Burnout can ripple throughout the body right down to our cells.
Do you ever feel like your brain is a web browser, and you need to clear its cache? Like you’ve had too many tabs open for too long, and the system is grinding to a halt, making tasks that ought to be easy, arduous? And is that mental exhaustion mirrored in the rest of your body, leaving you feeling constantly rundown? If the answer’s yes, you may be suffering from burnout — a much-discussed, but not broadly understood phenomenon.
KCM spoke to experts to break down the common signs of burnout and what’s actually happening in your brain when you’re going through it — plus some of the complex physiological risks that sufferers are vulnerable to down the road. We’ve also highlighted a few ways to help yourself if you are experiencing it, and offer a look at how the constant pressure to perform at work can be a double whammy.
On a basic level, what is burnout?
“Burnout culture, or the feeling that we need to be on the go all the time, is a major contributor to exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed,” says Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., host of the Cleaning Up the Mental Mess podcast and creator of the Neurocycle app.
Today, there’s a growing familiarity with this term, which threatens to detract from burnout’s seriousness. But this condition shouldn’t be underestimated. Jaqueline Kerr, Ph.D., host of the Overcoming Working Mom Burnout podcast, can testify to its terrifying effects.
“Burnout is defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of effectiveness,” says Dr. Kerr, who took a while to recognize the signs of her own burnout after years of overwork alongside a tough transition to motherhood. “I just thought I was a failure and unable to cope in a demanding job,” she says. “I experienced suicide ideation and panic attacks and was living in a state of fight or flight. I thought I’d experienced a midlife crisis or breakdown. Being a caregiver and parent can also lead to burnout, and many moms experience all of the above, like I did.”
What’s actually happening in the burnt-out brain?
Put very simply, it’s a breakdown in communication: “The physical brain and the conscious mind get drained and tired, much like how using a phone constantly and having multiple apps open at the same time drains the battery,” says Dr. Leaf.
“Meanwhile, the nonconscious mind, where our experiences cluster as thoughts, never gets tired. This driving power can be misread by our conscious mind and brain so that we feel like we can keep going — though if we tuned into the nonconscious mind properly, we’d recognize that it’s sending us signals to rest.” (And as a brief note, the nonconscious mind shouldn’t be confused with the unconscious mind, which is what kicks in when we’re asleep.)
What are some of the other key signs of burnout?
If you feel that you need to work until you drop each day, your conscious mind and brain will become worn out. As burnout sets in, your mind and body will start sending you warning signals like poor focus and memory, a drop in creativity, constant exhaustion, hovering anxiety, nagging physical problems, and other issues.
“Most women I interview on my podcast experience physical symptoms,” says Dr. Kerr. “They describe it as their body shutting them down. They have panic attacks, they’re unable to get out of bed, they experience headaches and hair loss, and some receive a diagnosis for another illness at the same time. When I went through it, my back teeth were cracked [from clenching and grinding], and my cortisol levels were high. We can fight our thoughts for a while, but at some stage, our body simply says ‘enough.’”
Are there any less-visible burnout symptoms?
Unfortunately, burnout can ripple throughout our body right down to a cellular level — and over time, wreak havoc that it may take us some time to register consciously. Our immune systems, stress responses, and even the biological “age” of our cells are all potentially in peril.
“Over time, because of the continued strain on the conscious mind, brain and body, your vulnerability to disease can increase by 35 to 98 percent,” says Dr. Leaf. “We make around 810 cells every second, and the quality of these cells impacts the telomeres on the ends of our chromosomes, which play a leading role in cell division and our biological age.”
This means that the quality of our telomeres, and therefore the health of our cells, is largely dependent on how we manage our minds. Burnout can interfere with this entire process. “Our mind is how we experience life and neurally code ‘life’ into our brain, called neuroplasticity,” explains Dr. Leaf. “If we’re feeling burned out, our telomeres can shorten, and our cells won’t be as healthy.”
This cellular-level impact then plays out as an increased vulnerability to mental and physical issues. As if that weren’t scary enough, the mental and physical symptoms of burnout can make it even harder to focus, creating a vicious cycle.
“Burnout can affect the HPA axis, aka the stress axis,” says Dr. Leaf. “That’s structured to help us concentrate and function optimally, but it can work against us if we’re heading towards burnout.”
Why is burnout so prevalent?
While there’s definitely an individual element — perfectionists, anxious people, and those who suffer from imposter syndrome at work are all especially vulnerable to burnout — a person’s professional environment and the prevailing culture at work are key factors. Sharon Grossman, Ph.D., psychologist, bestselling author of The 7E Solution to Burnout, and host of the Decode Your Burnout, breaks it down.
“Even with the best of intentions, many organizations have conflicting messaging that puts workers in a craze,” says Dr. Grossman. “They’ll say they put people first, which might translate into great customer service. But for someone working in that organization, that actually means that you feel pressure to perform your job quickly, and are scared to step away from your computer in case that creates a delay down the line.”
Of course, you don’t need to be in a customer-facing job to feel the heat. “Perhaps in your organization there’s an unrelenting surge of emails, so you worry that if you take a break, a day off, or go on vacation, you’ll drown in the work that’s piled up,” suggests Dr. Grossman, “So you take work home, and spend nights and weekends getting caught up. Over time, work feels like a grind. You’re feeling drained by Tuesday every week, because you never had a chance to recharge.”
Even companies that are becoming aware of burnout often don’t tackle its root causes. “When organizations tell their workers to ‘set boundaries’ and ‘take time off,’ they don’t address these concerns of the work piling up, or the flip side of people feeling frustrated by lags in responding that lets others down,” says Dr. Grossman.
How can we deal with burnout if we’re struggling?
Since so much of burnout is caused by our work environments, for many of us, the solution begins there, too.
“Asking for what you need at work and home is such an important first step, and not always easy to do, especially in the U.S. where there’s such an individualistic culture,” says Dr. Kerr. “Ask for flexible work hours, and work on crafting a job that feels more enjoyable. This is linked to job satisfaction, so many employers support this. You have to see what you can take off your plate. If it comes to it, even looking for another job can help you feel like you’re in control again. It’s about putting yourself first.”
Once you understand some of the external causes of your burnout — or even if you haven’t addressed them yet — you can utilize some internal tools.
“I recommend setting aside 15-45 minutes a day to practice mind management,” says Dr. Leaf. “This can help us better tune into our mind, brain, and body, and pick up on the signals the nonconscious mind sends us through the subconscious mind into the conscious mind. I developed an app called Neurocycle to help with this. You can also implement regular breaks to daydream and let your mind wander for around 30 seconds each hour. This helps to reboot the default network of the brain, helping to recharge the conscious mind and brain.”
For many of us, it can be hard to relinquish the “can do” self-image we associate with working nonstop — but it’s a crucial step as well.
“I used to think working harder was the solution to all problems,” admits Dr. Kerr. “I’ve now realized that my ‘busy’ badge doesn’t help me or anyone else — I can actually hurt and put pressure on others with that expectation. If we love to be needed and feel better when we’re a martyr, it can be really hard to give that up, but you have to put your ego aside.”
And what can companies and employers do to help?
For starters, bosses need to lead by example. “Glennon Doyle said we need to be role models to our daughters, not martyrs to motherhood,” says Dr. Kerr. “That struck me. I don’t want my daughter to think sacrificing her own health and needs is the right thing to do. Role models are key in all aspects of life, which is why we need CEOs and managers to lead with their own reasonable work hours.”
It’s also absolutely crucial for employers to back up any well-meaning words and intentions with actions, and take active responsibility for employees’ well-being. “Telling people to focus on their own self-care puts the blame on the individual,” says Dr. Kerr. “Reviews of burnout interventions show we need both individual steps and organizational change. Bosses need to make team well-being a KPI. Then they’ll invest in the right programs, measure what is helping, and hold managers accountable.”
As is so often the case, when it comes to work, quality should take priority over quantity. “Focusing on only the most impactful projects to reduce unnecessary work,” says Dr. Kerr. “Companies also need to subsidize childcare to reduce working-mom burnout and provide paid leave to all caregivers as a default. Offer flextime, paid time off, and make sure personal check-ins happen so that less visible employees don’t fall through the cracks.”