Job burnout is a common problem that can seriously affect your health and well-being. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and disconnected from your work, leading to exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of accomplishment. If left unchecked, job burnout can lead to physical and mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and cardiovascular disease.
"When people have a major medical event like a heart attack or stroke, they retrospectively go back and say, 'Oh, I was stressed. Maybe that's why this happened to me,'" says Dr. Ian Kronish, associate director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center here in NYC. "But they don't think beforehand that they'd better take care of that stress for their health."
"Burnout is real, and we're seeing a lot of it these days," says Dr. Tené Lewis, associate professor of epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. "People are overwhelmed on all fronts. And we know it's bad for your heart, blood pressure, and brain."
Recognition of the problem is growing. In 2019 the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have made it worse. A 2021 survey by Indeed.com found 52% of workers said they were experiencing burnout, nine percentage points higher than pre-pandemic. Two-thirds of all respondents said the pandemic increased burnout.
Many media reports cite burnout as a prime contributor to what's being called the "great resignation" as large numbers of people leave their jobs. In May, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned in an advisory that health worker burnout was leading to staffing shortages threatening the entire public health care system. "If we fail to act, we will place our nation's health at risk," Murthy said.
The WHO defines burnout as feeling depleted, exhausted, mentally distant, or cynical about one's job, with reduced competence and effectiveness at work.
Stress is partially defined by asking oneself to do more than you have the resources to handle. Stress is a red-flag precursor to burnout, and burnout perpetuates stress. It's a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.
A 2017 study in PLOS ONE reviewing decades of research linked job burnout to many health problems, including coronary heart disease, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, insomnia, and depressive symptoms.
Besides those effects, burnout can result in unhealthy behaviors that can add to the trouble.
Smoking, drinking more alcohol, and insomnia are all associated with burnout, and all come with further health consequences that can lead to atherosclerosis, a heart attack, or stroke.
According to Kimberly Beckwith McGuire, a clinical health psychologist in New Jersey, prevention should be our first step. "Do all the things we know already are good for us: getting good sleep and a reasonable amount of exercise, eating healthy, drinking water, and having some interests outside of work."
If you can't prevent it, McGuire suggests we learn to recognize it. Understand burnout's signs and symptoms in yourself. Are you feeling overwhelmed? Underappreciated? Are you getting headaches, and normally you wouldn't? If you're even-tempered, do you suddenly now feel irritable? Are you making more mistakes than normal? These can all be signs of burnout.
If you experience burnout, the experts agree that the worst thing to do is ignore it or try to tough it out and push through. People think they have to push and push themselves to push, but they're not invincible and break.
Instead, the experts unanimously advise us not to feel ashamed or embarrassed and to avoid seeking professional help. Research and learn positive coping strategies – delegate tasks more often, take short walks to break up stressful moments, meditate, and experiment with breathing exercises.
Here are some tips for preventing job burnout and protecting your health:
- Set boundaries: It's important to limit the amount of time and energy you devote to work. Make sure to take breaks and schedule time for rest and relaxation.
- Practice self-care: Take care of your physical and emotional needs by getting enough sleep, eating well, and finding ways to de-stress, such as through exercise or meditation.
- Seek support: Talk to someone you trust about your feelings of burnout. It can be helpful to confide in a friend, family member, or mental health professional.
- Find meaning and purpose in your work: If you feel disconnected from your work, try to find ways to make it more meaningful and fulfilling. This could involve setting goals, finding ways to positively impact, or seeking new challenges.
- Take control: If you feel you have no control over your work or workload, try to find ways to assert yourself and make your own decisions. This could involve setting priorities, delegating tasks, or seeking new opportunities.
- Seek work-life balance: Make sure to allocate time for hobbies, family, and other activities outside of work. This can help you feel more fulfilled and prevent burnout.
- Seek help if necessary: If you are struggling with burnout and cannot find relief, don't hesitate to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide support and guidance for managing stress and preventing burnout.
By following these tips, you can protect your health and well-being and prevent job burnout from taking a toll on your life. Remember to be kind to yourself and take the time to recharge and care for your physical and emotional needs.