“During my teenage years, I used to be an overachiever and a multi-talented student. But gradually I started struggling in school and stopped hanging out with my friends,” recollects Ayesha Siddiqua, 21, a student from Kerala.
A member of the school band, volleyball team and volunteer for school events, she was adored by her teachers and parents. “In retrospect, I realise that I was constantly under the invisible pressure to always be the best. This prevented me from taking a break,” she continues.
Siddiqua always felt the need to present a perfect persona and wanted to be seen to be the best. “When my grades started going down, I would hate myself and didn’t know what was going wrong but I would still try to be perfect and I kept falling short and beat myself up about it,” she says. Siddiqua did not realise how burnt out she was until she kept falling sick.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. It is our body’s way of saying it is getting overworked and needs rest. Symptoms of burnout include extreme fatigue, feelings of cynicism and detachment from work or school, and lack of achievement.
John Victor, senior clinical psychologist and founder of Reevin Mental Health, Delhi, says the consequences of burnout go beyond exhaustion and cynicism. Chronic burnout not only has mental health consequences but physical, emotional, and professional ones too.
According to a 2022 study authored by Sergio Edú-Valsania and published in the National Library of Medicine, burnout can cause musculoskeletal pain, gastric issues, headaches and an increased vulnerability to infections.
“I would frequently get stomach pain, headaches and a dull ache in my chest. [Even after] consulting multiple doctors we could not pinpoint the cause of it,” Siddiqua says. However, during her summer vacation, she noticed that her symptoms had reduced and she was able to connect the dots. “I told my mom about my observation, and she got me on therapy. It took me some time to overcome it but I’m better than ever now,” she happily adds.
Vishwa Puranik, psychologist and yoga teacher based in Pune, and Victor list the consequences of burnout on our body:
Consequences on the body
- Prolonged burnout can lead to persistent fatigue and exhaustion, even after periods of rest or sleep. This can interfere with daily functioning and reduce overall quality of life.
- It can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep. Poor sleep results in poor quality which can further exacerbate fatigue and impair cognitive functioning.
- Chronic stress associated with burnout can weaken the immune system. It makes individuals susceptible to illnesses, infections and retard recovery from illnesses.
- Prolonged stress from burnout has been linked to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
- Stress-related burnout can contribute to digestive and gastrointestinal problems such as stomachaches, acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Chronic muscle tension and heightened stress levels associated with burnout can lead to musculoskeletal pain, such as tension headaches, back pain, muscle stiffness and sometimes, unexplainable body pains as well.
Effects of burnout on mental health
- Burnout can increase the risk of developing symptoms of depression, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, and feelings of despair.
- Prolonged stress and burnout can trigger or exacerbate symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder or social anxiety disorder.
- Individuals experiencing burnout may frequently feel overwhelmed, irritable or emotionally reactive. They may also experience a sense of emptiness, apathy or emotional detachment from others.
- Burnout can affect cognitive functioning, including concentration, memory and decision-making abilities. Individuals may have difficulty focusing, organising tasks or making effective judgements.
- As a `maladaptive coping mechanism’, burnout can increase the risk of individuals turning to substances such as alcohol or narcotic drugs to numb their emotional pain or escape from stress, leading to substance abuse or addiction.
- It can also lead to a decrease in sexual desire or libido.
How burnout affects workplace
- Burnout can significantly affect work performance, lower productivity, increase errors and poor decision-making.
- Individuals experiencing burnout may frequently take sick leave or engage in absenteeism due to physical and mental health concerns, leading to disruptions in work continuity and increase the workload of c0-workers.
- It can erode job satisfaction and cause individuals to seek a new job or profession altogether.
Burnout can be incredibly tough, not just to the individual but also to those around them and spoil relationships at workplace. It can make it hard for them to connect with colleagues, supervisors and loved ones due to feelings of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and disengagement. It can leave them feeling isolated mentally and physically.
It is crucial to tackle burnout head-on and reduce its influence. Speaking with healthcare professionals, therapists or counsellors can be incredibly valuable in developing coping strategies and managing stress.
Additionally, establishing a supportive work environment, setting boundaries and engaging in activities that help one to relax and take care of one’s well-being can go a long way in preventing and managing burnout effectively.
Your body is your vehicle, an instrument that takes you through every phase of your life. Give it the rest it deserves – rather, it badly needs.