“I am burnt out.” How often have you heard that—or even said it? After a few long weeks, months, or even years at work, a constant grind of endless tasks and brutal hours can leave you feeling on edge and worn down. You’re stretched thin, and you may even feel like you just don’t care anymore.
You aren’t imagining it, and you aren’t just “going through a rough patch.” People who experience prolonged, unmanaged stress at work may be experiencing burnout syndrome (BOS), a popular phrase that has recently become officially recognized as an occupational phenomenon with serious health consequences. There is now there is an overwhelming amount of scientific data demonstrating that not only is burnout syndrome real, it is common—and it needs to be treated.
Although awareness is just beginning to grow, there is already widespread understanding of how to treat burnout syndrome, including lifestyle changes and medical intervention such as hormone therapy. But the first step is understanding what burnout syndrome is and determining if you have it.
You may or may not love your job. But by taking steps toward preserving your mental and physical health, you can get back to caring about yourself.
Understanding Burnout Syndrome
In 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout syndrome in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), a critical diagnostic tool used by clinicians, epidemiologists, and others in the healthcare field around the world. It is important to note that BOS was not classified as a medical condition. However, the WHO emphasizes that BOS is a factor “influencing health status or contact with health services.” In other words, BOS is known to damage health.
Although WHO only made its status official this year, burnout syndrome has been a concern within the medical community since at least the early 1970s. Back then, it was discussed strictly in terms of care workers—hospital staff, teachers, personal caregivers, especially at low-income clinics, dealing with the twin weights of low pay and daily horrors while feeling powerless to make a real impact. It was thought that the idealism with which the job was entered and the contrast with its daily reality led to burnout.
As the years went on, this idea expanded beyond a single category of workers experiencing this ideal/reality disparity and expanded to anyone with a job. According to the ICD-11: “
Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by 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 reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
There are a number of occupational conditions that lend themselves to burnout, including:
- Numbing routine: monotony, repetition, and the feeling like you’ve been pushing the same boulder up the hill for years for no real reason and with no real results.
- High-stress: the constant rush of needing to get things done right away, with no breaks, and issues flowing into one another. Life becomes a blur of competing demands which seem to defy the realities of the clock and your need for rest.
- Lack of personal life: you can’t balance your work life and your home life, and soon the former overtakes the latter. You’re always thinking about work and what has to be done.
Chances are, you can relate to any of these, and they tend to have specific effects mentally, physically, and professionally.
The Professional Impact of Burnout Syndrome
Burnout syndrome is known to have significant consequences both at work and for your health. These often cascade into one another and can contribute to a worsening spiral. And it can happen in any job. In a 2010 paper, researchers at the Institute of Work, Health, and Organisations, University of Nottingham wrote:
Research suggests that the basic structure of burnout is the same across occupations, namely the combination of exhaustion and withdrawal. In health service work these dimensions are related to working with people, since they constitute the object of the employee’s job, and manifest themselves in exhaustion resulting from interpersonal strain (emotional exhaustion) and withdrawal from recipients (depersonalization). In other professions the core symptoms of burnout manifest themselves as exhaustion and withdrawal (cynicism) from work in general.
So what does this look like in practice?
The American Thoracic Society describes depersonalization as manifesting in “negative, callous, and cynical behaviors; or interacting with colleagues or patients in an impersonal manner.” This effect was first documented amongst caregivers, but it can be experienced in any profession. You stop feeling empathy toward your clients or customers, and you begin to see them as just another box to be checked. You stop seeing the human impact of your work. And that makes every task even worse.
Not Feeling Personal Accomplishment
This can be related to promotions, raises, and professional recognition, but it also goes deeper. There is a feeling that none of this matters. Even if you absolutely nail a task, it is immediately followed by another, and there is no time to feel like you’ve done something important. You never get off the wheel—every accomplishment is quickly buried by a new challenge.
Mental and Physical Exhaustion
Dr. Colin Tildy, Clinical Editor for Patient, describes mental and physical exhaustion as “an inability to engage fully with many aspects of the job but, particularly, with those aspects involving interaction.” Specifically, your responsiveness to professional interactions diminishes, and you may experience flattened speech and less animated body language and facial expressions.
These effects can be devastating to your professional function. But we also know that the conditions that cause burnout can have a detrimental impact on other aspects of your life.
The Health Effects of Burnout Syndrome
The high levels of stress that trigger burnout can be devastating to your physical and mental health. Some of the short and long-term impacts of this kind of stress can include:
While each of these can be distressing individually, they can also aggravate each other and coalesce to create new health conditions. For example, burnout might not cause diabetes directly, but a cynical outlook combined with fatigue can make you eat less healthy foods, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, which can increase psychological distress.
Another critical aspect is the impact on cortisol . Cortisol is released during times of stress and can be useful in certain situations. However, chronic stress can result in chronically high cortisol levels, which may bring a host of detrimental health effects. After a prolonged period of high cortisol, you may also experience abnormally low levels of cortisol. As Alexandra Michel of the Association for Psychological Science says, it’s “as though the body’s stress response system itself has been burned out.”
Low cortisol levels can be profoundly damaging. You become less able to deal with stress moving forward, thereby compounding the impact of unmanaged stress further and leaving you vulnerable to new and worsening symptoms. One of the most concerning effects is the increased risk of coronary heart disease, for which burnout is a known risk factor. As such, balancing your cortisol levels is essential for recovery.
How to Treat Burnout Syndrome
There is no single way to treat burnout syndrome. However, the first thing to do is often re-evaluate your job. That doesn’t mean just quit—very few people have that luxury. But it does mean working to create a better work-life balance. Talk to your boss and HR department. Chances are, they’ll want to help, both out of concern for you and because helping workers avoid and recover from burnout is a smart investment.
Regardless of how your employer responds, there are many things you can do to help yourself heal:
That is key: finding ways to shift that balance back. The best hormone replacement therapy practitioners can create an overall wellness plan that includes customized pharmaceuticals, diet, exercise, mindfulness, and other strategies as part of a holistic approach to stress. With their guidance, you can recover from the effects of chronic stress and enhance your body’s ability to manage stress in the future.
No job is perfect. But by recognizing burnout syndrome and understanding it as a problem to be solved, you can get back to caring. You can get back to understanding that you are making a difference. You can get back to yourself.
If you believe you are experiencing burnout syndrome, BodyLogicMD can help. Practitioners in the BodyLogicMD network are experts in integrative medicine and hormone health and committed to helping you optimize your health using the most innovative techniques available. If you’re ready to take control of your health, a BodyLogicMD-affiliated practitioner can help you set meaningful wellness goals and create a personalized treatment plan to help you achieve them. Contact a local practitioner in your area to start your journey toward optimal health, or take the BodyLogicMD Hormone Balance Quiz to learn more about how hormones are impacting your everyday life.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. All content on this website is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent diseases.
Charlotte is a patient care coordinator specializing in bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. She is committed to helping patients who struggle with the symptoms of hormonal change and imbalance explore their treatment options and develop effective strategies to optimize wellness.