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  • Patricia Faust

Burnout Brain in the Workplace


The impact of burnout can bring a promising career to a halt. All the while, the psychological stress of burnout not only impairs people’s personal and social functioning, it can also overwhelm their cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems. This can ultimately lead to changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.


Burnout Phenomenon in the Workplace

Let’s look at the burnout phenomenon in the workplace. When long hours and chronic exhaustion become the normal at work, a dramatic toll on our health – including our brain- occurs. When stress becomes overwhelming it can morph into burnout. Burnout has many of the same symptoms as depression: memory and concentration problems, sleeplessness, widespread aches, profound fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and a constant feeling of being emotionally drained.


The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “chronic stress at work can lead to burnout – including depleted energy, exhaustion, negativity, cynicism and reduces productivity.”


Amita Golkar and colleagues from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a study and found that burnout can alter neural pathways in the brain. A group of 40 subjects with diagnosed burnout symptoms were recruits from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University. These participants attributed their symptoms to stressful jobs where they worked 60 - 70 hours per week for many years. A socio-economically matched group of 70 healthy individuals, with no history of chronic stress or other illnesses, served as the control group. Each group of participants completed test sessions used to measure ability to regulate emotions, evaluation of brain connectivity, and reaction to stress. People who were overworked not only felt less able to control their reaction to negative stimuli, their bodies showed an inability to down-regulate negative emotional reactions.


The two groups showed key differences in the amygdala – the center for emotional response including fear and aggression. The study showed that the amygdala in the burnout participants was not only enlarged but had significantly stronger connections between the amygdala and areas of the brain linked to emotional distress. Compared to the control group, the overworked group showed weaker correlations between the activity in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex – the area involved in executive function. These weaker connections could explain why the burnout group had more difficulty controlling their negative emotions.


Burnout Changes Structure of the Brain

In another study by Ivanka Savic, a neurologist in the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at the Karolinska Institute, it was confirmed that the brains of individuals suffering from burnout don’t just function differently, their very brain structure may change. The results of her study suggest that the emotional turmoil of burnout leaves a signature marking in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, the area essential to cognitive functioning, begins to thin as part of the normal aging process, but people suffering from burnout showed more pronounced thinning in that area than the control group. The effects of aging were more pronounced in the burnout group.


Savic found that the amygdala was enlarged and showed signs of wear and tear. She theorizes that the over activation of the amygdala leads to impaired function of the prefrontal cortex which then triggers stimulation of the amygdala which then reactivates the prefrontal cortex. This toxic cycling spirals out of control over time and neural structures begin to show signs of wear and tear, which led to cortical thinning as well as memory, attentional, and emotional difficulties.


Paying Attention to Employee Burnout

Elaine Cheung, professor of medical social services at Northwestern University, Feinburg School of Medicine, stated that “employees have a big role in addressing burnout by paying attention to whether employees have a sense of community at work; strong social relationships; a collegial environment; a workload that is not too burdensome; a sense of agency at work and a healthier work-life balance.”


Tips to Beat Burnout

Hopefully understanding the implications that burnout has on the brain, we will all take steps to prevent this from happening. Doing nothing to prevent burnout will only allow it to get worse. Burnout can result in a full-blown breakdown.


Here are some burnout tips:

· Start the day with a relaxing ritual: write in a journal, meditate, do gentle stretches


· Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits: you will then have the energy and resilience to deal with life’s hassles and demands


· Set boundaries: don’t overextend yourself; learn to say ‘no’ to requests on your time


· Take a daily break from technology: set a time each day to disconnect from technology


· Nourish your creative side: creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new; choose activities that have nothing to do with work


· Learn how to manage stress: You might feel helpless on the road to burnout. But you have more control over stress than you may think.


What about recovering from burnout? It is up to you.


Strategy 1: Slow down

When you have reached burnout stage, adjusting your attitude or looking after your health isn’t enough to solve the problem. You need to force yourself to slow down or take a break. Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal


Strategy 2: Get support

When you are burned out, the natural tendency is to protect what little energy you have left by isolating yourself. But friends and family are especially important during this time. Turn to them for support. They don’t have to try to fix your problem – just be a good listener. You are not a burden when you confide in them.


Strategy 3: Reevaluate your goals and priorities

Burnout is an undeniable sign that something in your lie is not working. Take time to think about your hopes, goals, and dreams. Are you neglecting something that is truly important to you? Burnout can be an opportunity to rediscover what really makes you happy and to change course accordingly. (helpguide.org)


Anything that is powerful enough to change the structure and function of your brain is something to be reckoned with. The good news is your brain has the power to adapt to a new, supportive environment. It is up to you to make the choice of what will happen next.


References:

Chatterjee,R. & Wroth, C. (May 28, 2019). WHO redefines burnout as a ‘syndrome’ linked to chronic stress at work. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/health-shots/2019/05/28/727637944/who-redefines-burnout-as-a-syndrome-linked-to-chronic-stress-at-work


Michel,A. (February 16, 2016). Burnout and the brain. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2016/february-16/burnout-and-the-brain.html


Minds for Business, Psychological Science at Work. Burnout leaves its mark on the brain. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/minds-business/burnout-leaves-its-mark-on-the-brain.html


Preventing Burnout, Signs, Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/preventing-burnout.htm

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