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When one can work no more: The effects of burnout on your body

Continual stress is often associated with emotional problems, but it can also have major physical consequences, including heart attacks

The effects of burnout on your body
Memory loss, insomnia, digestive system diseases, and skin and heart problems are among the symptoms of stress.Getty Images RUNSTUDIO
María Sánchez Sánchez

“I’m really burned out” is a phrase often uttered by someone unhappy at work for an extended period of time. The perception we have is that this person is mentally exhausted and subject to high levels of stress and anxiety. But the consequences of burnout – now recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a disease – are also physical.

“The physical symptoms of chronic stress, which is what happens when a person suffers from burnout, are very varied and do not manifest themselves equally in everyone,” explains Antonio Cano Videl, professor of psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid and member of the Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress. “When a diagnosis of burnout is made, a snapshot of the patient’s situation is taken, but then each person will follow a different path and will develop different disorders,” he adds.

While it is impossible to predict how stress will affect each person, experts do know what happens to the human body when this is sustained over time. “Your autonomic nervous system works faster,” explains Cano Videl. “You have to digest faster, you can’t rest for that process to happen correctly and you start to suffer stomach problems. Your body has to regenerate cells, but it can’t do this properly and so skin problems arise such as eczema, and you start to suffer tension headaches.”

The Observatory of Psychosocial Risks overseen by Spain’s UGT trade union also lists some of the consequences of chronic occupational stress on the body: memory loss, insomnia, digestive system diseases, and skin and heart problems. Work-related stress is a phenomenon that has been on the rise in recent years due to the introduction of new technology and the difficulty in separating professional and personal activities, according to the labour union. “New technologies are conducive to chronic stress because they allow the worker to be contacted by their employer or to access work information outside working hours or the workplace, anytime and anywhere,” according to the observatory.

In addition to these direct physiological effects, another worrying aspect of high levels of stress at work is a documented increase in unhealthy habits such as alcohol or tobacco consumption. Similarly, “many people begin to eat emotionally, and problems of obesity, high sugar levels, diabetes or hypertension arise,” says Cano Videl. “This makes us more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke. It cannot be said that stress causes heart attacks, but it is linked: a person suffering a lot of stress is twice as likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than someone who is not.”

Physical exercise is not just for getting strong or protecting the heart. It is one of the best antidotes against anxiety and depression
Dr Mario Alonso Puig, who specializes in the study of psychoneurobiology

The wide variety of symptoms also makes it difficult to directly associate them with burnout syndrome. Silvia López, who works as an administrative assistant, spent a long time feeling unwell until she was given a diagnosis: “I spent periods of time with constant spasms in my upper back and neck,” she recalls. “Sometimes it would also cause dizziness or severe headaches. I put it down to not having enough time to exercise, but the physiotherapist I went to told me that it wasn’t normal for a young person like me to have to be treated so regularly.” Silvia then decided to consult her primary care physician, who was able to see the situation she was experiencing at work and what was causing this type of muscular problem, as well as stomach issues that she had not thought were linked to stress.

Dr Mario Alonso Puig, who specializes in the study of psychoneurobiology, recently recalled on Cristina Mitre’s podcast that “stress becoming chronic means a part of the nervous system remains active, and that wears out the body.” He pointed out some habits that can help to reverse this situation including taking care of your diet, ensuring you get seven to eight hours of sleep, and doing sport. “Physical exercise is not just for getting strong or protecting the heart. It is one of the best antidotes against anxiety and depression,” Puig said.

Therapy to shift the way we manage emotions, and to provide workers with tools against stress should also be considered. The Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress has developed, for example, a clinical study to analyze the benefits of developing group sessions with practical advice on how to deal with anxiety or stress among primary care patients. In it, they conclude that these talks that promote behavioral changes are more effective and help patients more than prescribing them drugs.

For Cano Videl, the professor of psychology, it is also essential that companies get involved in the implementation of effective protocols for the prevention of psychosocial problems. “Since the Law on Occupational Risk Prevention was created, and that was almost 30 years ago, we have managed to get workers to wear helmets on construction sites and to follow safety recommendations. But very little progress has been made in the prevention of stress and psychosocial risks for workers,” he emphasizes.

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