You’re feeling wiped out, apathetic, anxious, restless, antisocial, and unable to complete small tasks or like things that used to feel easy take more time than ever. Walking zombie, anyone?
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Two-thirds of workers experience burnout, found a recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full time employees. In one study, those with high burnout, as measured by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, reported more job strain, less social support at work, and higher levels of anxiety, depression, vital exhaustion, and sleep impairment.
Burnout isn’t an official medical diagnosis in the U.S., but other countries, like Sweden, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal, it’s considered an occupational disease. And it’s also not just in your head—there are real physiological markers of burnout. Research shows a correlation between burnout and higher levels of TNF-alpha, a protein that causes inflammation, and HbA1C, your average level of blood sugar. Midday levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, have also been shown to be elevated in people with burnout and morning levels are typically lower than usual.
Parsley Health doctors often use a test that measures cortisol levels throughout the day in members who are experiencing symptoms of burnout. This test helps to assess how the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, are functioning.
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“Someone with healthy adrenal function will have high cortisol when they wake up and then it will reach its lowest point at night,” explains Parsley Health physician Ruvini Wijetilaka, MD. “But people who are completely burned out will have low levels throughout the day, which means their adrenal glands are not pushing out any cortisol—they’ve given up.”
This is usually the final stage of burnout, explains Dr. Wijetilaka, but in the early stages of burnout, cortisol levels may actually be abnormally high because our body is always in “fight or flight” mode.
The physical and mental implications of burnout can have serious consequences. Chronically high cortisol has been associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis.
Work stress and impaired sleep also tripled the risk of cardiovascular death in workers with high blood pressure, a 2019 study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found. Burned out employees are even 63 percent more likely to take a sick day. (We’re all for mental health days, but no one wants to feel so run down that they can’t perform daily tasks.)
Signs of burnout
So how do you know if you’re burned out? Burnout symptoms may be slightly different in each person, but they usually include one or more of these:
- Emotional exhaustion
- physical exhaustion
- brain fog
- weakened immune system
Causes of burnout
Maybe people refer to burnout in relation to work, but job stress may just be one component of burnout, says Dr. Wijetilaka. Everything from family life and social stress to activities outside work and even exercise.
You’re always on
Do you remember when work/life balance was a thing? No matter how many ping-pong tables there are in the conference room, it’s harder than ever to strike a true work balance as technology has made it easier to be accessible anytime, anywhere. Remote work! Airplane WiFi! Hotspots! Slack!
You can’t say no.
A fear of disappointing others or even your own anxiety of underperformance can make it hard to say no to tasks outside of your job scope or commitments you don’t really have time for.
You’re working in a toxic environment
Respondents to a recent Gallup poll cited five main reasons for job-specific burnout, including unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from manager, and unreasonable time pressure. When employees feel supported by their manager and not crunched for time, they’re about 70 percent less likely to experience burnout.
Your screen time is taking a toll.
It’s virtually impossible to avoid screens, even if you don’t work at a computer all day, but research is pointing to screens, scrolling, and social media as contributors to burnout. Blue light from electronics, particularly when used two hours before bedtime, led people to wake up during the night and sleep around 16 minutes less a night, one study found. Social media use has repeatedly been linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and low self esteem. One case study in the New England Journal of Medicine even found that viewing a smartphone in bed was led to temporary blindness in some.
You’re constantly multitasking
Eating lunch while working, sending emails while in a meeting, and juggling between multiple screens? If you feel like your brain has too many tabs open, you’re actually less productive, more easily distracted, and more prone to make errors, found researchers at Stanford. People who frequently use several media devices at once actually have lower grey-matter density in the region of the brain involved in emotional regulation than those who just use one device occasionally.
The disproportional amount of women experiencing burnout
At Parsley Health, physicians have noticed an alarming trend—burnout is more common amongst female members, and unfortunately this epidemic is mirrored in the medical literature. When researchers followed over 2000 people across 63 workplaces over four years, they found that women experienced higher rates of burnout than men.
Increased work-family conflicts that leave little time for non-work activities, lower-self esteem, and decreased latitude in decision-making were cited as some of the main contributors of burnout in women. “Females who have a job, have a family, and have to take care of all of the daily errands are especially prone to this—its a huge toll on them,” says Dr. Wijetilaka.
Recovering from burnout
So how can women (and men) prevent and treat burnout? These are the tactics Parsley Health doctors use to help members get back to their energized, productive, and vibrant selves.
- Practice mindfulness
- Take a look at your diet
- Fine tune your exercise routine
- Shoot for quality sleep over quantity
- Cap your social media time
- Support with supplements
“Being present and being aware of the now can be really helpful in reducing burnout,” says Dr. Wijetilaka. This can take the shape of developing a meditation practice, learning to eat mindfully, or monotasking instead of multitasking, which actually strengthens neural pathways, she explains.
Certain types of mindfulness or resources on meditation may be more appropriate for people who are suffering from burnout or are on the road towards burnout. Parsley’s health coaches specialize in helping members figure out how meditation can fit into their lives and finding the right mindfulness practice for them.
If you’re feeling spent, you may be more likely to grab convenient foods, order take out, or even skip meals all together. Unfortunately, this can only feed into your symptoms of burnout. To feel energized, your body needs nutrient dense foods that truly fuel you with a mix of high-quality protein, healthy fats, and vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from fruit and vegetables. “I recommend staying away from processed foods, dairy, and gluten, which can be pro-inflammatory and affect your adrenal glands,” says Dr. Wijetilaka.
“A lot of patients I see with burnout are extremely fatigued, so they try to mask their fatigue by consuming a lot of caffeine, but that’s actually doing them more harm than good, because caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol,” she explains.
Many people who experience burnout are also high-achievers, and gravitate towards things like high-intensity workouts or endurance exercise, says Dr. Wijetilaka. In small doses, that’s great, but if you’re doing intense exercise every day, it can negatively impact adrenal function and contribute to burnout, explains Dr. Wijetilaka. To counterbalance more intense exercise, add in gentle exercise such as yoga, which has been found to reduce cortisol levels, she says.
People with dysfunction in their cortisol levels and people who are generally stressed tend to stay awake later and have sleep disruptions, says Dr. Wijetilaka. Getting on a regular sleep schedule can make a big difference. Shoot for 7-8 hours and try to get to bed before 11pm, when cortisol is normally at its lowest point. This will help improve the quality of your sleep so you feel more rested. Taking a magnesium glycinate supplement before bed can also help your body to relax and muscles to un-tense.
You may not be able to ditch technology altogether, but research found that when people who limited their social media use to 30 minutes a day, they felt significantly better after the three-week period. Study participants reported reduced depression and loneliness and the effects were even more profound for those who had higher levels of depression to begin with.
Lifestyle changes are the first defense for fighting and treating burnout, says Dr. Wijetilaka, but sometimes supplements may also be needed. If someone is towards the end stages of burnout, certain adaptogens like ashwagandha and cordyceps might be used to support their adrenal glands, while L-theanine or CBD oil may be more appropriate for helping with anxiety.
If blood work shows specific nutrient deficiencies that could be contributing to symptoms, supplements may also be used. “Vitamin D deficiency is very common and Vitamin D benefits the immune system, gut health, and is anti-inflammatory,” explains Dr. Wijetilaka. Low B-12 or low iron are also common nutrient deficiencies that can lead to fatigue.