What Burnout Does to the Brain


By Adrian Sparrow
NeuLine Health


Recently, researchers have found that burnout can cause physical changes to your brain. But first, what is burnout? 

Occupational burnout is more than feeling overwhelmed. Burnout results from prolonged stress and doesn’t always have a singular cause. Richard Gunderman, professor of radiology and philosophy at Indiana University, describes the onset of burnout as “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own (source).” When job demands outpace a person’s ability to cope with the stress, burnout emerges. Physical and emotional exhaustion creep in, and you feel less accomplished and more uncertain in your identity. You might become irritable, cynical, impatient, or critical at work. You may find it difficult to begin work or concentrate.  What’s worse, you might not realize it when burnout sneaks up on you and your health suffers. 


Causes of Burnout

Some causes of burnout can include: 

-Lack of Control

-Unclear Expectations 

-Little Reward

-Lack of Fairness

-Lack of Support

-Dysfunctional workplace dynamics

-Work-life imbalance

These can show in ways like a heavy workload, long working hours, or having little or no control over your work. A dysfunctional environment could mean an office bully or a boss who needlessly micromanages your work. Working in a helping profession such as healthcare also puts you at risk of burnout.

Struggling with any one of these will cause stress, but it can be too much for a person to handle when that stress is prolonged or compounded with other problems. Our culture places a great deal of importance on productivity and success, so even if people recognize signs of burnout, they’re often further ignored until there’s a severe impact on their job performance. But the toll on your health is even more devastating. 

Burnout’s Effect on the Brain

Emerging research shows that the psychosocial stress from burnout doesn’t just harm social and physical functions but can also overwhelm cognitive function and the neuroendocrine systems, which can ultimately lead to “distinctive changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain (source).”

People suffering from burnout can have an enlarged amygdala, which is the part of your brain that helps regulate emotion and memory. People also have weaker connections between the amygdala and areas of the brain linked to emotional distress and executive function, which can explain why those with burnout tend to be more irritable and have difficulty controlling negative emotions. 

Burnout is also linked to cortisol, the stress hormone that’s released when a threat is perceived. After periods of chronic stress and constantly high cortisol levels, such as in cases of burnout, the body alters its cortisol production to abnormally low levels in a state called hypocortisolism, almost as though the body’s stress response has burned itself out.

If burnout isn’t addressed, several significant consequences can arise:





-Lack of motivation

-Shortened attention span

-Poor decision-making

-Misuse of alcohol or drugs

-Anger or irritability

-High blood pressure

-Heart disease


-Vulnerability to illness


What Can You Do to Fight Workplace Burnout? 

It’s essential to reduce stress to manageable levels, which may require changes in your workplace or workload. 

-Seek support

Sometimes managing stress is a two-person job- or more. Reach out to coworkers, friends, or family for advice and support. Some jobs offer employee assistance programs, possibly including mental health counseling, manager training, and financial assistance. 

-Do relaxing activities

Practice yoga, meditation, or mindfulness. Crafting and gardening also offer mindful and relaxing benefits. 

-Set boundaries

If you’re assigned tasks outside your skills or job description or don’t have time to spend in your personal or social life, you may feel even more stress. Discuss your workload and job scope with your boss. Don’t work when you’re off the clock- turn off your phone if necessary. Although it might feel like you’re ignoring your business or clients, it sets an unhealthy precedent that you’re available when you shouldn’t be. Working outside of work hours implies that you’re always available to clients and employers, which leads to more burnout. 


Regular physical activity increases your happy hormones and helps you manage stress better. It can also help to take your mind off work.


Quality sleep strengthens your immune system and restores your well-being. If you struggle with getting a full night of sleep at times, don’t downplay the effects of a good nap. However, if you find yourself constantly exhausted due to long shifts or night hours, it may help to discuss changing your hours. 

-Take time off

Sometimes the best way to take a break is… take a break. Make space between you and your job. Use your vacation days, paid time off, sick days, or even talk with your HR about taking short- or long-term disability so that you can recover. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, eligible employees are guaranteed a period of unpaid, job-protected leave for family and medical reasons. If burnout means you’re unable to perform your job or work is only putting yourself in further agony, get in touch with your doctor. They can diagnose you and provide documentation for your employer and work-related leave. 


Once you’ve recovered from burnout, take steps to minimize the risk of it happening again. Keep your mind open as you consider your options. Don’t let an unrewarding or overly demanding job destroy your health. Practice self-care, pace yourself, set boundaries, and focus on being your best you.



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