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Ronan Harrington, Burnout Speaker

The problem of burnout lies in the body

Ronan Harrington Speaker
Ronan Harrington
16 September 22

Until we understand that burnout is a physiological phenomenon, both companies and employees will suffer.

Burnout is a messy spectrum that’s hidden in plain sight. On one side, we are rested, fresh, revitalised; and on the other side, we are exhausted, lost our zest for life, and unproductive. How many of you reading this are on the depleted side of the spectrum? When was the last time you felt fully energised?

Most people cannot tell they have burnout, because it has become so normal, the invisible sea we swim in. It’s therefore helpful to return to the World Health Organisation’s diagnostic criteria, which characterises burnout along three dimensions:

Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative or cynical towards one’s career

Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

Reduced professional efficacy

Despite countless news articles dedicated to the subject, there’s still a relatively shallow understanding of the underlying mechanism of burnout. It’s essentially a physical phenomenon, where the demands of life become too much for our bodies to handle. Medically speaking, chronic stress increases your allostatic load: the cumulative burden of chronic stress on a physiological level.

Through a cascade of effects, burnout:

  • Disrupts your sleep, where you detoxify and renew at a cellular level
  • Impacts the gut, disrupting the microbiome which regulates our immune system; and mood via the gut-brain axis
  • Increases hypertension, leading to higher insulin and increased risk of diabetes and heart problems
  • Taxes the adrenals, which produces the stress hormone adrenaline, eventually creating adrenal fatigue
  • Creates free radicals (unstable atoms) which damage the mitochondria cells, which are the powerhouse of the body
  • Triggers chronic inflammation which is at the root cause of many chronic illnesses

A 2017 Harvard study suggested that stress could be as important a risk factor for heart attacks and stroke as smoking or high blood pressure. The internet age is like living in a smoking room with people occasionally blowing smoke directly in your face.

It only takes a small convergence of factors to shift a healthy body into an incapacitated state.

Ronan Harrington, Burnout Speaker

This is because your body, like our climate system and the economy, is a complex system. Like all complex systems, it exists in a dynamic equilibrium or balance. All complex systems go through long periods of stability followed by rapid change into a new system state.

The reason they remain in a stable equilibrium for a long time is because they have buffers that absorb negative impacts and disruption. Think about how a downturn in an economic system can be absorbed by public finances if it’s running a healthy deficit; or how polar ice caps or rainforests are buffers that absorb carbon. Complex systems also have breaks on change. Think about how Incumbent business resists reforms to capitalism, or how our Immune system fights off pathogens.

However, when a convergence of factors happens, it erodes our buffers and overwhelms our breaks on change. This creates a rupture point, where the system is pushed by converging forces out of one equilibrium and into another.

This kind of change is alinear and rapid. Once you’re in a new equilibrium, it’s very hard to get out of. The same applies to burnout. The compound effect of stress depletes your capacity over time. Your buffers are eroded and the breaks on change grow weaker.

The most effective interventions around burnout are therefore preemptive and preventive. Employees need a new cadre of skills from nervous system regulation to boundary setting, whilst all line managers need to be given the basics of mental health first aid training, so they can spot the signs of burnout in an employee before it becomes too late. Collectively, the company needs to encourage a departure from ‘always on’ culture and embrace the new phenomenon of collective rest, where there are periods where the majority are uncontactable, save a genuine emergency.

Which ones are your company choosing?

Contributed by

Ronan Harrington Speaker
Ronan Harrington
Resilience expert with an inspiring story of how to cope with adversity