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February 18, 2022

How to identify and overcome work-related burnout

Daily Briefing

Writing for the New York Times, Melinda Wenner Moyer identifies four key physical signs of work-related burnout—and provides suggestions on "what to do about them."

Infographic: How to be a less-stressed leader

Identifying work-related burnout

In 2021, a survey of 1,500 U.S. workers found that over 50% of respondents felt burned out because of their job demands.

"When people think of burnout, mental and emotional symptoms such as feelings of helplessness and cynicism often come to mind." Moyer writes. "But burnout can lead to physical symptoms as well, and experts say it can be wise to look out for the signs and take steps when you notice them."

Despite the physical symptoms associated with burnout, health experts do not define it as a medical condition, but rather "a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress," Lotte Dyrbye, a physician scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic, said.

"You start not functioning as well, you're missing deadlines, you're frustrated, you're maybe irritable with your colleagues," said Jeanette Bennett, a researcher who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

According to Bennett, when a person is stressed, their body produces higher than normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. While these changes can be helpful in the short term, they can actually harm the body over time.

The human body is "not designed for the kinds of stressors that we face today," said Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent her career studying burnout.

4 physical symptoms of burnout

So what physical symptoms of burnout should people be aware of? According to Moyer, four common symptoms include:

1. Insomnia

Researchers in Italy surveyed frontline health care workers who experienced burnout during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among respondents, they found that 55% reported having a hard time falling asleep, and almost 40% said they had nightmares.

Research suggests that chronic stress interferes with the complex neurological and hormonal system that helps regulate sleep. "It's a vicious cycle, because not sleeping throws this system even more out of whack," Moyer writes.

According to Dyrbye, if you have difficulty sleeping at night, that could be a sign of burnout—and your lack of sleep could exacerbate the problem.

2. Physical exhaustion

Physical exhaustion is another very common sign of burnout. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, said one of her most prevalent symptoms of burnout was fatigue. "I realized I was sleeping every day after work—and I was like, 'What is wrong with me?' but it was actually burnout," she said.

3. Eating more or less than usual

Changes in eating habits can also signal burnout. In the study of Italian health care workers, 56% of respondents reported changes in their eating habits.

According to Bennett, some people might eat less because they're too busy or distracted, while others might crave "those comfort foods that we all like to go to when we need something to make us feel better."

In addition, research suggests that stress hormones can impact your appetite, making some people feel less hungry when they're under a lot of stress and more hungry when their stress alleviates.

4. Headaches and stomachaches

According to Gold, burnout can also trigger stomachaches and headaches. In a study of people in Sweden, researchers found that among people suffering from exhaustion disorder—a medical condition that resembles burnout—67% experienced nausea, gas or indigestion, and 65% reported headaches.

"It's also important to note that burnout can develop alongside depression or anxiety, both of which can cause physical symptoms," Moyer writes. "Depression can cause muscle aches, stomachaches, sleep issues and appetite changes. Anxiety is linked to headaches, nausea and shortness of breath."

How to address burnout

Despite popular opinion, burnout can't simply be "fixed" with better self care, Maslach said. In fact, this insinuation only worsens the problem by placing the blame and responsibility on individuals with burnout, implying that they should do more to feel better, which she argued is not the case.

Rather, people who start to notice physical symptoms of burnout should visit their primary care doctor or a mental health professional to determine the root cause, Dyrbye suggested.

That said, some lifestyle changes can mitigate burnout. For instance, social support from therapists, family, or friends can help, as can taking advantage of any employer-sponsored mental health or exercise benefits. Similarly, getting more sleep can also help.

If burnout stems from work-related stress, people may be able to request better working conditions. For instance, Maslach suggested brainstorming with co-workers and presenting your employer with ideas that would help mitigate burnout, such as quiet areas for breaks and personal phone calls, "no meeting" days that give employees more time to focus,and a ready supply of coffee in the break room.

"Even small changes like these can make a dent in the risk for burnout if they fix a problem people face at work every day," Moyer writes.

"It's the chronic job stressors that drive people really nuts after a while—they don't have the right equipment, they don't have the things they need, they don't have enough people to do the work," Maslach said.

And although taking time off work can be helpful, Gold argued that it's likely only a temporary Band-Aid. She compared it to using a bucket to offload water from a sinking ship. "It's still sinking, right? You have to do more than just occasionally take the water out," she said.

Ultimately, "[a]nything you can do to regain an element of control can be really helpful," Gold said.

While people may not want to add any more items to their to-do list, Dyrbye suggested people take a bit of time every day to do something they love. In her research, she has found that surgeons who carve out time for hobbies and recreation—even if it is just 15 to 20 minutes a day—are less likely to experience burnout than those who don't.

"You have to have something outside of work that helps you de-stress, that helps you focus and helps you relax," she added. (Moyer, New York Times, 2/15)

Resilience: Not just a pandemic buzzword—and not the same as engagement

Listen to the Radio Advisory episode

Radio Advisory, a podcast for busy health care leaders.The Covid-19 epidemic has put a nearly inconceivable amount of stress on the health care workforce over the past year, so how do health care leaders help develop a culture of resilience among their staff? In this episode, Rae Woods sits down with Advisory Board's Katherine Virkstis and Anne Herleth to talk about what resilience actually means and how providers should change their approach to resilience amid the Covid-19 epidemic.

Listen now

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