These are the scary ways burnout at work changes your brain

Imagine an alarm going off 24/7 and nothing can turn it off. This is a graphic, accurate description of what happens inside the brain when you suffer from prolonged burnout at work. How can you cope?

 A man clutches his head as he suffers from a headache and stress (Illustrative) (photo credit: MAXPIXEL)
A man clutches his head as he suffers from a headache and stress (Illustrative)
(photo credit: MAXPIXEL)

In 2019, just before COVID-19 arrived along with the lockdowns, the World Health Organization released a shocking statement: The WHO decided to include burnout from work in the official international classification of diseases for the first time. 

Today, doctors can diagnose burnout at work as the cause for most medical problems, and disturbing studies show why this is accurate.

People think that stress and anxiety at work are normal feelings and need to be tolerated as part of a successful career. Yet if you’ve suffered for a long time from stress accompanied by severe mood changes, foggy thinking, chronic fatigue, rage and/or anxiety, speak to your doctor.

In an interesting study at Stockholm University, researchers performed simulations of brain activity of 40 people who usually worked more than 60 hours a week and received an official diagnosis of burnout

Data of these employees was compared to people in a control group from a similar demographic background who didn’t experience burnout. The brain scans helped scientists assess how burnout was reflected in measurable neurological changes and even in the brain’s structure.

An article published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Sciences (APS) discussed this intriguing study in detail and noted that ‘the stark differences in the brain activity of the two groups were evident mainly in the amygdala area, a brain structure that’s considered critical for emotional responses including fear and aggression. 

In participants with burnout, the amygdala was relatively larger and it seems there were weaker connections between the amygdala and other brain regions, especially the prefrontal cortex.’

To understand these findings, the amygdala can be compared to a security system that activates a powerful alarm when we’re in an emergency situation. When suffering from burnout, this alarm is triggered much more than usual, which makes people more sensitive, nervous and stressed. 

In such a state, the brain has difficulty functioning clearly, focusing, or controlling strong emotions.  Also, the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for our executive abilities, has difficulty disarming this alarm and restoring a tranquil feeling to the brain.

A dangerous cycle that feeds itself

You know this scenario: You’re very stressed at work which prevents you from accomplishing your goals, which makes you more stressed, it’s hard to regulate yourself and catch up, and this cycle repeats continuously.

To understand this ironic, troubling situation, researchers from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki examined 15 studies conducted on burnout at work and published their findings in the International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations.

Findings showed that continuous burnout leads to a significant decrease in attention and concentration abilities. People who are burned out have impaired memory, can’t pay attention for a long time and generally have difficulty managing themselves properly.  

Researchers emphasize that these problems may also increase the risk of addictions, emotional eating and risk-taking such as fast, dangerous driving or having unprotected sex.

Is burnout irreversible, or are there techniques to overcome it? Previous studies on mice showed that it’s definitely possible to repair the damage and a 2018 study with people published in the journal Cerebral Cortex from Oxford Academic showed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helped reduce erosion damage and even reduced the size of the amygdala to its normal state. As mentioned, the amygdala makes it difficult to control emotions and think clearly.

Along with emotional therapy, Dr. Mark Rego, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, who recently published Frontal Fatigue. The Impact of Modern Life and Technology on Mental Illness suggests doing more physical activities to combat burnout. 

In an article published in the university's journal, he stated people should engage in art projects, cook, take walks and have conversations with real people and close friends, not social media contacts. Also, he stated that everyone should think of ways to quiet their mind through sports, meditation or longer vacations.

Around the world they are already beginning to understand how dangerous burnout is to health and are even looking at different and ambitious initiatives to change the accepted form of work.

In the UK, recently a large experiment has been underway, in which thousands of workers throughout the UK will switch to a four-day work week. 

Until this revolutionary movement makes aliyah to Israel, a country that has the longest workweek in the OECD, everyone should be alert to their situation and think about how, even with busy schedules and overwhelming demands, it’s still possible to find opportunities to invest in mental health before it is too late.