Stress. It can wreak havoc in so many ways. Researchers have shown that prolonged exposure to high levels of stress, especially when its source is work-related, can lead to burnout, i.e. emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue and a general weariness that affects thinking ability and focus. It can increase heart disease and metabolic syndrome, screw up the adrenal hormonal balance, cause systemwide inflammation and lower the ability to fight off disease and illness. It can lead to sleep disruption and significant mental health issues.
The bottom line is that stress hurts.
However, individual factors and characteristics also affect how vulnerable we are to burnout, and as I’ve written previously, active coping and attitude can often protect against the negative impact of daily stressors and protect health. More importantly, one’s orientation towards life, the way that the environment is perceived and whether or not it is manageable and meaningful is incredibly important; here, an ability to role with the punches can positively impact outlook as well as health.
But back to burnout; does it persist over time, never changing? Or do multiple factors influence the ability to b0unce back from the burnout bonanza?
Findings of a nine-year study in almost 200 midlife women (ages 49 to 53) reveal some interesting findings demonstrating that some women with high levels of burnout can actually recover while others either stabilize or continue to worsen. The factors that influence this the most? Concurrent changes in life stress, work-related factors and coping ability/attitudes towards life. In fact, when women were divided into clusters reflecting patterns of burnout, the researchers found that high levels of life stress (e.g. concern for ailing parents, or concern for own health or their partner), coupled with a greater sensitivity to stress and job strain was a recipe for prolonged, worsening burnout. Women who had high levels of life stress but more control over their work environment were able to recover from burnout over time. Conversely, women with low levels of life stress, susceptibility to stress, anxiety and high levels of coping and a sense of control didn’t appear to be dealing with much burnout; the ability to draw on internal resources appeared to be protective in across a broad range of wellbeing indices.
It’s important to point out that the researchers did not have the ability to analyze private or individual stress separately from work stress and hence, these two factors are pooled. This means that the findings may have been affected. Still, studies have been fairly consistent in demonstrating the perils of stress and burnout in terms of health and overall wellbeing.
The lesson here is that if you are in extreme burnout, there is hope. Take a prolonged break to reevaluate your life, your decisions and your personal and social resources. If you don’t feel as though you have enough control in your worklife, and changing jobs or careers is an option, consider it; a new series on Flashfree –Reinventing Women — is profiling women who have made similar decisions to drastically change their lives. Exercise your prerogative to take better care of you; after all, you are only as good as the sum of your parts. And finally? Believe that things can change for the better. Nothing is forever and a lifetime of burnout is n0 life.