Burnout Isn’t Just Unpleasant, It Can Damage Your Brain. Here’s How to Avoid It
Working shorter hours won’t necessarily help.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Are you feeling burned out at work? You should take that feeling seriously. Research shows that not only does burnout affect your mood and productivity--it actually affects your brain function. Participants in burnout studies showed enlarged amygdalae, and thinning of the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex thins naturally with aging, but subjects with work-related burnout showed accelerated thinning--in effect, burnout was making their brains old before their time.
Not surprisingly, research shows a correlation between burnout and reduced cognitive function. Even more frightening, it also shows a correlation between burnout and coronary heart disease. Yup, burnout can literally kill you.
All this should be enough to convince you that you should take burnout seriously, and if you're feeling burned out at your job, now is the time to do something about it. But the solution may not be to shorten your workday. In fact, if you enjoy your job and feel that your efforts are valued, you may be able to work very long hours without encountering burnout.
So what can you do to fight burnout? Here are some ideas:
1. Balance care-giving with self-care
Burnout seems to be most frequent in care-taking professions such as nurse, teacher, doctor, or social worker. It's easy to see why: In jobs like these you have to focus your attention on the needs of other people (who are often in some sort of crisis) for most of your workday.
If you're in a care-giving job, you may find it highly rewarding because you know you're directly helping other people. But make sure to make time to care for yourself as well. Make sure to talk about the pressures and frustrations of work with friends or a partner or spouse. Set aside some of your off time every day for self-care, such as a walk or a bubble bath--if you go straight from your care-taking job to care-taking of children or other family members at home without a break, that could be a recipe for burnout. If necessary, look for ways to incorporate administrative work or other non-stressful functions into your workday, to give yourself some breathing room.
2. Make sure you are properly valued
Having too big a workload, not getting compensated or rewarded for your work, and feeling like your work situation is unfair all contribute to burnout, according to researchers. In practical terms, what this means is that you may have to speak. If people are piling too much work on you, either find a way to delegate some of it, or let the people you work for know that it's too much.
We all would like to be paid more, but if you feel like your pay is so low as to be unfair, make your case for greater compensation. If you feel like the company doesn't share your values, that too can be a recipe for burnout, and it can also be a tough problem to solve. You can try to change your company's values or at least make people more aware of them. But if there's a mismatch between your values and your employer's, the only way to escape burnout may be to find another job.
3. Join or start a group
What kind of group? It may not really matter, so long as it's something you enjoy. Lack of community is a contributor to burnout. On the other hand, being part of a community has proven health benefits and may even extend your life. So find a group you're happy to be part of, or createone of your own.
4. Take care of your health
That means taking the time to eat right, get regular exercise, and a decent night's sleep every night. Sleep is often the first thing to go when we get overburdened. But not only is getting too little sleep bad for your health, it makes you worse at your job. Make sure you get enough sleep every night. And don't forget to stay hydrated throughout your workday, something we all can forget too easily.
5. Don't forget to take time off
Time away from your job is extremely important for preserving your health and productivity, as well as avoiding burnout. Ideally, you should take at least one week of vacation at least twice a year and avoid checking in with work during that time. Just as important, spend at least one day out of every seven when you don't work on your job at all. Working on other things, such as building a backyard barbecue, is OK. But your brain needs a day away from your job every week to keep you functioning at your best. And working, even a little, seven days a week is one of the quickest paths to burnout there is.