We Just Learned Something Key About Burnout

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Everyone experiences stress because of their job, and that's not necessarily a bad thing in itself. A little workplace anxiety can actually sharpen your performance, so long as it's manageable for you. It's when all that tension sneaks up on you that burnout becomes a real threat to your physical and mental health.

For all that we know about the effects of burnout, we're still learning some key points about how we get there. A new study published this week by a group of German psychologists may have solved the chicken-and-egg question of what comes first, stress or burnout. By reviewing research from all over the world, the team found out that while stress and burnout feed on each other, being burned out dramatically increases how much work stresses you out. In other words, at a certain point, burnout causes more stress than stress causes burnout.

"The most important burnout symptom is the feeling of total exhaustion, to the extent that it cannot be remedied by normal recovery phases of an evening, a weekend, or even a vacation," said co-author Christian Dormann. This is because burnout is a compound force, building up slowly over time. There are interventions that can stave it off if you spot the signs early, though they usually need to be structural, rather than individual. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when our work-life boundaries are eroding faster than ever, it's vital that you feel like you're in control of your work — and not the other way around.