How does ‘burnout culture’ affect our bodies, minds?

(NEXSTAR) – Americans have long been known for embracing their job – working long hours, never-ending work communication and relatively little vacation time – to an extent that might seem baffling to workers from other countries.

Now, a recent study has shown that our so-called “burnout culture” may have real physical, emotional and mental consequences as early as the age of 50.

NYU Silver School of Social Work professor Wen-Jui Han looked at the health outcomes of over 7,000 people from the age of 22 to 50, data recorded as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979).

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“Since the 1980s, our employment has been shaped by global technological and digital advances, together with the rise and dominance of the service economy,” Han wrote. “These changes have produced undesirable health consequences, including disrupting our sleep routines, an aspect of our daily life critical to nurturing our health.”

The study found that those who worked the most volatile working hours and reported less sleep were more likely to also have report depression and poor health by age 50. While the study can’t prove that one thing caused the other, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a regular lack of sleep can increase one’s risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and stroke, poor mental health and even early death.

What are signs of burnout?

It’s important to know early if a job is quietly becoming a threat to your health, experts say.

“Signs like feeling tired all the time, decreased performance at work, and pulling away from others are big indicators,” Dr. Raj Dasgupta, Chief Medical Advisor, Sleep Advisor, told Nexstar in an email. “If you’re getting easily annoyed, losing interest in things you used to enjoy, or relying on substances to cope, that’s a red flag.”

Dasgupta recommends setting boundaries at work that will help you manage burnout to stay healthy and productive.

For many, simply walking away from an unhealthy job isn’t an immediate, feasible option. Until you’re able to find another role, Dasgupta recommends taking regular breaks, trying to sneak in self-care routines such as exercise and relaxation, and speaking with supportive friends and colleagues.

Enjoying hobbies, learning new skills and speaking with a therapist are all helpful when it comes to being mentally fit, Dasgupta said.

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What happens inside an overworked human body?

In order to combat the long hours and lack of rest, the body experiences elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can leave us fatigued with muscle tension and headaches.

The World Health Organization says signs of burnout include:

  • depletion or exhaustion

  • being mentally distant from the job

  • developing a cynical or negative sentiment about the work

  • reduced productivity and efficacy

“Mentally, it’s as if your brain hits a wall – struggling to concentrate, memory slips, and you become more irritable or anxious,” Dasgupta said. “If you keep this up, it can lead to burnout, where essentially you feel drained physically, emotionally, and mentally.”

Over three quarters of American workers say they’ve experienced burnout in their workplace at some point, with roughly one in four feeling it “very often” or “always,” according to research group Gallup.

If you are looking for a new job and don’t want to get trapped in a similar environment, take a close look at the job posting for clues, according to a piece in the Harvard Business Review. Inclusive language, advertised flexibility and mentions of remote work possibilities could all be good signs.

You can also check out reviews of the company on sites like Glassdoor, the authors advise, and follow that up in the interview with questions about how your employer will value your time both in the workplace and outside of it.

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