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Job burnout is the new smoking

5 min read


So what is it about job burnout that can kill you?

I was recently on a flight sitting next to an executive for a top-ranked health care company. We were having a nice conversation, and then she disclosed something that shocked me. She was 51 and had survived two heart attacks.

She’d never smoked and didn’t have a litany of medical issues but did have plenty of work stress in her life, and she was admittedly burned out.

Job burnout is the new smoking

This experience got me thinking about how job burnout has become a health crisis that rivals that of smoking. It’s become a nasty habit that’s killing us softly. You probably already know that smoking increases your chance of a heart attack as well as a long list of other health-related issues. But do you recognize that burnout has a similar impact?

Just look around the office and you’ll notice the physical impact of burnout. Like smoking, job burnout shows up in you physically. Heavy smokers have the smell, the greasy hair, the yellow teeth and fingernails; job burnout shows up with the creases on your face, the hairline, the slumped shoulders, and the tight hips from sitting too long at your desk. Here are some of the signs burnout might provide.

  • Research suggests that burnout increases your likelihood of developing heart disease, having a stroke and a sudden cardiac death.
  • The American Heart Association concludes that “mental stress offers a novel and unique link between psychological factors and the cause of atherosclerosis, similar to other risk factors that impair function such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.” Atherosclerosis is a hardening of the arteries that can lead to a heart attack, and it’s bad news.
  • Research suggests that job burnout causes “vital exhaustion,” which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease as much as such well-known risk factors as smoking and being overweight. This study also points to an increased odds of developing type II diabetes, male infertility, sleep disorders.
  • Studies also report that burned-out workers have lower cortisol levels than their peers. Because cortisol is important in helping restrain activation of the immune system and other components of the stress response, this affects your immune system and makes you more susceptible to disease.

Simply put, job burnout can truly destroy your health. This is a wake-up call.

Job burnout is addictive

We’ve all known people who’ve tried to give up smoking for years but just couldn’t. Maybe they’ve laid down their cigarettes for a few weeks, but as soon as a catastrophe hits, they’re puffing away again. Job burnout has a similar effect.

Even if you realize that a job (or how you’re going about your work day) is bad for you, you can easily get caught up in the corporate identity, the money and job title. When you realize you need to get out of the job, you just can’t. Oftentimes when things get really bad at work, you’re tempted to leave, but you can’t bear to cut the cord. Your burnout job lures you back, and so you stay.

You may even find yourself saying, “I’m going to really quit the next time.” You feed the burnout by staying, and your addiction continues.

Secondhand job burnout

Just like smoking, job burnout can hurt your loved ones. When you’re burned out, you feel exhausted from putting your job ahead of everything else. You’re unable to be truly present in your relationships, affecting personal relationships and possibly compounding the work-related pressures.

How to quit burnout

The good news is that you don’t have to go cold turkey to end your burnout. It’s much easier to start with a small step and then build momentum for change. Here are three small steps to start dealing with burnout.

  1. Examine your denial. When your burnout extends over a long period, the tendency is to deny that there is a problem. The first step in dealing with burnout is to freely admit and accept that you are under stress. Identify the sources of stress and build awareness of how you are reacting to them. Coming to terms with burnout is difficult, if not impossible, unless you stop denying that there is a problem.
  2. Take a “smoke break.” Of course, I don’t mean actually smoking — rather, begin a practice of pacing yourself. Like everything else in nature, your body needs up and down times — time to work and time to rest. Try introducing moderation and balance. Insert quiet and relaxing interludes into your daily routine.
  3. Reduce the intensity of your day. Examine which aspects of your workday contain the most intensity, and then work toward alleviating that pressure. This can involve work and nonwork tasks. For example, if your anxiety increases with certain areas of work (meetings, conference calls, long hours crunching numbers, etc.), see if you can eliminate those tasks or take a new approach toward them. If you have to make dinner every night after a long day on the job, see if you can get help in that arena. Question whether you really have to watch the news on TV every night or whether spending some quiet time with music or reading might be preferable. Just turning down the intensity down a notch can make a big difference.

Select one of the steps and consider applying it to your workday to start burnout relief.

Ben Fanning is a burnout specialist who helps frustrated executives and teams rekindle their passion for the job. You can receive his no-cost “Conquer Your Burnout” mini-course and his Burnout Manifesto.