Burnout, or vital exhaustion, is caused by unrelenting stress at work or in your personal life. It involves high levels of fatigue, increased irritability and feelings of demoralization.

In the workplace, this could be the result of constant pressure to perform, overbearing and demeaning bosses and a hostile environment. People with job burnout may end up feeling overwhelmed and develop low self-esteem - tasks that you were able to do without difficulty before, may now appear daunting and beyond your abilities.

A study by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, US, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in January 2020, has now linked vital exhaustion to heart disease, specifically atrial fibrillation (or A-fib). A-fib is a kind of arrhythmia - irregular, and often rapid beating of the heart - that may lead to blood clots, and eventually, heart failure or stroke.

The USC study found that participants with high levels of burnout had 20% more A-fib events on average. The researchers attributed this to increased inflammation and overstimulation of the body’s physiological stress response. In other words, the constant pressure began to tell on the bodies, reducing their ability to adapt to challenging situations - thus undermining the body's defences. The study was conducted with more than 11,000 middle and older-aged adults, over 25 years.

Tips to avoid A-fib as a result of job burnout

Our normal heart rate is around 60-100 beats per minute (bpm). During A-fib, bpm jumps to 100-175 beats. The upper chambers of the heart, the atria, beat chaotically and out of sync with the lower chambers, the ventricles. The condition can either be occasional or long-standing and permanent. This can cause a bunch of issues such as clots in the upper chamber which can lead to ischemia or a heart attack

Here are some things that you can incorporate in your daily life to beat burnout:

1) Practice self-care: Burnout will make you feel alienated and not in control. Spending time doing the things you like - going for walks, watching movies with your partner, spending time with family, playing with your pets, reading, writing - will help ease your stress. If you find that you simply don’t have the time to include these activities in your day-to-day, try keeping a tab on how you are spending your time. Perhaps you are spending too much time on your phone or procrastinating in front of a screen? These activities may numb your mind but won’t leave you feeling satisfied. Once you have identified these behaviours, intentionally make yourself do things that genuinely interest you and bring you satisfaction.

2) Disconnect from work: You may be feeling burnt out because you haven’t had time to yourself for a while. While the rigours of work may not always allow vacations or days off, talk to your manager if you have a stressful job or a toxic work environment. Only when you acknowledge that you are uncomfortable, and when you build a healthy relationship with your managers will you be able to tackle burnout. It is always a good idea to reach out to a mental health expert for help - this could help you clear your mind, and focus on what you really want.

3) Rely on your support system: When you spend most of your waking hours at work, it is natural that you will attach your identity to your job. So when things are bad at work, your whole life will feel like it's out of order. Falling back on family and friends will remind you that you are loved and valued. It may even expand your perspective on how you are placed at this point in life. Seeking more meaningful relationships rather than transactional work relationships is also necessary, as it will make you feel more involved with everything.

4) Try some more organisation: It is a good idea to write down what you intend to accomplish during the day or week: thoughts and goals that run amok in your head can become overwhelming unless they are diligently organized, like by writing them down. When you have a more concrete plan of action, your ideas are more likely to become a reality and you will feel more fulfilled.

5) Eat healthy and exercise: Physical exercise releases endorphins in the body. This helps to improve the mood. In addition to the support from your friends and family - as well as your manager - an active lifestyle could help you to shake any cobwebs from your mind and feel better. Of course, a healthy lifestyle also helps to combat the other health effects of burnout like diabetes and high blood pressure.

The USC study confirmed previously held suspicions that toxic work environments have a long-term bearing on health. Chronic stress stimulates an immune response in the body that turns destructive if it goes unchecked for too long. Burnout should not, therefore, be dismissed as a weak response to a challenging environment. It is crucial to recognize when you are under sustained stress and how your body is reacting to it. Management is key, here. As research continues to underline these issues, the hope is that workplaces across the country recognise that the overall wellbeing of employees is important to productivity and prosperity, and that will happen when attitudes to stress and burnout change.

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  1. Harvard Business Review [Internet]. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA; Beating Burnout
  2. MacArthur Foundation Research Network [Internet]. University of California, San Francisco, California, USA; Vital Exhaustion - A Syndrome of Psychological Distress
  3. Praveen K. Garg et al. Associations of anger, vital exhaustion, anti-depressant use, and poor social ties with incident atrial fibrillation: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Jan 2020. PMID: 31930923
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