If You Notice Pain Here, It's Time to Call a Therapist
Mental health problems are real health problems.
It's no secret that Americans are burnt out at work. In December, an all-time high of 4.3 million workers quit their jobs, citing pandemic concerns, low wages, poor work-life balance, and a newfound disinterest in a return to office life. And it may be a good thing that they did. While not in itself a medical condition, experts now say that work-related burnout can still take a physical toll over time. In fact, they warn that if you experience certain types of pain, it may be a manifestation of your career stress—and a therapist may be just the person to help you through it. Read on to find out which symptom is a red flag that your job is wearing you down both mentally and physically, and what to do if it happens to you.
Headaches and stomachaches are associated with burnout at work.
Experts explain that in practice, workplace burnout functions a whole lot like chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as exhaustion disorder. The longer the stresses of work bear down on you without relief, the more likely you are to experience physical symptoms.
According to a 2014 study published in BMC Psychiatry, which analyzed Swedish subjects suffering from chronic fatigue, there are two symptoms in particular that tend to occur under these circumstances: headache and stomachache. In fact, 65 percent of subjects reported experiencing headaches, and 67 percent reported stomachaches with other gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea and indigestion.
Far from the only physical manifestations of work stress, the Mayo Clinic adds that you may also experience insomnia, alcohol or substance misuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and poor immune function as a result of workplace burnout.
These symptoms are also sometimes associated with depression and anxiety.
To complicate things further, if you're experiencing burnout, you may also be experiencing depression or anxiety. These two mental health conditions can pile on the physical symptoms, even while the person experiencing them is unaware of the underlying cause, studies say.
"Physical symptoms are common in depression, and, in fact, vague aches and pain are often the presenting symptoms of depression," says a 2004 study in the Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychology. "These symptoms include chronic joint pain, limb pain, back pain, gastrointestinal problems, tiredness, sleep disturbances, psychomotor activity changes, and appetite changes. A high percentage of patients with depression who seek treatment in a primary care setting report only physical symptoms, which can make depression very difficult to diagnose," the researchers explain.
This is why we're all so burnt out.
A recent poll published in the Harvard Business Review found that 90 percent of respondents from 4o countries felt the stresses of their jobs had become more difficult to manage during the coronavirus pandemic. Another 60 percent admitted that they experienced professional burnout often.
Besides the obvious complications brought on by the pandemic, the Mayo Clinic says there are several other factors which may contribute to workplace burnout. These include having a lack of control over decisions that affect your job (such as "schedule, assignments, or workload"), unclear job expectations, dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics among colleagues, having extremes of activity (whether "monotonous or chaotic"), lack of social support, and having poor work-life balance.
If you can't quit your job or make big picture changes, you may still be able to speak with your employer about addressing one or more of these individual issues.
Try these tips for fighting back against burnout.
Physical ailments with mental causes still need to be addressed. "It's really easy to blow off your own symptoms, especially in our culture, where we're taught to work hard," Jessi Gold, MD, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, recently told The New York Times. The Mayo Clinic suggests that you may be better able to cope with your work stresses if you "reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones" for "support and collaboration."
What you do outside of work can also have a healing effect. Getting enough sleep and sunlight, exercising regularly, practicing mindfulness, connecting with others, and finding healthy ways to unwind can all have a positive impact.
And, if your symptoms are severe enough that they're causing physical symptoms, it's worth consulting a therapist about possible solutions. They may be able to address some of the deeper underlying issues and give you the tools you need to navigate your workplace challenges.