I had been noticing some changes in Paul’s behavior since a few months. It was one of those things you just couldn’t see unless you had known Paul for many years like I did. At first, the small changes plodded into his everyday routine. Soon enough, you could see a sea change in virtually everything from his temperament to his appearance. He couldn’t concentrate in meetings without his brain turning to mush. He looked lethargic, cynical and aloof.
I had worked with Paul for over six years and over time we had built a relationship where we could confide in each other with personal details you would otherwise think a million times before sharing with a “colleague.” Yet, I somehow never got around to asking Paul what was going on.
He was one of the most hardworking and engaged professionals I had ever known through my career in banking. He was always the first one to arrive at work and often the last one to leave. His unconditional optimism was not only palpable but infectious too. And unless there had been a recent death in the family, you would always find Paul immaculately dressed.
Finally, when I sat down with Paul to have a heart-to-heart in guise of one of our wonted coffee chats, he sounded prickly. I first thought he was fighting shy of the topic only to avoid the embarrassment of a friend having to point out a less than ideal state of affairs with him. Yet there it was — Paul, who wasn’t Paul anymore. I couldn’t be mistaken. A few minutes into the chat and it became clear to me that he was not even conscious of the changes I was pointing to. He soon became curious and wanted to know more.
It turned out that Paul was apparently one of the millions of workers worldwide who not only suffer from the chronic stress that leads to burnout, but are oblivious to the symptoms that can wreak havoc in their lives. In time, these symptoms become too obvious to be ignored and before you know, the problem turns into a mental health issue. Yet apparently, burnout is not even a term used by psychiatrists.
Burnout is a Thing
Psychology Today defines burnout as a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment (more on that later).
According to a report from The American Institute of Stress, “80% of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42% say their coworkers need such help.”
Prolonged work-related stress, by whatever name you call it, is a very real thing, according to Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and a vocal advocate of practicing stress management techniques in everyday life. When you read the known scientific evidence of this pervasive phenomenon, you realize it is not all yada yada; chronic stress has shown to cause physical changes to the brain — changes that are all but healthy. In a blog post Dr. Kang argued that work-related stress “has been shown to cause the shrinkage or enlargement, thinning and premature aging in the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) — areas of the brain which modulate our stress response.”
Dr. Kang is not the only scientist who has shown that “there is a strong correlation between long-term stress and significant loss of grey matter, making our brains more vulnerable to neurotoxins.” The key is to understand the ‘long-term’ nature of stress and its implications for our mental and physical health.
According to Mayo Clinic, whenever there is a perceived threat, “your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.” That is your usual bodily response to any perceived threat, including those caused by a stressful situation at work.
“The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.”
This prolonged state of fight-or-flight is what eventually causes burnout. The funny thing is that we have become too accustomed to blaming the more ostensible causes of the physical symptoms; a poor diet, lack of exercise, insufficient sleep and even our genes.
The Subtle Signs of Burnout
A candid conversation with Paul uncovered so many issues that simmered at the surface of a potential boiling burnout. He suffered from anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain and loss of memory and concentration. It is a sad reality of our times that these conditions are way too common to be labeled as health issues. Today you would hardly ever meet a working person who isn’t living with some or all of these conditions.
According to Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, the tell tale signs of burnout are many and far too common than one might think. They include:
1. Physical and emotional exhaustion: chronic fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention, physical symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches, increased illness, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression and anger.
2. Cynicism and detachment: loss of enjoyment, pessimism, isolation and detachment.
3. Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment: feelings of apathy and hopelessness, increased irritability, lack of productivity and poor performance
We need to keep an eye on the subtle changes in our everyday lives — changes that creep in too slowly to be noticeable. Do you feel like staying in bed longer than you should in the morning? Do you feel like sapped of energy during the day? Do you find it hard to remember things at times? Do you feel too eager to leave for the day on Friday? There is hardly anyone you would know who would say no to all of these questions. We are all at a certain point along the stress continuum.
It is confounding how quickly we can slide down the path to complete burnout without even knowing it. Strangely, the root cause is something that is least spoken about: our relationship with work. We have systematically become blind to our relationship with work and the resultant health effects are nothing short of devastating, not only for individuals and families but for entire countries and societies. It is ironic that while our love for careers have afforded us the means to pay for healthcare, it has created far more health issues than it has solved.
© Majid Kazmi 2018
Majid Kazmi is an entrepreneur, community leader and board member based in Toronto. He is a Partner & Co-founder at uGen Group (www.ugen.ca), and the Co-Founder & CEO of Valu Ventures Inc. (www.valuventures.ca). He is a former Board Member at Toronto Workforce Innovation Group and H2O4ALL. Kazmi tweets as @MajidKazmi1. Click here to see his personal website.