Burnout is a very real issue for our health – and we’re only just beginning to understand the physical and mental consequences of it.
Last year, burnout was classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon”, legitimising the experiences of many who’ve fallen prey to the problem, also know as vital exhaustion.
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” said WHO. It’s characterised by three factors: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance or negativity surrounding your job; and reduced productivity.
And there are potentially physical repercussions of burnout, too. A new study has linked the issue to atrial fibrillation (AF) – an irregular heartbeat – which is a major cause of stroke.
For the study, more than 11,000 people were surveyed about burnout, anger, antidepressant use and poor social support. They were then followed over a period of nearly 25 years for the development of AF. Until now, the specific association between burnout and AF had not been evaluated.
Published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, the study found participants with the highest levels of vital exhaustion, or burnout, had a 20% higher risk of developing AF, compared to those with little to no evidence of burnout.
“Vital exhaustion, commonly referred to as burnout syndrome, is typically caused by prolonged and profound stress at work or home,” said study author Dr Parveen Garg, of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
While further research is needed to better understand the link between burnout and AF, Dr Garg believes there are two mechanisms at play. Vital exhaustion is associated with 1) increased inflammation and 2) heightened activation of the body’s physiologic stress response, he said. When these two things are chronically triggered, it can have “serious and damaging effects” on heart tissue, which could eventually lead to the development of AF.
No connections were found between anger, antidepressant use or poor social support and the development of AF. “The findings for anger and social support are consistent with prior research but two previous studies did find a significant association between antidepressant use and an increased risk of atrial fibrillation. Clearly, more work still needs to be done,” said Dr Garg.
Further research is also needed to identify concrete actions for doctors to help patients with exhaustion, he said.
Vanessa Smith, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, agrees. “More work is needed to fully understand how extreme stress can potentially lead to someone developing atrial fibrillation (AF).
“We already know prolonged and extreme stress is linked to unhealthy habits such as smoking, and eating unhealthily, which in turn increases your risk of heart disease.”
What do the study findings mean for us?
What can we take away from this study? Mainly, that burnout is bad news and we should try to mitigate the risks where possible.
“It is already known that exhaustion increases one’s risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke,” said Dr Garg. “We now report that it may also increase one’s risk for developing atrial fibrillation, a potentially serious cardiac arrhythmia.
“The importance of avoiding exhaustion through careful attention to, and management of, personal stress levels as a way to help preserve overall cardiovascular health cannot be overstated.”
A previous study has also linked prolonged stress with a shrinkage of the area of the brain responsible for regulating thoughts and feelings, enhancing self-control and creating new memories. In addition, almost a third of people report having experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of stress, according to a survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation.
How to combat stress
If you feel burnt out, the NHS advises against turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like smoking or drinking alcohol – and instead doing exercise, taking control of the situation that’s causing you stress, practising self-care and helping others. In addition to these points, Dr Garg recommends getting a good night’s sleep and spending more time outside.
Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer for non-profit The Stress Management Society, previously told HuffPost UK that mindfulness could be beneficial to those who are stressed, to help them live more in the moment. If you’re mindful, he said, you’re more likely to pick up changes that are happening to your behaviour.
Breathing exercises can also help, so take five minutes out of your day, sit comfortably somewhere and focus on your breath. There are a number of deep breathing apps you can download on your phone to help guide you. Yoga can also be great for unwinding after a stressful day, with a focus on breathing, stretching and being in the moment.
If you get to the point where you can’t focus, both Shah and the NHS recommend speaking to friends, family members and work colleagues. Make a list of the people you would turn to in a stressful situation – whether that’s someone you need to have a laugh with, moan about your relationship with, or air your work woes to. “One person might feature multiple times,” said Shah.
It’s important to talk through your worries with your support system, but with people living far apart and with increasing time pressures, it can sometimes be hard to know who to turn to. In this case, helplines and online support groups might help.
If your stress is causing you a lot of distress and you have nobody to turn to, or if you’ve exhausted the above options, speak to your GP. You can also refer yourself for free psychological therapy through the NHS IAPT service.
“It is important to recognise stress and find ways to manage your stress levels,” said BHF senior nurse Vanessa Smith. But while talking to friends and family, a healthy diet and getting regular exercise can help, it’s important that any changes are sustainable and don’t become another source of stress, she added. “If you’re concerned about how stress could impact your heart health, you should speak to your GP.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.