The Hostile Takeover of Burnout

The last act of the stress cycle, burnout develops from a condition of chronic stress. Emotional resources are stripped away until there is nothing left to counter the drain. It's a "gradual depletion over time of individuals' intrinsic energetic resources," says Tel Aviv University's Arie Shirom, a leading authority on job stress and preventing burnout.

The result is a three-way, mind-body shutdown—emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness. Numbness and cynicism set in. You may feel a sense of depersonalization and a lack of accomplishment. Withdrawal, detachment from work and relationships and symptoms of depression mark the advanced stages of the cycle.

As the last stage of stress, burnout brings with it acute health problems. Recent research at Tel Aviv University found that burnout can increase the risk of coronary heart disease in some people by 79%. Burnout can also lead to upper respiratory infections, stroke, and depression. It's critical to identify and resolve burnout before it triggers life-threatening risks.

Burnout is not just a personal threat, but also a toxin for organizations as well. It guts productivity, fractures relationships, and fuels medical bills.  

Burnout Symptoms

Stress can lead to burnout when we suffer a loss of physical and emotional resources too great to replace. If coping efforts fail to restore the loss, and there's no interruption of the stress trigger(s) causing the drain, we can wind up stuck in a cycle of burnout.

Typical burnout triggers include overwhelming workload, lack of social support or reward, interpersonal conflict (a major factor), lack of control, intense caregiving, combat fatigue, and a sense of impotence—that nothing you do makes a difference.

The telltale sign of burnout is emotional exhaustion, but there are plenty of other clues, many reflecting the symptoms of stress:

Frequent illness
Upset stomach
Frequent headaches
Muscle tension and pain
Rapid heartbeat
Cynicism and negativity
Frequent mistakes
Sleep difficulty

Most people ignore the signals of job burnout. The adaptive process of chronic stress thrives on this. The adrenaline racing through the body masks the damage to overtaxed organs.

The stress response was designed to go off only for a short time, until you were out of harm's way. There's a good reason for that, since the stress response suppresses the immune system and tissue repair system, among others, to push blood to arms and legs to fight or run. Chronic stress mode keeps the immune system suppressed 24/7, which is why burnout comes with so many health risks.

How to Exit the Stress-Burnout Cycle

Preventing or exiting burnout takes a commitment to change the status quo. And you can change it and get your spirit back. Don't give up!

Burnout doesn't go away overnight, but you can build depleted resources back up again. It takes changes to the stressors driving burnout, such as excessive overwork, no recovery time, perfectionism, unviable schedules, chronic conflict, and giving too much of yourself emotionally.

It can seem very dark inside the burnout pit. Everything looks black. That's part of the number that burnout does on your mind. But there is a way out. Studies show that counseling is one of the most effective ways to escape the burnout trap. 

Don't take burnout. Take charge!

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