The Physical Symptoms of Burnout You May Not Know About

Employee burnout is a challenge for many companies. For employees, it can result in physical discomfort and pain. This article explains more.

8 min read

Employee burnout is one of today’s top challenges for employers. It can affect anyone of any age in any profession, with 52 percent of workers feeling burnout and 67 percent believing the problem has worsened due to the pandemic.

As a result, awareness of burnout has grown. Most employees can identify some of the signs of burnout at work:

  • Energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Feeling distant, negative, or cynical about work
  • A sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment

Physical Signs an Employee May Be Experiencing Burnout

Mental health isn’t the only casualty of burnout. There are numerous physical symptoms too, and they can squash productivity and performance just as easily.

Understanding the physical symptoms of burnout can help employees, managers, and HR leaders identify, prevent, and respond to employee burnout.

Tiredness, Lack of Energy, and Insomnia

Feeling mental fatigue is a telltale sign of burnout, but physical exhaustion is also a common problem. Stress can cause the body to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which helps it rise to physical challenges. These hormones can also make people burn through energy faster, quickly depleting their reserves and making them feel physically tired.

For example, an employee may need a longer lunch break after a stressful morning presentation. Afterward, they can get back into a groove for the other tasks on their plate. That’s not a big deal every once in a while.

When it’s chronic, however, stress can cause an even bigger issue: insomnia. A burned-out person’s usual amount of nightly sleep may not be enough to recover from the day’s (or week’s or month’s) stress. Employees may be sleeping a lot more but still waking without feeling fully rested. Burnout can also make it harder for an employee to turn off racing, stressful thoughts at bedtime.

The effects of not getting enough sleep compound over time, so the longer an employee is burned out, the worse their symptoms — and performance — can get. One study suggests that it takes four days of good sleep to make up for one missed hour of quality sleep. The more sleep a person misses, the more they need to recover, as the combination of stress and insomnia is a cycle that feeds itself.

Nausea, Gas, and Indigestion

Nearly everyone has felt the sensation of butterflies in their stomach or their head swimming when they’re nervous. These symptoms are part of the body’s response to stress. Burnout can worsen these symptoms. Around two-thirds (67 percent) of people experiencing burnout have nausea, gas, or indigestion.

These symptoms can certainly affect an employee’s ability to concentrate and cause them to take more frequent breaks and miss work. But there’s a bigger problem than employee discomfort: When chronic stress turns into burnout, that uncomfortable flutter could be a gastrointestinal illness. One 2020 study found that burnout was linked to higher chances of developing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder in which stress can cause abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. While these symptoms are unpleasant enough, they can also lead to unhealthy weight loss and anemia.

Pain and Musculoskeletal Issues

Unfortunately, stress can cause pain, and pain can cause stress. In people experiencing both depression and chronic pain, each condition worsens the other, creating a cycle that’s hard to break out of without help. It’s important to help employees break that cycle before they seek alternate forms of pain management, such as medication.

For example, one of the most common signs of burnout is chronic headaches. Sixty-five percent of burned-out workers experience regular headaches. When someone tightens their neck, jaw, and shoulder muscles so regularly that it causes soreness, that stiffness can radiate up the shoulders and neck and become a tension headache.

The head and shoulders aren’t the only places musculoskeletal pain can show up. And while pain alone can make it hard for anyone to bring their best self to work, it can also lead to bigger issues. Not surprisingly, burnout symptoms often overlap closely with anxiety and depression. Although these are mental health conditions, they involve the same biological mechanisms as pain.

Thankfully, there are options for employees who have musculoskeletal issues, whether the pain is from burnout or another cause. Research shows that “moderate to strong evidence suggests that exercise therapy and psychosocial interventions are effective for relieving pain and improving function for musculoskeletal pain.” This means companies can proactively help employees by offering them tools that teach them to exercise safely and effectively, destress with mindfulness and relaxation, participate in physical therapy, and pay attention to how their bodies move.

Kaia Believes: Self-Service Technologies Are the Future of Healthcare 

Today’s employees are empowered and proactive, and they’ve embraced the power of digital tools to track and take charge of their health. Most people no longer want to wait months for care, navigate traffic, and fill out stacks of paperwork for a short appointment. They want health solutions when they need them, where they need them.

According to the 2021 Mercer Marsh Benefits Health on Demand survey, 80 percent of Americans planned to use digital solutions for their healthcare last year, either to help them manage a condition or to support their health goals. Companies that build digital infrastructure for employees to access state-of-the-art health technology will lead the way into the future and boost their efforts to recruit and retain the best employees.

Addiction and Substance Misuse

Without relief, burnout may have a compounding effect on an employee’s life. They need time and resources to recover, but the continued stress, fatigue, pain, and other health issues can lead people to feel like they’re falling behind. Many look for any advantage they can to catch up on sleep, be more productive, or suppress pain.

Some people self-medicate to try to relax after work or shut off their brains to get more sleep. Others use prescribed medications for pain management, some of which are highly addictive. Either way, someone experiencing burnout is potentially more susceptible to misusing substances, and company leaders and HR managers can step in when necessary and offer help.

Long-Term Illness

While the physical symptoms of burnout can drain someone of productivity and performance, some symptoms can be more than a concern. Extended burnout can lead to a weakened immune system, which means team members could get sick more often and stay sick longer.

Psychosocial stress, such as burnout, can be a key contributor to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, a women’s health study showed a link between long-term stress and Type II diabetes.

Helping employees avoid burnout can help avoid a number of issues in the long run. Following are tips for companies that want to maintain a healthy, happy workplace.

How to Help Employees Avoid Burnout

Burnout seems to be more common than ever and is a widely discussed topic in the workplace, and for good reason: It can cause serious physical health issues for employees. HR professionals, managers, and company leaders can help their team members prevent the worst of burnout with three key actions.

  • Reduce stress where possible
  • Spread awareness and communicating about burnout
  • Set clear expectations

Reducing Workplace Stress

The best way to reduce stress varies and largely depends on which methods work best at a company, and it may be different across teams. For instance, flexible hours may work well for a marketing team but be too disruptive for a warehouse crew. Ensuring each department has the right tools, technology, and staffing can go a long way, too. Planning time off or recreation time at work also can help people recover from a particularly busy period.

Leaders should get together with their teams and brainstorm ideas that will work at their company. It’s important to make sure employees are part of the discussion. It’s not always possible to shield employees from stress, but acknowledging it and actively working to reduce it can lower burnout rates.

Communicate Effectively

Great communication goes in two directions, so encourage employees, workers, and management to talk about burnout. The physical signs of burnout can be subtle, so it’s important that managers pay attention to how their staff act and feel. Ensure employees can recognize early signs of burnout in themselves and their colleagues to catch any potential problems as soon as possible. When possible, managers should lead by example and be open about their own stress levels so others feel like they can speak up when they need a break or ask a coworker to step in and take some of their work.

Set Clear Expectations

According to research from Gallup, “When performance expectations and accountability are inconsistent or unclear, employees can become frustrated and exhausted, just by trying to figure out what their manager wants from them.” This can cause stress and burnout. Managers who don’t set clear expectations may leave their team feeling anxious about how well they’re performing. Meanwhile, not having a clear idea of priorities makes it impossible for stressed employees and workers to focus on the most impactful projects while ensuring they get enough downtime.

The Bottom Line

Burnout can cause some surprising physical symptoms, and it’s easy for a few minor symptoms to grow if they’re left unchecked. HR professionals and managers can help employees avoid the worst parts of burnout with prevention, when possible. If that doesn’t work, identifying and relieving burnout before it snowballs is key. When employees can handle their stress, avoid burnout, and feel healthy at work, the company will reap the rewards.

Author: Kathryn Casna

Kathryn Casna is a digital marketing and travel writer from San Diego, California. Customer-facing retail, human resources, hospitality, and event production make up her professional roots. Today, she runs her own writing business from whatever new locale she happens to be exploring.

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