Here’s why and how to protect yourself
Daniela Ginta, MSc
You don’t have to look far to find someone who is experiencing work-related stress. There are many potential causes for the combination of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion also known as burnout. As of May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as an occupational phenomenon.
The symptoms of burnout can include physical and mental exhaustion, depression, cynicism, and professional inefficacy, yet the root causes vary for each person. For example, burnout can happen if you’re working too hard in the pursuit of good results (overload burnout) or not receiving enough challenge and stimulation. A work-life imbalance or a missing social support network can also increase the risk.
Juggling a multitude of tasks in multiple jobs, volunteering included, can also become a risk for burnout. People who juggle weekend jobs, on top of their own regular weekday ones, find themselves without a day of break in between, which can ultimately take the joy out of the most enjoyable job.
Poor leadership is another reason for burnout down the road. “Burnout can occur when there is a power differential in a workplace and people have no voice or their concerns aren’t being heard,” says Catherine Cloutier, a registered clinical counsellor in Kamloops, BC. The stress of not being able to change the situation you’re in, coupled with an inability to speak up and a lack of accountability, can lead to burnout, she explains.
Helper or caregiver burnout can affect professionals such as doctors and nurses, social workers, and mental health practitioners, but it can also affect teachers and stay-at-home and/or homeschooling parents. A parent working full time and coming home to a load of chores is also at risk.
Marie Lacroix (name changed by request) loves her job, which involves intense physical activity, so when she started feeling more tired than usual, she assumed it was normal. “I thought better sleep will help,” Lacroix says. But things got worse: lack of energy, occasional depression, and digestive problems, which pointed to burnout and the need for time off.
Burnout symptoms can often resemble those found in people with depression, which include extreme fatigue, negativity, and a loss of joy in everyday life. But burnout stress can manifest in many other ways too. “Burnout symptoms differ from person to person,” says Cloutier, “and stress will accentuate conditions we are predisposed to, whatever they may be.”
Burnout can drastically alter neural circuits, causing neurological dysfunction and cognitive problems. Over time, chronic stress may translate into a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
People who suffer from high stress and prevalent burnout syndrome are thought to have an increased risk of insulin resistance due to high triglyceride levels, which persist even after improving exercise and diet. Insulin resistance can stress the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of heart disease.
Prolonged stress also increases the cortisol concentration in the body, which can cause the body to secrete less over time to compensate. One possible consequence is body-wide inflammation and buildup of plaque in the arteries, which ultimately can cause heart attacks.
Checking your work emails after hours and on weekends can be a work continuum that surreptitiously replaces (needed) free time.
Then there is social media. But, says Cloutier, “Screens are not inherently bad; it depends on how we use them.” Nothing beats a real, in-person friend, she says, but if that is not possible and a social media network provides you with an outlet to de-stress, go for it.
For those who struggle with burnout stress but find it hard to meditate, a focus game on a screen can provide relaxation; the equivalent of Sudoku or crossword puzzles for some, Cloutier explains.
Stress makes us reach for treats. It turns out we are wired for it. “When we experience stress, our brains need and use more glucose,” says Orsha Magyar, MSc, holistic nutritionist at NeuroTrition. “So during acute or short-term stress, our brains and muscles need that, and that ensures a proper fight-or-flight response.” Long-term stress can lead to many health conditions, as well as burnout.
“Fight back against stress by eating every three to four hours to keep blood sugar levels balanced,” says Magyar. “Choose complex carbs, healthy fats, and protein, and avoid highly processed foods, which are low in fibre and high in simple sugars and can cause a serious blood sugar rollercoaster.”
You can reduce burnout risk by eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, and decompressing through daily meditation. “If meditation is not your thing, choose something that relaxes your brain,” says Cloutier.
Daily mindfulness exercises (breathing, immersing in the moment, doing a body scan) can help keep you aware of your body’s sensations and reduce stress.
Aerobic exercise, even low intensity, can reduce symptoms of burnout, and so can yoga and stretching. Frequency, rather than intensity, is what matters, says Cloutier, so make physical activity and mindfulness part of your routine.
Prolonged stress depletes B vitamin levels. Eat foods rich in B vitamins (such as whole grains, beans, and bananas) or use a supplement after consulting your health care practitioner.
Try this Banana Pancake recipe for a delicious dose of B vitamins!
Consume antioxidant-rich foods daily (such as berries and colourful vegetables) to reduce stress and improve brain function... Like our Banana Berry Smoothie!
Daniela Ginta, MSc, lives, writes, and hikes in Kamloops, BC. You can find her at thinkofclouds.com.