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Burnout: What is its Impact on our Brain’s Structure and Function

Naureen Bhullar

- August 17, 2022

“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:

1. Attention
2. Memory
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.

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Balaji P

Design Consultant

Balaji has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from PSV Engineering College and has practised UX design at Growth School in Bangalore.

As an associate UX/UI designer at Krishworks, Balaji is responsible for collecting client requirements and converting them into usable digital products using UX principles. He also helps in maintaining brand identity and aesthetics in the products by creating UI design systems and high-fidelity screens. For Serein, Balaji has designed the PoSH LMS Product and the website.

Bhavini Pant

Safety and PoSH expert

Bhavini serves as a PoSH external member for 30+ companies in industries like education, healthcare, IT, Pharma, and more. She has 70+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace and supporting partner organizations on the legal procedure and best practices for workplace safety.

Before Serein, Bhavini worked as an archivist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and as an editorial assistant for IIT Bombay’s PR and Alumni Associations department.

She has a Master’s degree in Education from Azim Premji University where she worked extensively with the management on anti-sexual harassment legal implementation. Her work involved the interpretation of the law in a university as a workplace and an educational institution for adults. 

Dr. Ishani Roy

Founder and CEO

Ishani founded Serein to provide a data and research-based approach to solving DEI challenges at the workplace. She advises company leaders, startup founders, and venture capital firms on industry best practices to increase diversity and design a DEI roadmap.

Ishani is a recipient of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award 2023 for the global impact of her work in the DEI space.

Before founding Serein, Ishani was a scientist at GE Research working in the Aerospace Lab. She holds a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from Brown University on developing mathematical models to solve Astrophysics problems. She did her Post-doctoral studies at the University of Oxford and St. Thomas Hospital in Biomathematics.

Chryslynn D’Costa

Co-founder and CPO |

Chryslynn leads the product development of Serein’s DEI SaaS tool. She designs learning content and strategic insights for companies to measure their DEI growth, and achieve bias-free recruitment and psychological safety.

Chryslynn is a regular columnist with publications like ‘LiveMint’ and ‘The Hindu’ where she writes about unconscious bias, prevention of sexual harassment, and company culture.

Before Serein, she was a Gandhi Fellow working in rural Rajasthan to address educational leadership and gender equity in government schools. She graduated from Azim Premji University in Bangalore with a Master’s in Education where she specialised in gender and sexuality education.

Bianca D’Costa

Head of PoSH: India, Global

Bianca leads the compliance partnerships and workshops on anti-sexual harassment, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws in India, South East Asia, Europe, and the USA. She has 100+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace.

Bianca designs gamified learning modules for a unique and impactful learner experience on topics like gender inclusion, PwD inclusion, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, and regional inclusion among others. 

Before Serein, Bianca worked in hospitality for 5 years with Emirates Airlines. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from St. Xavier’s University, Mumbai. She is presently pursuing a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality in Global Politics from SOAS University of London.

Aparna Pandurangan

Head of Operations

Aparna is leading the finance and operations at Serein. She has also been responsible for Serein’s online platform, customer management, and marketing.

She works closely with Serein’s 500+ long-term partners to ensure they are compliant with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) law. Aparna is a workshop facilitator on topics like the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace in languages like Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada.

Aparna Pandurangan holds a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Anna University, Chennai. 

Faakirah Irfan

Head of Legal

Faakirah is a legal professional and expert facilitator on topics like anti-sexual harassment, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws in India, South East Asia, Europe, and the USA. Faakirah has conducted 100+ training sessions on the prevention of sexual harassment for employees and internal committee members.

She has 150+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations in the workplace. Her legal research at Serein includes policy analysis, human rights, women’s rights, and document drafting.

Faakirah is an experienced legal professional. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in law with a focus on women’s rights and policy analysis from the University of Kashmir. She holds a Master of Law degree specializing in alternative dispute resolution from O.P Jindal School of Law.

Dr. Ruchika Sharma

Guest Consultant: Gender

Ruchika assists with research and facilitation of sessions on domestic violence, sexual harassment, employee well-being, and women’s leadership. She is a feature writer for Serein’s blogs where she writes about gender, women’s history, domestic violence, and sexual harassment awareness in the workplace.

Ruchika is a published author with books like ‘Concubinage, Race and Law in Early Colonial Bengal: Bequeathing Intimacy, Servicing the Empire’ published by Routledge, Taylor, and Francis publications. She has been teaching History at the University of Delhi for over a decade. She has a Ph.D. in History from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Arathi Kannan

Head of DEI: India, Global

Arathi leads the design and execution of DEI measurement tools for global partners. These include Serein’s Diversity Index, the scope of unconscious bias in recruitment and promotions, and the scope of unconscious bias in external messaging. 

She has also designed a standardized tool to review company policies and products through an inclusion lens. Arathi leads workshops on inclusion, unconscious bias, domestic violence, mental health, and well-being. 

Arathi is a published researcher with Master’s degrees in Applied Psychology and Criminology from Bond University, Australia. Her experience includes working with people from different backgrounds, including refugee groups.

Thejaswini CA

LMS Platform Associate

Thejaswini is responsible for the operations and maintenance of Serein’s in-house e-learning platform. She assists customers to deliver learning content and assess employee engagement through Serein’s tracking system. 

Thejaswini is also engaged with finance and other operations to ensure Serein’s 500+ long-term partners are compliant with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) law.

Thejaswini holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Application from Field Marshal KM Cariappa College, Kodagu.

Rhea D’Silva

Designer

Rhea is the aesthetic and creative eye behind Serein’s marketing and sales collateral. She manages website content and social media content calendar. She works closely with Serein’s content experts to design catchy invites, toolkits, and company culture reports.

Rhea creates animated content for Serein’s learning platform. She is focused on understanding the user’s need for engagement and learning to create impactful content. 

Rhea holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media from St. Xavier’s University, Mumbai where she majored in advertising.

Rishab Prasad

DEI Specialist

Rishab is passionate about creating long-term partnerships with Serein’s customers. He is responsible for marketing, operations, customer onboarding, contract writing, and relationship building. Rishab uses his directing and filmmaking skills to design engaging content for Serein’s social media platforms.

Rishab holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics with Honours from CHRIST University, Bangalore. He has directed more than nine short films on topics like stigmas of menstruation, widowhood, and adoption.

Kaushik Mazumdar

Engineering and Platform Consultant

Kaushik has 14+ years of experience across IoT, Systems, Gaming, and Telecom, building high volume production applications and products with worldwide presence.

He looks after the technology and education segment of Krishworks, and has built Ed-Tech products to improve English Literacy in rural areas of India with QR coded books, Smart Classrooms, Teacher Trainings and increased involvement of parents.

Kaushik holds a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. He mentors a young and dynamic team aligned to the vision of Krishworks. Outside of work, he is a fitness and technology enthusiast, and loves running and swimming.

Kirtika N

Safety and PoSH expert

Kirtika is an expert speaker and workshop facilitator on topics like sexual harassment awareness, bystander intervention, and anti-harassment redressal mechanisms. She has developed learning content for investigating committees on topics like witness cooperation in a workplace sexual harassment inquiry proceeding. 

Kirtika serves as a PoSH external member for 30+ companies in fintech, healthcare, business management, gaming, and more. She has 50+ hours of experience consulting on sexual harassment investigations at the workplace and supporting partner organisations on legal procedure and best practices.

She has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Montfort College, Bengaluru, and has experience working as a trainee counselor.

Sharanya Venkataraghavan

Safety and PoSH expert

Sharanya serves as a PoSH external member for 15+ companies in e-commerce, fintech, healthcare, SaaS, and more. She supports partner organisations on legal procedures and best practices to build safe work cultures.

She has been involved in the review of PoSH policies, labour law compliances, and research regarding the risk of secondary victimisation of complainants under the PoSH Act.

Sharanya graduated with BBA, LLB (Hons.) degree from Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She has experience in PoSH and employment law with notable law firms like Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas and Co., J. Sagar and Associates, among others.

Nandini Abraham

Statistical Analyst

Nandini conducts extensive industry-specific research on DEI trends in India, South East Asia, Europe, and the USA. Nandini is responsible for developing statistical models for DEI assessment on Serein’s DEI SaaS Tool. She designs measurement tools for DEI benchmarking, inclusion assessments, and employee experience surveys.

Nandini is passionate about creating engaging and impactful reports, toolkits, and playbooks for Serein’s customers.

Nandini holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, Mathematics & Statistics from St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.

Nithya R

HR and Compliance Lead

Nithya drives operational excellence within the HR function. She ensures that Serein maintains the highest standards of HR practices and ethical conduct. Her role extends beyond traditional HR responsibilities as she also serves as an External Member of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) for Serein’s clients, specialising in preventing workplace harassment through the PoSH vertical.

Nithya has graduated in Commerce from the University of Lucknow and has rich experience in hiring and retaining the best talents in the industry with companies like BukuWarung and Belong.co.

Sri Padmavathi C

Finance Consultant

LinkedIn

Sri Padmavathi C specialises in providing accounting consulting services to companies. She helps in assisting & maintaining Serein’s Books of Accounts, GST, TDS, PT filing, financial statements preparation & audit review.
 
She holds an MBA with Finance Specialisation from Annamalai University, and has also has done CA articleship under CA Tom Joseph’s guidance.

Anisha Debnath

PoSH and DEI Workshops Facilitator

As a PoSH and DEI Workshops Facilitator, Anisha is primarily responsible for conducting sessions and facilitating conversations that enable building of safe and inclusive workplaces for all. Anisha also undertakes in-depth research into various Diversity, Equity and Inclusion issues that plague our work cultures today. All of this research goes into designing bespoke sessions and curating interactive learning experiences for several of Serein’s partners. 

Anisha has a background in History, especially in the history of gender and early feminism in colonial South Asia. 

Anisha has a Bachelor’s degree in History (Hons.) from Gargi College, University of Delhi. She has also studied for an MPhil in World History from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Aseem Deuskar

Inclusive Workspace Architect

LinkedIn

Aseem is an Inclusive Workspace Architect dedicated to reshaping workplace diversity and accessibility. He is skilled in conducting comprehensive accessibility audits and implementing inclusive design solutions.


Aseem is passionate about creating environments that foster equal opportunities

He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture and a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning.

 

Siri Prasad

Safety and PoSH Expert

Siri Prasad is a Safety and PoSH Expert at Serein and serves as an External Member of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) for Serein’s clients. Her work is not limited to, but includes advising in legal procedures, best practices for safe work cultures, and reviewing of PoSH policies and labor law compliance.

Siri is a Gold Medallist and holds a BBA, LLB (Hons.) from Christ University and a Masters in Science (International Employment Relations) from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she also served as the EDI Officer.

Abhishek Ghattamaneni

Head of Financial Strategies

Abhishek is a seasoned professional with a wealth of experience in finance and corporate governance. With over 15 years of expertise as a qualified Company Secretary, he has made significant contributions to the finance departments of companies within the real estate and startup sectors.
 
Having worked extensively with organisations operating across multiple countries, Abhishek brings a deep understanding of international taxation to the table. Notably, he achieved an impressive 42nd rank in 12th grade under the AP Education Board, demonstrating a strong academic foundation to complement his professional achievements.

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