How to Identify and Reverse Burnout with Dr. Ara Suppiah

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If work’s got you feeling frazzled and stressed out, it might be time for a trip to the doctor. That’s right, burnout is now an official medical diagnosis according to the World Health Organization and its main symptoms include “emotional detachment, hopelessness, loss of motivation and joy with a noticeable loss of work quality and efficiency.” Read below for my interview with Dr. Ara Suppiah to learn how to stop burnout in its tracks…

Katie Couric: The World Health Organization now recognizes workplace burnout as an official medical diagnosis. As a doctor, can you explain to us what separates normal job fatigue from something more serious?

Ara Suppiah: Great question! Fundamentally, job fatigue and burnout are opposite ends of a spectrum, burnout being the final stop after years of job fatigue. Think of job fatigue as the “check engine light” and burnout as smoke under the hood!

Job fatigue is usually temporary intermittent physical fatigue in an individual producing high quality work with full mental engagement. When it becomes persistent, job fatigue leads to burnout. This is characterized by emotional detachment, helplessness, hopelessness, loss of motivation and joy with a noticeable loss of work quality and efficiency.

Katie: What would be your recommendations for treating someone with burnout so that they can get their health back on track?

Recognizing and accepting the state is the first step back. Speak to your physician or occupational health specialist. It is part and parcel of work life and nothing to be ashamed of. It is far more common than one might think, affecting up to 40% of the workforce according to a Gallup survey. Once recognized, we can reverse it. When you are experiencing burnout, the body is at full capacity hanging on for dear life. It’s time to apply the brakes and take the foot off the accelerator. It is time for EMS–-Eating (nutrition), Movement and Sleep. Basic premise – no extremes. Avoid fasting or overeating. Avoid access heat or cold. Avoid exercising intensely or doing nothing at all.

1. Let’s start with Eating.

Most burnout patients experience intense sugar and carb cravings, have food addiction and, as a result, are likely to be overweight. In an attempt to address this, most will seek out the latest fad, currently intermittent fasting. That’s not going to work for you. It’s too harsh. You need to gently feed the body with frequent non-sugary non-processed organic food. You are better off eating regular small meals instead of fasting. Also, now is a good time to load up on vegetables. Juicing or green vegetable powders are great options. Two groups of supplements I’d highly recommend during your recovery – omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil) for its anti inflammatory effects and adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbs that help you adapt to stress. Every major culture has their cherished version. You may have heard of some of these – ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha. Many companies do organic adaptogenic blends and these help your adrenal glands regulate stress. And finally, limit alcohol to one very slow drink a day if you must drink.

2. Next, make Movement a high priority

But avoid high intensity (an intensity where you feel out of breath). It’s too harsh. Walk, run or bike slowly. Work on slow deep breathing through your nose. Stick to 30 minutes max.

3. Thirdly, make Sleep a priority.

This is huge. Sleep is free medicine. Sleep nourishes the brain, reduces aches, increases energy, and boosts immunity. Three mandates to get you going – no electronic screens 90 minutes before bedtime, make your room completely dark (think hibernating bear), and leave all electronic devices outside the bedroom. No exceptions. Make YOU a priority. The calls and emails that put you in this state can wait. Additionally, consider supplementing with Magnesium citrate and Valerian root tea before bed, and I highly recommend you learn box breathing to help you switch off faster.

I love your approach to medicine and its focus on small changes that can make a big difference in our health. What are some things we can all do to avoid getting burnout in the first place?

Be consistent with the basics. Great athletes are great because they never get tired of working on the basics. I call them masters of the mundane! Applied to burnout – be consistent in practicing these three habits –  Be creative – everyday do something that engages your creative side. It can be something as simple as taking a different route to work or trying a different coffee shop. Next, vent. Get your frustrations out. Find an outlet that works for you and do it everyday. One caveat, if you’re venting to a person, limit it to 10 minutes. Finally, if you feel safe, go for a walk outside at night for 10 to 15 minutes, even if it’s cold. It will calm you down and the darkness will help you sleep better. Be consistent with these. Everyday. No days off. Just like brushing your teeth!

Tell us more about your philosophy of health and medicine in general…how has it been shaped by your experiences both as a doctor and as a person?

After graduating medical school in Liverpool, I trained initially as a surgeon, then in Emergency medicine, sports medicine, functional medicine and acupuncture. My guiding principle comes from Dr. William Osler who said: “It is much more important to know what sort of person has the disease, than what sort of disease a person has” and from Hippocrates who said “Let food be thy medicine.” Medicine is an art, one that combines heartfelt understanding, empathy and meeting the individual where they are and for who they are. Somehow, it has become a rush to a diagnosis and “a pill for an ill.” As an ER physician, I totally understand the need for timely diagnoses and treatment. But with most chronic diseases, we need to figure out who has the illness and why? What lifestyle and dietary changes can we implement to help manage their condition?

With that perspective in mind, what changes would you most like to see in the healthcare system in this country?

I’d like to see two changes at a bare minimum apart from the obvious tort reform. Firstly, physicians being given time to talk to their patients. Secondly I’d like physicians to develop a better understanding and the ability to evaluate a patient’s lifestyle, environment and diet as a source of illness and be reimbursed accordingly.

You treat both regular, everyday patients as well as some of the world’s most famous athletes…what’s something that we all tend to get wrong about how to be our healthiest selves?

Great question. Stop looking for shortcuts. There are no magic pills.  Health is your greatest gift but also your most important responsibility. Earn great health by doing the basics right. But that is tedious and boring and so all of us, including great athletes, look for shortcuts – pills, devices, apps. I’m here to report that nothing replaces fresh whole colorful foods and pasture raised meats. Nothing replaces sunlight. Nothing replaces movement. Sure we can add to this, supplement it…but those things don’t replace it.

What would you say to someone who hasn’t been able to make the commitment to better health, but wants to?

Be kind to yourself. Accept that you are human and you are going to fall off track repeatedly. I’m blessed to work with great athletes. You would be shocked if you saw how much great athletes, the iconic superstars, fall off track and struggle to get back up. No one is immune to it. We all get off track. It’s the beautiful human condition. So start small and keep going….and find someone to champion you. That’s the key. Great athletes are made great by their support systems. Find people who will help you keep on track and get you back on it when you invariably fall off. Remember, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go with someone.