It’s officially 2022 and the whole world is holding its breath to see if 2022 will be better than 2020 and 2021. While the Covid-19 pandemic is still not completely over, we have seen improvements in people returning to work, children back in the classrooms and people traveling more. But it has not been an easy ride. New variants, anger over masks, vaccines, labor shortages, and a supply chain crisis have left their mark on our hearts and minds. It is no wonder that many people are reporting high levels of anxiety and soaring rates of burnout.
Does anything say “burnout” more than January? The start of a new year is often filled with enthusiasm and good intentions with everyone vowing to eat cleaner and exercise more. But for many people, January doesn’t bring excitement and joy, but despair and depression. The thought of going back to work after time off for the holidays can be overwhelming.
What Is Burnout?
A recent article in Forbes Magazine reported that burnout is on the rise. According to the article, over 52% of surveyed people reported experiencing burnout in 2021 - that’s up from 43% the previous year - even in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic. 53% of Millennials (the most affected generation) said that they were already burned out before the pandemic. Gen-Z clocks in at 58%, Gen-X at 54%, and Baby Boomers, while experiencing significantly less burnout than other generations, still reported 31% of surveyed participants experiencing burnout.
Burnout is not considered to be a medical condition, but rather, an occupational issue. In May of 2019 the World Health Organization updated their definition of burnout and now describe it as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The link to work has been highlighted and brings a new level of awareness to the fact that we need to recognize this condition in the workplace and find new solutions to address toxic work environments.
Nowhere has this been more seriously addressed than in the spate of resignations and strikes that even had October 2021 dubbed “Striketober”. In October of 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that 4.3 million Americans, or 2.9% of the entire workforce, quit their jobs in August. This isn’t just a cry for help from US workers, but a deafening roar.
Burnout is often characterized by 3 things:
Feelings of exhaustion or tiredness.
Reduced efficiency or productivity
Feelings of cynicism or negativity towards your job (depersonalization)
Burnout is progressive and most people start with one or two things and it generally spirals from there. If you can relate to all, or most, of the questions, then it might be a good time to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional, or a coach. These characteristics, especially the last two, often indicate that your stress has gone beyond just being tired and worn out and that it is now affecting your mental health in a more serious way.
How Does Burnout Affect Low Back Pain?
While burnout is not categorized as a medical condition it is strongly associated with medical issues like pain. Burnout can have significant impacts on both individuals, and society, with workers feeling negative effects like loss of energy, emotional depletion, and reduced productivity. This can have a significant impact on organizations and society at large, especially since those working in human services often feel the effects more than many other sectors of the workforce. The pandemic has put enormous pressure on our frontline workers such as nurses, firefighters, police, hospitality workers, and delivery workers. These workers are often already at higher risk for chronic diseases but burnout just adds fuel to the disease fire.
Health Issues Related To Burnout:
Burnout And Low Back Pain
Lower back and neck pain are the leading causes of disability in the workforce. How does burnout affect this? Well, in March 2021, researchers from Hungary conducted a study on more than 1000 workers that included doctors, teachers, social workers, and paramedics. The researchers found that “burnout was associated with neuropathic low back pain” and that low back pain and burnout have many of the “same risk factors and consequences”. The study went on to report that workers suffering from burnout had a 2.5-fold risk of suffering from back pain. This connection can become a vicious cycle with a sort of chicken-and-egg approach.
When burnout happens it is because the stress and work overload cause our autonomic nervous systems to be activated which can then result in increasing things like our heart rate and blood pressure. This then increases inflammation in the body, triggering depression, sleep issues, unhealthy habits, increased alcohol consumption, and less physical activity because we are so tired. These unhealthy habits then increase our feelings of burnout and increase our stress levels. All of this adds up to increased pain within our bodies and a higher chance of experiencing low back pain.
How To Combat Burnout And Beat Low Back Pain
One of the first places to start when trying to address burnout, is to focus on your health. Burnout goes beyond just being tired and starts to affect your whole body, as well as your mental health.
1. Get some support
Reach out to co-workers, friends, loved ones, or a mental health professional. One of the biggest things you can do to combat burnout is feel like you have support in your situation.
2. Healthy Eating
Eating anti-inflammatory foods will help reduce levels of inflammation in your body, help your mental health, and give you more energy.
3. Take A Break
Make sure that you take regular breaks at work. Don’t work through your lunch hour. Don’t skip vacations. During the pandemic many people put off vacations but taking time to reconnect with nature and find inspiration in seeing new places and doing new things can make a big difference to how you feel when you return to the office.
4. Get Some Sleep
Americans are chronically sleep deprived and this is not helping with mental health or with energy levels. Every day, 85% of people in the US consume at least one caffeinated drink - this is largely because people feel like they need caffeine to wake them up and help them get through the day. Sleep is when our bodies repair themselves and rid us of toxins that have built up during the day. If we aren’t getting enough sleep we are depriving our bodies of this essential cleansing and healing process.
Exercise is one of the most underrated tools that we have to reduce pain and improve our mental health. Not only does exercise strengthen our bodies and send nutrients and oxygen to our muscles, but it also releases endorphins that can be a big booster of mental health and wellbeing.
Research has shown that mindfulness and meditation can reduce stress, as well as feelings of pain. Engaging in deep breathing exercises, body scans, or just quiet meditation can go a long way to relieving low back pain.
Work Is A Marathon - Not A Sprint
The Indeed Study that Forbes reported on showed that the lack of a work-life balance was a major contributor to burnout. During the pandemic, working from home meant that many workers were unable to disconnect from the office, couldn’t take time off, and were just generally juggling too many things. Paired with financial stresses such as job insecurity, rising inflation and businesses closing down, this was a career-based catastrophe.
Employers are realizing that things need to be different. Some companies are bringing employees back into the office while others are providing the flexibility for those still struggling to find childcare, or who simply prefer that type of remote work. What is clear is that businesses need to find new solutions to support their staff and help reduce some of these occupational stresses if they want to maintain productivity and keep their most valuable assets - their workers.