In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified ‘Burnout’ as an “occupational phenomenon.” They define burnout as a failure of stress management in the workplace which has a negative impact on performance.
The WHO goes on the clarify that burnout “…is characterized by three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
- Reduced professional efficacy.
Crucially, this definition of burnout is specific to workplace stress.
Think about that: workplace stress is so prevalent, disruptive, and insidious that the World Health Organization has to separate it from all other types of stress. That’s pretty remarkable.
Why does stress block your ability to perform at your best?
“Stress is making us slow,” Says Emily Fletcher, author of Stress Less, Accomplish More, on episode #180 of the Untangled podcast, “it’s making us sick.”
“Stress” is what we now call the body’s response to danger, the “flight or fight” response. In a dangerous situation, stress helps us by tensing our muscles and flooding the brain with adrenaline & cortisol, which help us focus.
On the flip side, stress can also be seen as beneficial and in healthy doses necessary, giving us a helpful boost when absolutely necessary, but too much of it can take its toll on the body and the mind.
How do chronic stress and burnout affect the body?
For the mind, there is no difference between physical danger and emotional danger. Regardless if the threat is a charging grizzly bear or an unpleasant confrontation at work, the brain releases the same hormones. Our body’s hair-trigger response to danger was a benefit in the wild when danger was infrequent. But in the modern world, it’s possible for your stress response to fire quickly and often, leading to a chronic state of perpetual stress.
With the body flooded by stress hormones, other bodily functions are impeded. A person in constant high-stress-mode can develop heart problems, is at greater risk of stroke, and is less resistant to depression and anxiety symptoms.
“The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones…can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” Say staff at The Mayo Clinic, “This puts you at increased risk of many health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
…I don’t think that nature intended for us to be sick, tired, and stressed all the time;” Fletcher says, “I think that stress is trying to leave the building.”
The difference between stress and burnout
Stress and burnout are similar but have subtle differences.
The clearest explanation is that long-term or chronic stress makes you feel overwhelmed whereas burnout makes you feel underwhelmed.
Think about that charging grizzly bear again. If you were faced with such a danger, would you run away? Of course, you would! That’s stress.
But what if you were charged by a grizzly bear every day, Monday to Friday? Eventually, you might think to yourself “You know what? I don’t care anymore. I’m just gonna let this thing maul me.” That’s burnout.
10 signs you may be suffering from burn out
It’s always helpful to check-in with yourself from time to time. It’s important to evaluate how much of a negative impact work stress is making on your mental health.
- Are you exhausted all the time?
- Are you motivated to do your best at work?
- Have you become cynical or do you quickly become frustrated at work?
- Do the people you interact with at work irritate you easily? Are you impatient with them?
- Are you having difficulty concentrating on your tasks?
- Are you eating, drinking, or otherwise attempting to distract yourself from work stress more than usual?
- Do you even care about your performance anymore? Do your achievements in the workplace still matter to you?
- At home, are you sleeping okay?
- What about your relationships outside of work? Are you short, rude, or overly annoyed by your spouse, kids, or friends?
- Are you suffering from unexplained aches and pains? Head or stomachaches? Muscle tension?
It’s important to make a distinction between burnout and regular, everyday workplace annoyances. Of course, everyone is annoyed by a co-worker from time-to-time, but chronic irritability with everyone around you is a sure sign of burnout.
It may seem trivial, but as a “systemic review of prospective studies” on burnout reports, burnout is a “significant predictor” of ailments from type 2 diabetes to mortality below the age of 45–how trivial can it be?
How mindfulness can help mitigate stress & burn out
Being mindful of your body’s stress response is the first step in managing stress and preventing burnout. Our collection of Guided Meditations include several meditations that directly address the issue of workplace stress and burnout:
The Stress Collection provides 18 guided meditations, from quick 2-minute stress breaks to 40 minute-long body scans.
The Performance Collection has 16 guided meditations the provide quick pep talks, visualizations for interviews and public speaking, and even feature Emily Fletcher talking you through a “freakout.”
These mediations are created by experts in the field and guide you through the process of using breath control to manage stress. Each one works in conjunction with your Muse headband to measure your brain activity and provides a graph on how long you were in an active, neutral, or calm state during the meditation to help chart your progress.
Tips for stressing less
- Don’t suffer in silence! If you’re stressed or think you might be burnt out, talk to the people around you. If you have someone at work you can trust, someone who has similar expectations on them, you may be surprised to find they are feeling similarly.
- Step away from the office. Find a way to really disengage from work. The simple act of turning off your phone, even for a few hours a week, can do wonders for your mental health. Try going somewhere that forces you to turn your phone off, like a movie or the symphony, that way you won’t be as easily tempted to check your email.
- Be kind to yourself. A major symptom of burnout is self-judgment. Learn how to celebrate your successes and honestly evaluate your failures.
For more on burnout and stress management, read Emily Fletcher’s book Stress Less, Accomplish More and listen to the Untangle podcast.