A woman experiencing burnout

Burnout symptoms: this is how prolonged, chronic stress affects our bodies

Posted by for Life

Whether you’re working more than ever or you’re finding technology particularly challenging, it’s safe to say that, for many of us, working from home has sent our stress levels through the roof and put us at risk of developing burnout. Here, we unpick some of the common physical symptoms of this stress-related condition. 

The time when we thought working from home would be a short-term arrangement is long behind us. With winter approaching and the number of new coronavirus cases rising, it seems likely that working from home will remain the norm for the foreseeable future.

Although this is good news for some, for many of us, the prospect of working from home into 2021 is rather overwhelming. Because while our days are no longer as physically demanding as they were pre-pandemic – there’s no need to run for the train or rush between various meetings – that doesn’t mean they’re not incredibly stressful. 

Indeed, working from home comes with its own unique challenges. Thanks to a combination of technological blunders, communication issues and working longer hours, we’re finding ourselves more stressed than ever. Worryingly research from LinkedIn in partnership with The Mental Health Foundation suggests that 56% of UK workers are feeling more anxious and stressed since they’ve been working from home, with 31% saying they’ve experienced difficulty sleeping. 

Even more worrying? All of this additional stress puts us at risk of developing burnout.

The “occupational phenomenon” – as it was first described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – has emerged as a result of our “always on” culture, which tells us to work harder, be switched on at all times and “hustle” even during our down time. We’re a society obsessed with productivity – and it’s putting our mental health at risk.

As conversation around the subject continues, more and more of us are becoming aware of the emotional symptoms of burnout, and how to avoid getting burnt out in the first place. From feelings of exhaustion and depression to insomnia and forgetfulness, the psychological and emotional side effects of burnout can be extremely distressing and become debilitating without intervention.

But underneath all of this discussion, there is another side of burnout we’re less likely to talk about: the physical symptoms.

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As with all forms of stress, our body reacts when we’re put in a stressful or anxiety-inducing situation, so it’s to be assumed that burnout has an impact on our body, too. And while short-term symptoms of stress may be annoying and inconvenient, longer-term, chronic stress such as the kind which leads to burnout is bound to take its toll.

As Sherrie Bourg Carter writes for Psychology Today, “burnout doesn’t happen suddenly… its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak, which makes it harder to recognise. Still, our bodies and minds do give us warnings, and if you know what to look for, you can recognise it before it’s too late.”

How does burnout affect us?

The physical symptoms of burnout are wide ranging.
Symptoms of burnout: chronic stress manifests as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion.

As we’ve already established, the symptoms of burnout are similar to those experienced during stress, but there are a few additional symptoms which arise from the continued, chronic nature of the stress which causes burnout.

“Burnout is caused by prolonged or excessive stress which manifests as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, combined with doubts about competence and the value of your work,” explains Eugene Farrell, mental health lead for AXA PPP healthcare. “It can be described as a persistent and severely unmanaged reaction to stress in the workplace.”

The majority of burnout symptoms, confirms Farrell, are similar to those we experience due to stress: inability to concentrate, racing thoughts, tiredness, an upset stomach, irritability, trouble sleeping and craving substances like alcohol or cigarettes more often.

But alongside those issues, Farrell adds, people dealing with burnout may experience any one of these symptoms:

  • Feeling exhausted
  • Lack of drive and motivation
  • Inability to cope
  • Numbness
  • Feeling emotionally drained
  • Feeling argumentative
  • Feeling alone or isolated
  • Cynicism
  • Negativity
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job

These are the fundamental signs of burnout and are evidence of what happens when we push our bodies into a state of exhaustion – both physically and mentally.

In extreme conditions, burnout can even take a toll on our hearts. According to a recent study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, burnout can lead to a heart rhythm disturbance called atrial fibrillation – a common form of heart arrhythmia which it is estimated will affect 17 million people in Europe by next year. 

Can burnout delay periods?

Can burnout really delay periods? The answer is yes.
Symptoms of burnout: chronic stress really can delay periods.

The simple answer is yes. When we put our bodies under a prolonged state of stress, our bodies response is to begin shutting down/deprioritising the non-essential systems in the body, and this includes the reproductive system.

“When you are under severe emotional or physical stress, periods often become irregular or even stop altogether,” explains Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan and author of Cut Your Stress. “This is related to a lack of ovulation and is thought to be nature’s way of reducing the chance of pregnancy when you are already under a lot of pressure. In the same way, excessive stress can trigger an early menopause – although this is uncommon and poorly understood.”

Farrell points out that the state of exhaustion associated with burnout can also disrupt or interfere with the body’s hormonal levels, which can also delay or interrupt periods. 

“The nature of burnout means the body is overtired and exhausted, which can interfere with the body’s hormonal balance. As the menstrual cycle is governed by hormones, some women may experience a delay in their menstrual period.

“In addition, an accompanying stress response can disturb the reproductive system as blood is diverted to muscles to prepare for a ‘fight or flight’ response.”

Can burnout make us more susceptible to illness?

Burnout can cause illness
Symptoms of burnout: prolonged, chronic stress can lead to increased rates of illness.

As Richard Holmes, director of wellbeing at Westfield Health has previously explained, when we put our bodies under high levels of stress, the ‘fight or flight’ response which is triggered causes certain bodily systems to be ‘deprioritised’ and work less effectively, and it’s this which can make us more vulnerable to illness.

“When we feel stressed our body goes into fight or flight mode, releasing the same hormones as when we’re under attack,” he explains. “These hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, prioritise what we need to get out of that situation, raising our heart rate, blood pressure and increasing the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.

“While it’s doing this, the body then deprioritises things like the digestive, reproductive and immune systems.”

In this way, our body becomes more vulnerable to illness when we’re stressed for prolonged periods of time, as our immune system is ‘deprioritised’ for an extended period. Additionally, the high levels of both adrenaline and cortisol can cause problems if they stay like that for a while, as occurs when we’re experiencing the periods of chronic stress which lead to burnout.

“Neither adrenaline nor cortisol are beneficial if they are present at high levels for prolonged periods, as we’re not designed to be in this state constantly,” says Farrell. “This is why burnout can result in our immune system being undermined, which can lead to an increased susceptibility with both minor and more severe illness. It may also exacerbate any current or underlying illnesses that a person may have.”

What are the other physical symptoms of burnout?

Burnout: this is how prolonged, chronic stress can affect your body.
Symptoms of burnout: the physical symptoms of burnout are wide-ranging.

Because our body deprioritises unessential systems during periods of stress, burnout can have wide ranging effects on our bodily functions.

“People can experience other symptoms such as gastrointestinal issues, because our body turns off the systems that are not essential as part of this response,” explains Farrell. “You don’t need to digest food if you’re about to run away from a tiger.”

The short-term nature of the situations these stress responses are designed to react to – such as running away from a tiger, for example – mean they can have a serious impact when they are prolonged and extended.

The problem with burnout, then, is that our bodily systems become deprioritised for too long, and as a result we can experience additional physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, fainting, heart palpitations and chest and muscle pain, among other things.

Dr Brewer also points out that burnout can lead to, among other things, a low sex drive, recurrent colds, migraines and high blood pressure. 

If working from home is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues to the stress of trying to communicate with colleagues, there are a myriad of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including to anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of WFH wellbeing.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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