How many times this week have you said you feel burned out? Chances are, it is a lot. The phrase has become common over the last decade as more of us struggle to cope with increasingly busy work and home lives. Research by Gallup looking at full-time employees in the U.S. found that 23 percent felt burned out at work often, while 44 percent felt burned out sometimes.
And across the U.S., job burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending every year. In fact, just this May, the World Health Organization (WHO) added ‘burnout’ to its list of recognized health conditions published in its latest International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems handbook. The WHO definition applies to work burnout specifically and classes it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
What is Burnout?
“Burnout is the physical, mental, emotional exhaustion brought on by prolonged stressful, demanding situations,” says Siobhán Murray, a resilience coach, psychotherapist and author of “The Burnout Solution.” While burnout is the colloquial term for this group of symptoms, if you dig a little deeper, it can be understood as adrenal fatigue. Understanding adrenal fatigue takes a quick refresher on the adrenal cortex. These glands, situated above the kidneys, play a vital role in the producing hormones within the body. This includes cortisol (commonly known as the flight or fight response) and adrenaline, two hormones directly related to stress.
“Put simply, the adrenal glands help the body manage stress,” says Nisha Jackson, author of “Brilliant Burnout.” “During stress, we use more adrenaline and cortisol to cope but over time your adrenal glands cannot keep up with the demands. Subsequently, they make less of these hormones and you start to feel the negative effects.” The classic symptom is a cycle of exhaustion. “You wake up after a full night’s sleep feeling not rested, hit a wall at 4 p.m. but then come bedtime your mind can’t rest,” says Jackson. As the adrenal gland is connected to the sex hormones (primarily testosterone in men and progesterone/testosterone in women) it can impact an array of issues as a secondary effect, from weight gain and cravings to anxiety and irritability. “Loss of testosterone levels can also see your drive, vitality and creativity dip,” Jackson adds.
We’re living in an age of perfectionism, putting pressure on ourselves both at work and at home, and then to also have this elusive work life balance.
Why Are We Burning Out?
But what is driving this so-called epidemic? The experts blame the increasing speed of modern life and dependence on technology as key driving factors. “We’re so inundated with stimulants. There’s a constant bombardment of messages, much more than our brains are designed to cope with,” says Jackson. And therefore, there is an emotional toll that this takes on our systems and hormone levels. While stress responses like cortisol were designed to protect us from danger (for example, being chased by a tiger), our bodies process modern stress (for example, an incoming deadline), identically. “The information we are constantly receiving by both the media and social media tests our emotions on a frequent basis.” Murray echoes this viewpoint, noting, “We’ve lost the ability to own when we can put technology down.”
But it is not just technology where we have lost boundaries. “We fit too much in our lives and fall prey to FOMO (fear of missing out),” Murray suggests. “We’re living in an age of perfectionism, putting pressure on ourselves both at work and at home, and then to also have this elusive work-life balance. There’s horrible guilt now attached to resting and doing nothing.”
How to Beat Burnout
When it comes to dealing with burnout, sometimes major life changes, such as a new job or living arrangement, are needed, but you can also benefit from smaller switches in the meantime.
- Remember your sleep is very important. “You need around eight hours of deep sleep each night. This helps the body recover from the day and restore hormone levels,” Jackson explains. Whether it is instilling a tech-free bedroom or creating a relaxing wind-down routine, prioritizing sleep is crucial.
- Considering blood sugar levels are so closely linked to cortisol production, food is important, too. “A diet that focuses on whole foods and balances fruit and vegetables, lean protein and good fats will give your body the best chance to cope,” Jackson emphasizes.
- And while exercise is important, at the point of burnout or adrenal fatigue, an extreme workout regime can exacerbate the situation. “High impact exercise releases cortisol. So, from an adrenaline standpoint, focus on moving the body every day in a gentle way,” says Jackson. Plus, a strict gym regime may simply pile on additional stress. “Committing to a strict gym routine can be overwhelming. Rethink your approach and try simply including walking in your daily routine to start with,” Murray recommends.
- Murray also advises decluttering all areas of your life, not just your physical space. “Conduct a life audit of your personal relationships. Set boundaries and cut out people who are emotionally draining,” she says. Giving yourself permission to relax and rest is a priority too. “There needs to be some element of living in the moment,” Murray says.
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