Burnout at work. What it is, and how to prevent it.  

When it comes to health and wellbeing in the workplace, burnout at work is having a big impact. Employers, fully focussed on post pandemic recovery, are also now tasked with providing solutions for this little understood condition, with large numbers of employees reporting the condition. Here’s a breakdown of what it is, and what can be done by leadership teams to tackle it. 

We all know the feeling of stress.  Whether it’s feeling overwhelmed at the sight of your to do list with a sense that everything must be done now.  Or feeling like you’re losing your cool as you try to get your children to finish breakfast so that you can get them out the door in time for school.  Or being awake half the night thinking about a presentation you must deliver the following day to a group of senior managers and worrying about what they will think of you.  

While people commonly use the term stress, not many understand the real physiological stress response and what’s taking place in the mind and body. 

This article presents a deeper understanding of stress and why organisational leaders need to take radical action to tackle the fact that stress and burnout at work are on the rise. 

Burnout at work on the rise 

Many managers who go through our management mental health training programme comment that they tick numerous signs and symptoms of stress, however, hadn’t realised they were stressed until the training. 

One of the reasons for this is that people get so used to living in the hormones of stress that it becomes the norm instead of the exception.   

The build-up of stress can be so subtle that we may not recognise that we are stressed.  For example, holding tension in the jaw may be experienced as a level of tension that we have become accustomed to. Another example is when we go on annual leave and often get sick with a cold or virus in the first week because the body has finally been given the conditions to release and let go. 

Experiencing feeling more tired or tearful we may equate to any number of things, but again it’s an indicator that the body is depleted having spent so long living in the stress response. 

Stress also has the means to be addictive with people seeking the adrenalin hit experienced during the stress response. 

Everything we experience in life the body takes score of with 99% of physical health conditions starting with the stress response.  Past traumas which haven’t been processed leave our central nervous system in the sympathetic response – the stress response.   

This potent combination leads to burnout.  According to Forbes, burnout at work is on the rise. Over half (52%) of survey respondents are experiencing burnout in 2021—up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-Covid-19 survey. 53% of Millennials were already burned out pre-pandemic, and they remain the most affected population, with 59% experiencing it today. 

In a report by Cap Gemini on the Future of Work, over half of employees feel burned out as a result of working remotely and the figure rises to 61% for younger employees aged 31–40. 

Defining Stress

When understanding the physiological and biochemical chain reaction that constitute the stress response it’s helpful to begin with a definition of stress.  

In the realm of biology, stress refers to what happens when an organism fails to respond appropriately to threats. While the threats can be what the people of the Ukraine and Russia are currently facing, often the threats most people face today are along the lines of being put on hold while on the phone to the bank, having to present to a room of senior leaders, or even struggling to get to sleep. While these situations don’t threaten our existence, they can still have a direct impact on our bodies. 

Some people view stress as beneficial and feel that the pressure it creates gives us a push to achieve a goal or get something done.  However, more often stress reaches a level which puts us in a state of ‘emergency alert’.  We lose access to the executive functions of the brain needed for high performance such as the ability to think big picture, think creatively and be innovative in our work.  We get disconnected from the prefrontal cortex acting solely from a place of freeze, fight of flight. The longer we remain in this state the greater the consequences including a compromised immune function, depression, pain, weight gain and even paralysis.  

Neurochemistry of Stress 

When in the stress response, there are a number of complex signalling pathways among neurons and somatic cells. When we react to something which feels like the cause of our stress, such as a looming deadline, or continuing to react to a situation such as a vacancy that we are struggling to recruit for, neurons in the hypothalamus secrete two peptide hormones, corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and arginine vasopressin (AVP).  

CRH is transported to the anterior pituitary, where it stimulates the secretion of corticotropin.  In turn, corticotropin stimulates increased production of corticosteroids including cortisol, directly impacting the stress response. Vasopressin, a small hormone molecule, increases reabsorption of water by the kidneys and induces vasoconstriction, the contraction of blood vessels, thereby raising blood pressure. Together, CRH and vasopressin activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis comprises the system of feedback interactions among the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. 

In consequence, the hypothalamus releases CRH and vasopressin, which activate the HPA axis. CRH stimulates the anterior pituitary to release corticotropin, which travels through the bloodstream to the adrenal cortex, where corticotropin then upregulates cortisol production.  

Cortisol: The Stress Hormone 

Regulated via the HPA axis, cortisol is the primary hormone responsible for the stress response. Cortisol is at its highest levels in the early morning.  The main function of this hormone is to restore homeostasis following exposure to stress. The effects of cortisol are experienced throughout the entire body and impact several homeostatic mechanisms.  

The impact of cortisol is wide reaching. Excess cortisol weakens the immune system, counters insulin, and even affects memory by overwhelming the hippocampus – the region of the brain where memories are processed and stored. 

Self-medication: Caffeine and Alcohol 

When continuing to live in the hormones of stress people turn to a combination of caffeine to keep them going, and alcohol to try and relax and help them sleep. Both of which increase cortisol. 

Problems with sleeping have long been noted in people experiencing stress as the body is on ‘high alert’ and at a primal level is keeping watch for danger, which don’t provide the right conditions for a restful restorative night sleep.  Sleep deprivation bring with it its own set of side effects including immune compromise, cognitive impairment, and metabolic disruption. 

While having another coffee to get you through the next meeting or get you through the rest of the day may seem a good idea, caffeine only serves to increase cortisol levels and undermine performance.  The same applies to energy drinks.   

Alcohol also links with cortisol. Many professionals who operate in high pressure situations, often working long hours turn to alcohol as a means of release.  Yet alcohol stimulates the HPA axis when drank in large quantities and encourages the manufacture and release of cortisol.  

The impact of burnout at work on the workforce

A culture of high performance which may advocate long working hours and an ‘always on’ approach, typified in the corporate world loses sight of the fact that high performance starts with a foundation of health. Living in the hormones of stress suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, rendering the body more susceptible to disease. It’s a culture that literally makes people sick. 

Organisations often describe their working environment as ‘fast paced’ and seek to recruit people who can cope with whatever fast paced means on a day-to-day level. Yet the fact remains that high levels of stress, even over relatively short periods undermine performance, compromise the immune function leading to prolonged healing times and render us incapable to acting from a place of real insight and wisdom needed to perform at our A game. 

People who are in the chronic stress response and experiencing burnout will risk impaired cognition, decreased thyroid function, and accumulation of abdominal fat, which itself has implications for cardiovascular health.  

The bottom line is that it’s time to change!  

Given that 99% of physical health conditions start with the stress response, it’s time to educate our workforces across the globe.  Taking people back to basics when it comes to sharing with them the knowledge about the neuroscience of stress and how to spot the red flags is something which needs to be on every wellbeing strategy around the world. 

Stress : Prevention over cure 

The good news is that while our bodies are designed to react to our environment to preserve homeostasis (healthy equilibrium in bodily conditions), we can change how we react. 

Our reactions are based on the perceptual map and model we carry around inside our neurophysiology – and we can change that map.  Through expert training, employees can raise their awareness of the stress response and learn how to regulate their emotions, leading to the creation of inner spare capacity and significantly improved health. The bottom line is that employees can be taught vital and lifesaving stress management techniques that have a direct impact on their levels of performance and productivity.

Lastly, we can also look at our organisational cultures, and require our leaders to be the change we want to see to make large scale burnout at work a thing of the past. 

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