Burnout – what it is & how to prevent it
Paris Gill discusses burnout, an increasingly common phenomena, its symptoms and how to prevent it.
Burnout is an ever-increasing “occupational phenomenon” that the pandemic has only made more prolific, with 52 per cent of workers reporting that they had experienced a form of the syndrome. Yet the severity of this “chronic stress”, as the World Health Organization recognises, is dangerously underplayed in both its causes and the health risks that come with it
With 52 per cent of workers reporting that they had experienced a form of the syndrome
The WHO define burnout as experiencing feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance or negativism towards one’s employment, and an overall reduced “professional efficacy”. However, further to their definition, studies show that burnout becomes something greater than just a chronic stress, but instead can turn into Vital Exhaustion syndrome.
This link is due to what burnout, or Vital Exhaustion, actually produces as an effect in the body. As a form of chronic stress, Burnout affects blood pressure, respiration, weight, the immune system, and can bring on other physical illnesses. The mental stress can also produce symptoms such as a decreased ability to focus, memory and cognition, and has been reported to produce increased feelings of hopelessness and irritability.
There are also some symptoms that become directly linked to one’s employment or the environment that triggers burnout. One key effect that can lead to the syndrome is a lack of autonomy: since the human brain likes a sense of control, a loss of autonomy due to a job hierarchy or strict schedule, for example, can lead to an overall feeling of disempowerment and feeling out of control, contributing again to increased stress levels.
A study by Dr Parveen Garg, that surveyed over 11,000 people over almost 25 years, went on to show that participants with higher levels of Vital Exhaustion syndrome were at a 20 per cent greater risk of developing Atrial Fibrillation, the most common form of heart arrhythmia (rhythm disturbance). As “Vital exhaustion is associated with increased inflammation and heightened activation of the body’s physiologic stress response”, when triggered there can be serious damage to the heart tissue, which may “lead to the development of this arrhythmia.”
Participants with higher levels of Vital Exhaustion syndrome were at 20 per cent greater risk of Atrial Fibrillation
The WHO describes burnout as the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, meaning that it’s due to the poor management of stress, rather than stress as the sole trigger. Strategies to help cope with and overcome burnout, therefore, fall under the same mechanisms that are used to decrease someone’s stress levels. One upcoming management technique of stress is the idea of “Eustress”, the notion of beneficial stress. Unlike chronic stress, Eustress is an amount of healthy stress needed to help push and grow someone in their particular focus. A good example of this is exercise, whereby putting the body under a certain amount of physical stress, cardiac of muscle fitness may increase, therefore benefiting the body. With Eustress, the same stressors may be involved as with chronic stress triggers, however, through practice, this can be turned into a form of self-growth and motivation.
There are also other common methods of stress management that are recommended to help with burnout. Avoiding sugar and alcohol, as Clinical psychologist Linda Blair states, are good dietary adjustments to make in improving energy levels and avoiding the depressive effects of alcohol that would only increase feelings of despair. Furthermore, exercise is also encouraged in order to increase energy levels, as Dr Boris Cheval recommends that “exhaustion should be an argument to be active” rather than being used as an argument to avoid physical activity.
A 2015 study by Bretland and Thorsteinsson on the effects of cardiovascular and resistance exercise on workplace burnout found that overall, “results were consistent with the assumption that exercise increases well-being whilst reducing stress and burnout”. Although it must be acknowledged that stress is subjective to the sufferer, the hypothesis is maintained that a certain degree of exercise can help with the reduction of Burnout.
Finding support through friends and family, and remembering what your passions are and how to relax, are key methods of stress management. To keep stress levels down, enjoy down-time away from the busyness of education or work, and learn to be resilient to potential triggers of stress.