brain burnout

Today’s workers are suffering from a burnout epidemic. It is estimated that 40% of office workers in the United States and Canada are burnt-out and that statistic is even higher in industries like medicine and athletics which have 50% and 60% burnout rates respectively. The danger is that burnout is linked to under-performance, low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness.

The major cause? Employees are being overworked without reaping the rewards. The Economic Policy Institute reports that between 2000 and 2014, economic productivity increased by 21.6%, yet wages have only increased by 1.8%. To accomplish that, a Gallup survey reports that American employees are working, on average, 47 hours per week, yet they are not compensated for those extra hours, leading to burnout.

Given how severe of a problem brain burnout out is, I wanted to write an article explaining its effects and what you can do to fight it.

How Burnout Alters Your Brain

If you’re feeling burnout at work or in life in general, it is not just a feeling that will go away on its own. Neuroscientists have discovered that burnout has the following effects on your brain:

  • It enlarges your amygdala – the part of the brain that controls emotional reactions. This can increase moodiness. It also causes you to have a stronger stress response when startled.
  • Burnout causes the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive functioning – to thin. This happens normally with ageing but in people who are stressed for prolonged periods of time, it occurs much more rapidly.
  • Parts of the brain that control memory and attention spans are weakened. This makes it more difficult to learn.
  • The brains of people who are chronically burnt-out show similar damage as people who have experienced trauma.
  • Burnout reduces the connectivity between different parts of the brain which can lead to decreased creativity, working memory and problem solving skills.

With these kinds of extreme effects, burnout is no joke. Luckily, with the right self-care, they can be reversed. One study took a group of stressed out medical students who were preparing to take their licensing exam and found that their brains showed many of the impairments described above. However, after four weeks of relaxation, many of the changes in the brain were reversed. They also stopped experiencing the side effects such as having a short attention span and mood swings.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t apply to you and you’re doomed to have a damaged burnt-out brain because you can’t afford to take four weeks off to relax. The truth is most people can’t afford that and the good news is that it’s not what this study is suggesting you do. Relaxing doesn’t mean sitting around all day in a peaceful place doing nothing. Rather, relaxing is taking actions to remove stress from your life and taking time to enjoy the present moment. This can include brief activities like going for a stroll along a pretty path after work or setting aside extra time to engage in a favorite hobby or spending time with people who relax you.

Action Step: Find a way to incorporate relaxation into your everyday life.

How to Increase Productivity So You Can Work Less

To limit the possibility of prolonged periods of long work hours from burning you out, you need to increase your productivity to accomplish more in less time. Here are three ways to boost productivity based on the latest neuroscience research.

#1 Increase your neuroplasticity

Contrary to popular belief, your brain doesn’t stop changing once it is fully developed. Scientists have discovered that our brains have the capacity to change to meet the demands placed upon it. Your brain’s ability to adapt is called neuroplasticity and the more plastic your brain is, the easier it is for you to perform well on new, challenging tasks.

The key to increasing your brain’s plasticity it to be constantly learning. When we learn, it forces our brains to make new connections that, when confronted with a challenge, it can use to generate more creative solutions.

The best part about this is that, with regard to plasticity, your brain benefits from all learning equally.

Your motivation to increase your neuroplasticity may be to improve your performance at work, but what you learn doesn’t have to be related to your job to achieve that. You could learn how to play ukulele because it seems like a lot of fun or learn professional photography skills to capture your memories or learn a new cooking style every week to broaden your meal selections. The possibilities are endless, allowing you to be productive while pursuing personal interests you might otherwise push aside because you think they are a waste of time.

When you choose to learn skills that are genuinely interesting and fulfilling to you, it strengthens the benefits. The results of learning skills that help us fulfill personal goals are rewards that trigger the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. The rush of dopamine-induced pleasure you get when making progress toward your goals will motivate you to accomplish your learning goals.

Action Steps:

  1. Create a list of at least three personal goals that require you to acquire new skills.
  2. Set aside time at least once per week to learn these skills.
  3. Repeat indefinitely.

#2 Team up with accountability partner

Whether you are trying to excel at a project that may earn you a promotion at work or you want to become skilled at a pressure-free hobby like learning how to cook a particular type of food, opt to have an accountability partner (or multiple) who will help motivate you to succeed.

Your brain benefits from accountability partners in two primary ways:

  1. You will perform better. As highly social creatures, our brains drive us to impress others. Researchers have found that when working in a space surrounded by other individuals who will judge our work or when we are in a position where, upon completion, we must show our work to others, our brains adapt to the increased social pressure to lead to increased performance.
  2. It minimizes your fears of being lonely. Similar to the benefits your brain receives when you have a support network of people interested in your success, it reacts the opposite when you feel lonely. Neuroscientists discovered that the pain of social isolation is registered in your brain almost identically to physical pain. So, the effects of not having people you can trust to hold you accountable and encourage you is like trying to work while having a physical injury.

If you are struggling with the latter, don’t worry. We have plenty of resources to help you build the relationships you need to succeed. Here are a few:

Action Step: Choose at least one method to hold yourself accountable socially:

  • Identify an accountability partner(s) who will periodically check in on you to make sure you are achieving your goals.
  • Work in shared spaces with other productive people who, perhaps not directly, would make you feel a little guilty if you let yourself get distracted scrolling on social media when you should be working on your project.
  • Join groups of people working to accomplish similar goals so you can support one another throughout the entire process. A great way to find these groups is  

#3 Create rewards systems for yourself

Neuroscientists discovered that the primary difference between “slackers”  – people who are lazy, lack motivation and do not strive to achieve goals and “go-getters” who are highly goal-driven and are typically successful in achieving their goals are that the brains of go-getters have a much stronger, more developed reward system. They experience high levels of pleasure when they make progress a.ka. receive a reward. This motivates them to continue pursuing new, larger goals and reap their rewards. On the contrary, the brain’s of slackers only light up in a small area. Their brain’s natural lack of excitement from rewards limits their motivation to push themselves and become more productive.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re a go-getter, otherwise you wouldn’t care enough about your personal development to get this far into the article. To harness your brain’s natural love of rewards, you need to create a reward system that delivers frequent boosts of productivity-inducing dopamine. Here’s how:

  • Learn what motivates you. You may already know what types of rewards fuel your excitement and make you want to work harder. However, if you don’t, take this motivation quiz to find out:

Motivation Quiz

By selecting your rewards based on your motivation drivers, you give yourself the incentives for maximum productivity.

  • Celebrate the milestones. Don’t wait until your big project at work is turned in to celebrate all of the time, effort and creativity you invested in it. Instead, divide your work into milestones and reward yourself for completing each one. Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg discovered that your brain does not react differently depending on whether the progress you’ve made is extensive or if it is a small milestone. If you celebrate your work, your brain will flood with the exciting chemicals that motivate you to keep working.

Action Step: Create your reward system. Bonus if you find someone who will hold you accountable to it.

How to Take Care of Your Brain

Waiting until you are burnt-out and/or in desperate need to increase your productivity, means you will always be struggling to bring your brain back up to peak performance. For long-term success, taking care of your brain should be a top priority.  In addition to incorporating the productivity tips above into your daily routines, here are a couple of strategies to keep your brain in top shape:

#1 Daydream the day away

Okay, not the whole day, but definitely part of it. Though staring off into space doing nothing may seem like the most unproductive thing ever, it is actually key to maintaining your mental health. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, working non-stop and feeling like you can’t take a break without falling even more behind are drivers of burnout and corresponding brain damage. Daydreaming, even in a couple minute bursts, wards off stress and burnout by giving your brain opportunities to recharge.

This benefits your performance in two ways:

  1. Researchers discovered that daydreaming improves your cognitive functioning and working memory. This is partially because daydreaming calms your brain, making it less reactive and able to function without the effects of stress.
  2. Other researchers found, and this may surprise you, people are best able to solve problems immediately following a state of daydreaming. This is because daydreaming gives our unconscious minds time to sort through all of the  information we consume during periods of activity and make connections between them.

A great time to daydream is when you are transitioning between tasks. Transitions provide natural opportunities for breaks and it gives your brain a chance to prepare to engage in new work.

Action Step: Begin daydreaming throughout the day. Write down any thoughts or ideas that come to mind in a special notebook.  

#2 Take care of your body to take care of your mind

I know, you’re constantly being told that you need more sleep and exercise, but if you’re not already doing, it is probably because you don’t think you have the time and/or the exercise isn’t worth it. However, did you know that exercising is tied to your job performance? When you engage in physical activity it increases your heart rate and delivers more oxygen to the brain. In as little as twenty minutes this can improve your cognitive functioning and memory.

Exercise also releases a flood of endorphins that improve your mood and lower your stress hormones, helping you to feel more positive and stable throughout the day.

On the contrary, sleep deprivation has the opposite effect. Researchers have found that the brains of sleep-deprived individuals are more emotionally reactive, less plastic and have worse memory.

Don’t exercise and sleep well for your body; do it for your brain (or better yet, both!).

Action Step: Do whatever it takes to schedule time to get adequate sleep and periodic exercise.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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