Burnout is Harmful to Your Health

managing stress tips
Dr. Nina Radcliff

Do you ever feel you need to work extra hours just to get “what you need to” accomplished? Or, perhaps you complete a full day at work and then shift into 5th gear to meet the deadlines and needs in your home, at school, or in your personal life? Or, how about the necessity you feel to answer that email, respond to that text, or just quickly check on that “chime” that calls to you regularly from your phone or other tech devices? And, there is always more that you feel you could do, right? 

So, the driving question is: Have you been feeling tired lately? Research shows that more people today “go-go-go” from early morning into the late evenings, trying to manage the “more and more” that is adding up on their plate. Research shows too that stress, depression, anxiety—burnout—is actually causing bone disease, cardiovascular disease, strokes, and diabetes (to mention a few). It’s having a devastating effect on our bodies, but insidiously, so that we hardly notice it. 

All of what you do, and don’t do, can exhaust you mentally and physically. And what follows tiredness and exhaustion is burnout — a life hazard we all need to understand to navigate before it takes hold, whether you are young or old.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: About Burnout  

Key Truths:  Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that results from chronic, unrelenting pressure, work, overwhelming demands or stress. 

People who experience burnout have often dedicated themselves completely to their work and tasks at hand. In fact, they likely push themselves, daily. However, at some point they begin to question that it is no longer possible because the demands of the ongoing work is too large, or greater than can be accomplished within reasonable resources. Burnout oftentimes drives people – through dedicated, tireless, exhaustive measures — to begin to question the demands.

It can result in a complete loss of enthusiasm for everything and detachment from people as well as feelings of being ineffective. Signs and symptoms develop gradually and often can be subtle at first. As well, they can relapse and remit, or even smolder; but with time, they can get worse and worse if they are not managed or addressed properly.  

It is very important to understand that at this point you have pushed your body and mind to such an extent that both signal they cannot go further. Even the smallest thing becomes too much. During this stage you often get emotional about small things, because you are so exhausted. Both your body and mind need to relax. 

Burnout is Dangerous Mentally, Emotionally, Physically and Spiritually. What’s happening with continuing high demands, stress and burnout is a constant fight-or-flight mode. You are living in “overdrive” with the heightened state. The body then produces chemicals and reactions, preparing for an event that should only last for a few minutes — but is stuck in “on” and continues to go on. This constant inflammation and chemical imbalance that is occurring in the body is unhealthy and impacts your emotions, thinking, output and overall, is unhealthy for every part of your being. 

What are causes?

Burnout can take place at work, home, school, or even related activities, here are some common factors identified by experts in the field:

  • Dedication to work (employment, home, school, community affiliation) to complete their tasks and goals with excellence – or, “all they have to give it.” Experiencing ongoing pressure, stress, demands with little to no relief. Add to this, it may be accompanied by a lack of appreciation, recognition, fairness, control, sense of community, or ethical behaviors by coworkers, associates, colleagues, administration or family members. And too, working, studying or giving excessive hours to the cause, or having excessive demands.   
  • Personal life and lifestyle: Working in overdrive, or not taking or having “me time” or time for family and friends. Alternatively, having excessive obligations to family and friends (e.g. being a caretaker); lacking a support system; being sleep deprived or having poor health habits.
  • Personality: Very much aware of what you have to do along with great dedication and commitment to tasks. Gets a lot done and can take care of a lot of work. May even press the bar a little higher for themselves as they work tirelessly to accomplish all the work.

What are symptoms?

  • Early on, those with burnout may feel less energetic, but over time, they experience constant weakness or fatigue. Fatigue is excessive tiredness and your body’s way of telling you to slow down.
  • Fatigue, combined with the stress, pressure or demands that triggers burnout, makes it less likely that you will engage in routine physical activity, consume a nutritious diet, and get good, quality sleep. Together, this can enhance burnout. 
  • Forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and a lack of focus or difficulty coping
  • Nervousness, worry, and anxiety. Over time, anxious thoughts can become debilitating, preventing you from performing optimally —and stealing your joy. Some people report having panic attacks—an abrupt onset of fear or discomfort. 
  • Detachment from friends, family, and job which can eventually lead to isolation
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical manifestations such as headaches, fainting, chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or nausea. And, too, increased susceptibility to germs due to a weakened immune system that results from stress, sleep deprivation, decreased physical activity, and poor diet.  
  • Resorting to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, drugs

While you may not be experiencing any of these, know that they are warning signs. Generally, burnout begins subtly, with mild symptoms, and gradually worsens.   

How can you prevent burnout?   

  • It is important to recognize and acknowledge the signs and symptoms – to know how to manage your drive
  • Take action, make the change or changes necessary
  • Do not wait for someone or something to make the change for you–because chances are that it will not happen!
  • Yes, change requires work. If we are nearing burnout or are burnt out, the last thing you want to do is just that–more work. But given the detrimental effects it can have on our health, relationships, and job, it is critical that we take the steps for healthy relief by reducing the stress and pressure in order to (re)invigorate ourselves.  

What are some tips?

  • Manage stress, reboot, recharge, rejuvenate. Take time and figure out ways to make changes, and where possible, enlist help. Utilize vacation days or sick leave to allow time to rest. If self-employed, take the initiative to work fewer hours or consider taking on less projects. Parents, consider getting a sitter, exchange system with another mom, part time daycare, or family members to get a break. 
  • Plan R&R time, weekly
  • Say goodbye to unnecessary obligations or deadlines – and be cautious about adding more to your “to do” list
  • Reassess priorities with “me” and “family” time
  • Set healthy boundaries with your job, career, school or special project, and make changes when needed. Talk with a trusted source about the realities and resources to get help (or extensions) for certain assignments or projects.
  • Connecting with loved ones for support is important. They may pick up on signs and symptoms of your burnout before you do. Listen to them. 
  • Walk it off.  Consider starting with a 15-minute walk or jog to relieve stress and release endorphins.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Set a bedtime and stick with it. It’s easy to stay up late so we can catch up with the million trivial things we need to do. However, being sleep-deprived can be a cause of burnout as well as slows efficiency and perpetuates the cycle of being burnt out. 
  • Unplug and find another outlet. Identify “counter-weights” to the stressors in our life. Some ideas include:  listening to music, gardening, photography, yoga, prayer, meditation, cooking, reading for pleasure, spending time with family or friends, or exercising.  
  • Be specific, write it down, then tell others about it. Saying that we will work less, exercise everyday, and spend more time with the family and friends are great goals, but make them a reality. Being specific (e.g. stop work/project at 6 pm, exercise for 20 minutes, and Sundays are family time). You are more likely to adhere to our goals and less likely to cut corners.  
  • Take a technology break –  while a useful tool, it can be also be a harmful disturbance.

Be vigilant – your life demands and dedication to your work can add up and eventually lead to burnout. Pause. Navigate wisely.

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.

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