“I feel I cannot concentrate on my work and need twice the amount of time and energy to finish tasks than I used to before.” – T.F. (employee)
“I am unable to take decisions at work as I feel overwhelmed with a lot of tasks and looming deadlines, and I keep postponing the decision-making. I had to be reminded several times by my team members about the meeting times as I missed them.” – J.T. (manager)
Burnout in the workplace (virtual or otherwise) has garnered a lot of attention in the last two years due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic and the corresponding anxieties associated with it. A lot has been discussed about the emotional impact of burnout in the workplace. But how does it affect our ability to think? How does burnout or even prolonged and unmanageable stress impact our thinking and subsequent actions? Brain structure and function are related to both cognitions and emotions, which are themselves inextricably intertwined.
Research has shown that burnout is associated with a decline in three main cognitive functions:
3. Executive functions (an umbrella term that includes planning, decision-making, organization, self-control, and self-monitoring)
Burnout disrupts creativity, problem-solving, and working memory. This decline or impairment has been measured both objectively in psychometric tests and also self-reported by people experiencing burnout.
Let us pause for a moment and think how often we use these three major cognitive functions in the workplace. Almost all the time! And burnout interferes or significantly impairs these very functions.
Burnout has also been linked to structural brain changes. Amygdala – a brain structure critical for emotional reactions like fear and aggression – is enlarged in people facing burnout. Frontal cortex of the brain (also linked to executive functions mentioned before) thins with aging but neuroscientist, Ivanka Savic found that patients with burnout had even more pronounced thinning of this part of the brain and more aging of the brain.
Another systematic review on limbic brain structures (which are amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus- considered the epicentre of emotional and behavioural expression) and burnout specifically found that “Chronic stress inhibits the feedback control pathway in the HPA axis, can decrease BDNF, then impair neurogenesis and eventually leads to neuron atrophy.” (p. 198).
Chronic stress → Inhibit Feedback control of HPA → Decrease BDNF → Neuron atrophy
What does this mean in layperson terms?
HPA or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis plays an important role in the body in response to stress and this pathway results in production of cortisol (famously known as the stress hormone).
These negative control pathways are protective for the body against prolonged HPA activity but chronic stress is stopping that, which is BAD.
This further decreases BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor which is GREAT), which is needed for survival and growth of neurons, developing new brain connections, protecting brain cells, and repair failing brain cells. So chronic stress makes our brain deficient in BDNF and this leads to impairment in neurogenesis (growth and development of neurons) and eventually atrophy (wasting/deterioration) of neurons.
So can these changes in the brain due to burnout be reversed?
Severely stressed medical students who were studying for the most important exam of their lives (US medical licensing) were studied by Cornell researcher Liston and colleagues with fMRIs of their brains showing disruption of pre-frontal cortex (PFC) as they showed greater difficulty in switching attention compared to the non-stressed control group. Four weeks later both groups were brought in again and the impairment in the brain activity of the stressed students was no longer there. This demonstrates the potential of reversing brain structure and function impairment with reduction of stress.
Moral of the story: Burnout does directly affect brain structure and function (almost akin to aging it) but reduction of stress can also reverse it. Brain is plastic but chronic stress also has to be reduced for brain and overall health. Protect your brain directly by protecting yourself from burnout at work.
Even though clinical and non-clinical burnout* differ in the degree of impact of burnout on cognitive dysfunction, both types of burnout negatively affects our thinking and brain and leads to poorer performance.
[*Non-clinical burnout is considered the earlier stage of burnout and people with this type of burnout have relatively milder symptoms of burnout and are still working, whereas people with clinical burnout are unable to work efficiently or at all. People have to be rescued from this early-stage non-clinical burnout to prevent long-lasting damage to brain and cognitive functions as shown by Savic and colleagues earlier.]
Some of the proposed workplace methods of countering burnout for both employees and managers are
– Holding walking meetings about 20 minutes long for smaller groups with an agenda, current challenges, solutions, and updates
– Collaborative work environment which is essential to work engagement
– Voice and involvement in decision-making
– Monitoring workloads and scheduling by leaders
– Providing flexible or remote work options regularly
– Creating goals and career paths, including learning new skills and provide opportunities for growth. Managers have greater access to professional development programs.
Managers need to be cognizant of their own burnout and as a 2022 HBR article suggests, they need to put their own mental health first. The authors of this articles propose the following strategies
– Paying attention to things that bring you joy (identity anchors) vs things or events that stress you out
– Being intentional about getting recovery time (like deadlines for checking emails or leaving office work) which are strictly upheld
– Avoiding micromanagement to the maximum extent possible
Note: This actual emphasis on the negative impact of burnout on brain structure and function may seem like a no-brainer but most people are more influenced when they can visually picturize the effect on a body’s structure and function than pure psychological and cognitive effect as they see it as more concrete and not something that simple “positive thinking” alone can cure.