“I can’t do this anymore” – What happens when we burn out?

Written by Charlotte Jones Tuesday 15 September 2020
Classified as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ by the World Health Organization, we all need to be aware of burnout. But what actually happens to us when we experience it?
Plastic model of a brain and nerve ending

As we shift to the new normal of working from home, many are calling for a permanent shift to their working pattern and flexibility. However, recent research from LinkedIn in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation suggests that over half of UK workers are feeling more stressed or anxious since they've been working from home. This constant state of anxiety can lead to burnout.

This “occupational phenomenon” is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by extreme and prolonged stress. Burnout can leave people exhausted, unmotivated, anxious and cynical – the consequences of which can be catastrophic. As well as impacting professional growth, research suggests that these extreme stress levels can impair social skills, overwhelm cognitive ability and eventually lead to changes in brain function.

Fight or flight

We can all experience stress from time to time. But it's the type of stress that matters: acute or chronic.

In moments of acute stress – such as an argument or close deadline – we have a ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, raising our cortisol and adrenaline levels, and increasing blood pressure, breathing rate, heart rate and muscle tension. Chronic stress happens when these moments of acute stress become prolonged, or we're subject to ongoing psychological demands (like money worries or extreme working hours).

We can recover from acute stress rapidly. The body begins to regulate cortisol and adrenaline production and return to pre-stress levels soon after a moment of pressure. It's when we get into the territory of chronic stress that we can risk burnout. Here, the body starts to struggle to produce cortisol at all, resulting in something known as adrenal fatigue.

Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, says that “constantly thinking about work and not giving yourself time to switch off drains the body of energy resources. You may experience physical consequences such as dizziness, tiredness, headaches, sweating and shortness of breath.”

Burnout on the brain

Burnout can also have a physical impact on the human brain; causing the reduction or expansion, thinning and premature ageing in the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – areas of the brain which regulate our stress response. “Left unchecked,” says Street, "stress in the long term can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, panic attacks and depression."

You also risk hormonal imbalances and disruption of the reproductive system as blood is diverted to muscles to prepare for the continued 'fight-or-flight' response.

Screen Fatigue

Also called computer vision syndrome, screen fatigue is an everyday danger for many of us; not only do we spend many hours looking at a computer or laptop screen, we relax by watching TV or using our smartphones. It’s caused by the repetitive motion our eyes make as we read across the screen we’re using, as our eyes focus and refocus on what we’re seeing on the screen.

It’s incredibly important we take regular screen breaks - whether that’s to catch up with a housemate or family member, make a cup of tea, or go for a brisk walk.

Screen fatigue symptoms include:

  • Blurred, double or worsening vision – sometimes only for a moment, but if it happens often it could lead to long-term sight damage
  • Bloodshot eyes, especially if you use your screens on high brightness in a low-lit room
  • Itching eyes, though of course for some this may be brought on by summer hayfever
  • A sore and stiff neck from slouching or looking down at your phone – a condition so prevalent in many young people it’s earned its own name of ‘text neck’
  • Back pains, especially in your spine, are caused by sitting down all day with minimal movement
  • Severe headaches or migraines, caused by focusing on a screen and powering through the other eye-related symptoms.

Making a change

"People on the road to burnout often feel a mounting sense of helplessness," says Street. "Your mind can feel like it is in 'overload' as you strive to process the endless thoughts running through your head." If you're struggling with the effects of burnout, start by evaluating your work environment and speaking to your boss. As Street suggests, "if you feel like there are factors like unrealistic deadlines or an unmanageable workload, schedule time with your manager."

In our handy staff welfare and wellbeing checklist, we go through how managers can make changes to alleviate unnecessary stress from their team’s working environment. Some initial steps are outlined below as a starting point:

  • Identify the factors causing stress (e.g. heavy workload, poorly performing computer, negative working relationships) during one-to-one check ins with employees
  • Do what is in your power to address these issues (such as redistributing workloads, seeing if there’s a budget for a new laptop, addressing conflict)
  • See how their personal wellbeing is - is the stress from work affecting their health? Try encouraging them to take some time off work or reduce their hours so they can take a break and encourage them to switch off from work when possible - this means no checking emails after working hours!
  • Understand that poor performance may be linked to these stresses, so take that into consideration when setting any targets or goals for the time period
  • Ask your employees how you can help boost their job satisfaction through reasonable adjustments or changes to their workload

You might put symptoms of burnout down to short-term stress or long working hours, but the physical and psychological impact can be huge. Speak to your colleagues, know your rights and schedule downtime that will help you to refocus and prioritise your wellbeing.

For more ways you can help top up your mental reserves, check out our Mental Health and Wellbeing Hub, where we offer simple, practical ways you can look after yourself.

You can also check out our recent article from Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA on how to stop the burnout cycle for good.

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