Feeling the Burn

Burnout accounts for more employee absenteeism than the flu

By George M. Withers

The faster the world spins, the more we hear the term occupational burnout. Thing is, both psychologists and the workers of the world are trying to figure out the exact symptoms and signs. As for the cause of burnout, it's not as simple as being a slave to the 9-to-5 grind.

In 1974, American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger referred to burnout for the first time. He coined the term in a scholarly report based on his observations of staff members at a clinic for people suffering from substance abuse. He characterized burnout by a set of symptoms resulting from work's excessive demands.

Four decades later, more medical professionals diagnose patients with burnout than ever before. According to Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the subject, burnout is a lot like diabetes. In an interview with Global News, Dr. Kang said Type 2 diabetes used to be seen as a purely biological affliction. Today, we know that diet and other lifestyle choices are risk factors. "The same connection is emerging with the mental health diagnosis — burnout is a lifestyle-related condition," she said.

"Severe chronic stress has been shown to cause the shrinkage or enlargement, thinning and premature aging in the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex," said Dr. Kang. "These areas of the brain modulate our stress response. There is also a strong correlation between long-term stress and significant loss of grey matter, making our brains more vulnerable to neurotoxins."

Of course, the human body is a marvel. It's equipped to handle short-term stress like traffic jams or an overbearing boss. When minor stresses add up over a long period of time, however, our bodies activate stress-response systems and release cortisol. Persistent and high levels of cortisol can eventually interfere with normal body functions like digestion, rest, and the immune system.

Though the symptoms of burnout vary for different people, among the most common are chronic fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, and loss of appetite. So what to do to reverse the effects of burnout? Dr. Kang suggests making lifestyle adjustments.

Alter the routine. Read more, spend time with your children, go fishing, build model planes, and do crosswords — all at your leisure. Just be sure that none of it mirrors the work you do at the office. If all of that fails, maybe it's time to take steps toward a new career path.

Socialize. Spend more quality time with friends and loved ones. Meaningful social interactions have been proven to lower stress levels.

Meditate. This could be on your own and in a very focussed way. Or it could be a way to simply occupy some quiet space away from the hustle and bustle. All you need is 15 minutes.

Sweat. There's nothing like honest and intense physical exertion to sweat out the bad vibes and clear the hard-drive of your brain, so to speak. Strap on some sneakers, hit the gym, or simply drop down and give yourself 20 push-ups to boost your mood and energy.


Fall 2018, Vol 10 N°4

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