9 Burnout Signs You Should Never Ignore
Geraldine Fitzpatrick, 65, spent 28 years as a front-line child protection worker. It was a consuming profession, and witnessing turmoil took a real toll. “I was helping all these families with their crises, but I could not cope,” she says. Her job was so demanding that she lacked the energy to take care of herself or her family. She was gaining weight, felt easily frustrated, and her emotions spilled over on the weekends—to the alarm of her kids. “Nobody wanted to be with me on Saturdays, because Saturday was a crying day,” she says. Fitzpatrick now recognizes she’d been operating on fumes since at least 1995, when she began having work-related nightmares.
Burnouts can have widespread implications for our health, well-being and ability to function. There’s no official clinical diagnosis for the condition, but it’s typically signalled by three key symptoms, says Robert Paul Juster, a researcher who earned his Ph.D from McGill University: “a loss of professional efficacy, emotional exhaustion and feelings of detachment or cynicism.” The condition doesn’t only affect those in the workforce. Unlike run-of-the-mill fatigue, burning out involves a pattern of overexertion that feels beyond your control, and extreme exhaustion that isn’t helped by sleep.
“Unfortunately, some people don’t seek help for burnout, because they don’t realize they’re suffering from it or they’re worried about the stigma,” Juster says. But there’s no need to soldier on: there are some telltale emotional, physical and behavioural red flags to watch out for. Read on to determine whether you’re running on empty—and learn how to shore up your reserves again.
Burnout Signs: Memory Problems
Cortisol is our most powerful stress hormone and the fuel that marshals our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response. Burnout, says Juster, is related to low cortisol levels. When a person is overtaxed, their body can’t keep pace with the relentless demand for the hormone; in response, it dramatically reduces production.
That’s bad news for our brains, which require cortisol to form memories. “Think of Bambi running into a bear in the forest,” says Juster. “The deer must mobilize a stress response to flee but also needs its memory system to recall where the bear is in the forest.”
Our hippocampus is the region of the brain that stores our memories, and when individuals are chronically stressed, that area shrinks in size. “When hippocampal volume decrease, our ability to properly encode memories is impaired,” says Juster. One 1998 study out of McGill found that among older adults who showed elevated levels of cortisol, hippocampal volume was decreased by 14 per cent. While scientists don’t yet have concrete evidence about the impacts of low cortisol on hippocampal volume, Juster cautions that too little of the hormone can be just as bad as too much.
Most encouragingly, exercise may help reclaim hippocampal volume. In 2011, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh followed older adults who performed thrice-weekly, moderate-intensity aerobic activity. After a year, the group experienced mean hippocampal growth of two per cent—equivalent to a one- to two year reversal of the typical volume loss in seniors—which could benefit both mood and memory.
Burnout Signs: Depression
Roughly eight per cent of adults will weather depression at some point, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. The condition is hard to separate from burnout: sufferers grapple with several exhaustion; everyday tasks become difficult to manage.
But it’s important to distinguish between depression as a standalone diagnosis and as a symptom of chronic stress, Juster maintains, even if the distinction isn’t always clear. He says the two are marked by physiological differences: depression is typically accompanied by high cortisol levels, for example, while burnout is not. That’s a key nuance, since antidepressants employ serotonin to decrease production of the stress hormone, which may not benefit someone whose supply is already depleted.
Numerous studies have found that when exercise increases, depression dissipates. One easy fix is to hop on a bicycle: as recently as February 2016, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that just three sessions of 20-minute stationary bike-riding raised the levels of neurostransmitters that are sapped in patients with mental-health disorders.