How to tell if you are burned out — and what you can do about it

Fermented preserved vegetables in a jar

Do you feel extremely stressed out at work, pretty much all the time? You’re not alone. A Deloitte survey of full-time employees found 77% of people had experienced burnout — a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress — at their current job. What’s alarming about that statistic is how many of us are experiencing a condition so detrimental to our overall health.

“Individuals who experience burnout often feel that they are working too hard but don’t feel appreciated,” says Dr. Philip Stieg, neurosurgeon-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Stieg is also host of the podcast “This Is Your Brain with Dr. Phil Stieg,” which delves into a range of issues affecting the brain, including addiction, consciousness, even romance. “Burnout can lead to sleep irregularities, appetite changes or poor diet, or a number of other changes. All of that can affect your health.”

Studies show that those suffering from burnout are at an increased risk of high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory issues. Because of the health implications of burnout, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized it as a factor that influences health status or contact with health services in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

While the WHO doesn’t recognize burnout as a separate medical condition, it’s a syndrome that may manifest itself with physical and emotional symptoms, including:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Vulnerability to illness
  • Forgetfulness or lack of concentration
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger

In a recent episode of his podcast, Dr. Stieg discussed the growing problem of burnout with Dr. Richard Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the student mental health program at Weill Cornell Medicine. During the episode, Dr. Stieg discussed with Dr. Friedman the potential reasons for the increase in burnout.

“I’ve talked to people who say they’re burned out,” Dr. Friedman said, “and if you ask them about their work, you quickly discover that what makes them burned out is that they feel in a rut. Things are stressful in a way they can’t manage. Often it is because of the expectations that they have, or something about their work is actually toxic.”

What you can do about burnout

Ignoring the situation is not a solution, Dr. Stieg says. “If you’re burned out it’s not going to get better if you don’t try to do something about it.”

Dr. Stieg advises seeking out help or support from co-workers, friends, or loved ones. With the rise in burnout, many organizations have created workforce wellness programs aimed at addressing these issues; it may be helpful to join such a program. Making lifestyle changes such as eating healthier foods, exercising more often, and practicing mindfulness can also help. If all else fails, Dr. Stieg recommends talking to a clinician.

“Doctors are getting more educated about burnout, so you should speak to your primary care doctor about this,” he says. “There are many psychologists or psychiatrists that are available as well. People should know that help is readily available.”

Dr. Stieg’s podcast, “This is Your Brain with Dr. Phil Stieg”, is ranked in the top 50 in Life Sciences on Apple podcasts. To hear more about burnout and to find other fascinating episodes about brain health, visit playpodca.st/thisisyourbrain or wherever you get your podcasts. To find a psychologist or psychiatrist to help with work-related stress and burnout, visit nyp.org/find-a-doctor.

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