If you think you can bounce right back from long-term stress at work, think again.
New research highlights some serious neurological consequences of job burnout, or a state of chronic stress that leads to exhaustion, detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness.
According to the study, led by Armita Golkar, Ph.D., at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and cited by the Association for Psychological Science, burnout changes neural circuits in the brain and hurts people’s ability to cope with stressful situations.
In other words, it’s a vicious cycle: The more stressed you are, the harder it is to deal with stressors in the future.
For the study, researchers recruited 40 participants with diagnosed burnout symptoms. All participants attributed their condition to prolonged work-related stress: They worked 60 to 70 hours a week continuously over the course of several years.
The researchers also recruited 70 healthy participants with no history of chronic stress to serve as the control group.
All participants performed an emotion-regulation task, in which they looked at neutral and negative pictures and were asked to either suppress, intensify, or maintain their emotional response.
While the participants were looking at the picture, the experimenters played a startling sound and measured the participants’ reaction to the stimuli using electrodes placed in participants’ cheeks.
Results showed that burnout subjects had a harder time suppressing their reactions to the loud sound. In other words, the people who were stressed to begin with had a harder time dealing with new stressors.
Researchers also scanned participants’ brains while they were sitting quietly and found that the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with fear and aggression, was bigger among participants in the burnout group. More stressed participants also had stronger connections between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress.
As for why the burned-out participants had trouble regulating their emotions, the brain scans revealed that they had weaker connections between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with executive function.
These findings have significant implications for burned-out employees’ well-being. The researchers say that difficulty suppressing negative emotions could make them more vulnerable to symptoms of depression.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage professional stress before it creates bigger problems. Stress expert Kathleen Hall advocates the ACE system, which involves being aware of your stress triggers, choosing one at a time to alleviate, and experiencing self-care.
She also suggests talking to your supervisor about the issue, since most workplaces are now well aware that job stress can hurt the company’s performance in the long run.