How Burnout Affects Your Cognition

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Burnout is defined as a condition of extreme exhaustion that occurs in your physical, mental, and emotional health. It is caused by excessive and prolonged stress after doing difficult tasks for a long time. Lots of factors such as high demand workload, lack of appraisal, and self-control contribute to prolonged stress in individuals which could later worsen into major burnout.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the world, burnout seems to have a significant increase among people across the globe. APA’s 2021 Work and Well-Being survey was conducted on 1,501 American adult workers during the highest rate of pandemic numbers and found heightened burnout rates. Concerning results showed that 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress during the month before the survey. More than 3 out of 5 employees reported negative work-related effects, such as lack of motivation, energy, or interest (26%) and lack of effort (19%). There was also a dramatic growth in the number of people claiming physical fatigue: 44% — an increase of 38% over the last year — along with cognitive weariness at 36%, emotional exhaustion at 32%, and physical fatigue at 36%.

As stated in the survey’s findings, most respondents reported that the negative effects they experienced influenced their daily cognitive states like lack of motivation, interest, emotional exhaustion, and weariness. A lack of stable cognitive state may be especially harmful to those who are working on high-risk factors like medical workers. 

All these facts and figures on burnout rates raise important questions: how does burnout affect our daily cognitive functioning, how harmful is burnout for individuals, and how do you keep a healthy cognitive functioning when exposed to a potentially stressful circumstance?

In this article, we will provide answers to these questions along with some tips on how to deal with burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout in everyday life may not be always visible. It is a gradual process where it accumulates and slowly creeps out at you like a ticking bomb. Signals and symptoms are subtle but gradually become worse. Early signals like frequent headaches, being overwhelmed, feeling tired and restless, self-doubt, and helplessness are red flags that warn our bodies of imminent burnout.

To define burnout scientifically, WHO revised the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 2019 to categorize burnout as an occupational phenomenon. It stated that “burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Burnout is described in ICD-11 as a condition that affects health status or contact with health services but is not classified as an illness or medical condition. This underlines that burnout does not fall into any kind of health disorder, is peculiar to the workplace, and should not be applied in other areas of a person’s life. 

Three dimensions of burnout

Based on ICD-11, burnout is characterized by three dimensions. This three-dimensional model by ICD-11 pinpoints both the individual’s self-conception as well as their social context as contributing factors to the stress experience. Researchers elaborated on these three dimensions in more concrete experience: 

  1. Feelings of exhaustion, can also be described as being worn out, loss of energy, depletion, debilitation, and fatigue.
  2. Cynicism, previously described as depersonalization, has also been described as irritability, loss of idealism, withdrawal from clients, increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism related to your job. 
  3. The inefficacy and ineffectiveness, are described as a lack of productivity or capability, low morale, and an inability to cope with general work and environment situations.

How does burnout affect our cognition?

As the most extreme prolonged effect of burnout is brain damage, burnout has been revealed to have a great effect on the higher level of cognitive functioning by disrupting creativity, problem-solving, and working memory.  

A group of Greek researchers conducted a systematic review of several studies about job burnout and its correlation to cognitive functioning. The finding showed that in 13 of the 15 studies, burnout was associated with cognitive deficits. Deligkaris and colleagues (2014) found that burnout is associated with a decline in three main cognitive functions: 

  1. executive functions (which allows you to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and perform multiple tasks simultaneously), 
  2. attention (e.g., engaging in active processing of specific information while tuning out other details), 
  3. and memory (psychological processes of acquiring, storing, retaining, and later retrieving information). 

They also stated these findings have clear implications, particularly in professions characterized by both high levels of work stress and cognitive demands.

Researchers from Karolinska Institute and Hospital in Stockholm used a neuroimaging system to investigate the most devastating effects of prolonged burnout and accumulated stress on our brains. They assessed how a group of diagnosed burnout employees would perform compared to a group of healthy subjects in a series of tasks involving loud noise as experimental disruption. Those diagnosed with burnout reported more difficulty modulating their strong negative emotional response compared to the healthy control group. Golkar and colleagues (2014) also found that the burnout group has a different structure in the amygdala — a brain structure that is critical in emotional reactions including fear and aggression. 

In short, Golkar and her team found that the diagnosed group has a relatively enlarged amygdala and significantly had a weaker connection between the amygdala and brain areas linked to emotional distress. This explains why participants in the burnout group had more difficulty controlling their negative emotions. 

How do you deal with burnout?

Dealing with burnout is tricky, especially when you are already at the critical breaking point. An article from HelpGuide provides several approaches and tips to follow. To deal gradually with burnout, there are three approaches (Three Rs) that you can follow:

  • Recognize – Burnout can be detected by watching for warning signs.
  • Reverse – Support and stress management can help undo the damage.
  • Resilience – Maintaining a healthy emotional and physical state will help you become more resilient to stress.

As you apply the approaches, other tips to help you deal with burnout are beneficial:

Turn to other people and seek help

Burnout may feel insurmountable. Problems and exhaustion can drain you to the lowest point. Reaching out to your closest ones like family and friends can help relieve stress and burden and provide emotional support when the burnout waves hit. It is also beneficial to seek the help of professionals like psychologists or counselors when you feel too overwhelmed to manage your negative emotions.

Reframe the way you look at work

Sometimes things you do either at work, school, or in society reach the point where you may feel unfulfilling and boring. Now it is time to reframe the way you do things. Try to find interesting values in what you are doing, you may want to seek a new environment, try some voluntary work, or try to cut negative factors in your work like toxic people and work-life imbalance.

Reevaluate your priorities

Lack of control is one thing that can worsen burnout. Try to find quiet times to meditate and prioritize yourself, then slowly reorganize your work and to-do list. Burnout has a massive effect on your attention and working memory, so try to do one thing at a time, avoid distractions and multitasking, and have rest in between.

In conclusion

To sum everything up, burnout is something that you need to be alert to. Many studies have stated that burnout is malicious to bodily functions, especially cognition. And since cognitive faculties are crucial, it is your top priority to keep them healthy by avoiding burnout. Tips to prevent burnout include seeking help, doing stress management, and reevaluating values and priorities.

For more content that relates to human intelligence, visit the Life Management Science Labs’ (LMSL) Personal Science Labs. The lab translates the research of the Institute for Life Management Science into courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and more. Find out more today!personal science labsPhoto by Manfred Hofferer on Pexels

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