Burnout symptoms: Subtle and not so subtle signs to slow down

This Morning: Dr Nighat on physical impacts of mental health

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Burnout ca occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you work in a physically or emotionally draining role, according to Bio-Kult’s technical advisor, Hannah Braye. And this includes three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and a reduced professional efficacy.

Hannah explained: “A 2021 poll conducted by Mental Health UK found that one in five people felt unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace.

“Although the WHO discusses burnout as an occupational hazard, the survey identified factors that respondents believed contributed towards burnout, which were not all work-related. These included money worries, sleep, isolation and physical health – perhaps indicating that the combination of work stress, along with additional life-pressures is having a big impact on people’s wellbeing.”

She continued: “The biological mechanisms of burnout are related to the body’s stress response. The adrenal glands supply the body with stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare us to deal with stressful situations.

“The adrenal glands belong to a system of the body called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Activating this system is what makes our heartbeat faster, pupils dilate and sends sugar to our muscles in order to produce energy to deal with danger, i.e. it activates the ‘fight or flight’ response.

“When working properly, the HPA axis turns off the stress responses when no longer needed. Unfortunately with chronic stress, the system can become dysregulated, leading to over or under activation, which can negatively impact the adrenal gland’s regulation of stress hormones, resulting in burnout symptoms.”

Some of the common symptoms of burnout, according to Hannah, include:

  • Feeling extremely exhausted all the time
  • Waking up after a full night of sleep, but still feeling tired
  • Experiencing dizzy spells
  • Losing motivation or drive – particularly at work
  • Finding small tasks a challenge to complete
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Other tell-tale signs that you may be on the edge of burnout include craving sugary foods to try and make up for energy loss, needing to drink more coffee than usual to wake up, experiencing brain fog and/or finding yourself daydreaming without realising.

Hannah added: “As prevalent as it is, burnout is often misunderstood, stigmatised, and costly both to employees’ health and wellbeing, and employers’ productivity. Unfortunately, it isn’t something that generally goes away on its own.

“If ignored, the signs of burnout could worsen and cause further harm to physical and mental health in the future.

“Those with burnout could also lose the ability and energy to effectively meet the demands of their job, which could have knock-on effects to other areas of their life, such as financial security. Therefore, it’s important to take steps to mitigate the negative effects of stress and reduce the risk of burnout.”

Hannah recommends the following:

1. Nourish yourself well – A 2021 review confirmed that many people that experience burnout may not be eating high-quality food, whereas people following a healthy diet seem to have a higher resilience against burnout. Aim to eat a rainbow of colourful fruit and veg, good quality protein from wild fish and meat, beans, legumes and tofu and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocado, and olive oil. Switching to wholegrain and complex carbohydrates is recommended to help support blood sugar balance (which is important for regulating the stress response).

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – If you are struggling at work speak to your manager or HR. Explain to them the issues that are causing your difficulties e.g., lack of resources, lack of training, lack of supervision, poor communication etc. and see if you can work together to come up with some solutions. Many companies now offer various forms of support for employees at risk of burnout, for example, Stress Risk-Assessments and Wellbeing Plans.

3. Rest – Everyone feels better able to cope when they’ve had a good night’s sleep. Prioritise going to bed at a reasonable hour, with some (screen-free) time to wind-down beforehand, especially if you have a stressful day ahead. Our circadian rhythm involves cortisol, therefore a regular sleeping pattern may help to regulate this hormone. It’s also important to schedule in time to rest in the evenings and weekends and to listen to your body, even if that means cancelling plans.

4. Look after your gut health – The importance of the microbiota-gut–brain axis in regulating stress responses is becoming increasingly appreciated. Having a diverse range of beneficial bacteria may help to support stress mechanisms.6 Taking a good quality live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Migréa, containing 14 different strains plus magnesium and vitamin B6, both of which contribute to the normal function of the nervous system and reduction of tiredness and fatigue is recommended (RRP £20.98, available to buy from www.bio-kult.com).

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