functioning in almost every way imaginable.

By mobilizing lipids and glucose to supply muscles with the energy they need, cortisol can cause abdominal obesity, which is one of the major risk factors for developing high blood pressure. As is widely known, after a complex chain of influences hypertension can lead to such severe heart conditions as heart failure and heart attack. Cortisol’s ability to suppress immune system is what accounts for chronic inflammation, which, in turn, is directly linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis.

If we think of the more obvious outcomes of an unhealthy work-life balance and burnout, there are also plenty of ways we can harm ourselves quite knowingly. Sleep deprivation that almost always accompanies burnout, has been proven to confuse the stress axis and increase blood cortisol levels by about 45% (and you already know why its increased levels are something to steer away from).

Even looking at such basic things as food and exercising habits of burnt-out workers, we’ll see the tremendous and, worst of all, long-lasting harm induced by unhealthy lunch choices and sacrificing gym-sessions to deliver on one of the numerous commitments you’ve taken on.

If you are still not convinced, think about that occasional cigarette you may have (kudos if you don’t) when you have a particularly nasty day at work. I don’t think I need to point out how bad smoking is for all our body systems.

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Remember that burnout can influence your body both in very obvious ways by modifying your behaviors and more subtle way by triggering complex, disruptive processes in your organism.

The key takeaway is that if you notice yourself feeling drained and emotionally exhausted, progressively alienated from and cynical about your work and underperforming because of the lack of concentration or creativity to complete even the simplest tasks, you might need to look at your work-life balance and reconsider the way it is structured.

Even if you don’t feel any of the above and your job is still one of the most exciting things that happen to you during the day, it’s critical to see burnout for what it is to be able to mitigate the dangers it bears on the well-being of the organization and the individual.

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