How to play with fire without getting burned


Burnout is a real problem, for real people – lots of people, unfortunately. It’s a problem for leaders and companies, too, because when burnout hurts people, it also hurts their performance and resiliency. While I have front-row seating to the effects of stress every day in people at work and closer to home, it was this fascinating National Geographic documentary, Killer Stress, that really opened my eyes to the magnitude of the impact it has on people, businesses, and our culture.

The evolutionary purpose of stress is to galvanize the body to rise to a challenge – to fight or flee. Our bodies prepare through a rush of hormones, adrenaline and glucorticoids. In most animals, the stress response goes away after the crisis has been averted. Humans, however, are increasingly living with the stress response on all of the time, resulting in chronic, unmitigated stress – or, more familiarly, burnout. Humans no longer experience stress only in response to life-threatening situations. We also experience stress due to psychological causes: we angst about deadlines, relationships, finances, traffic; we worry in the face of ambiguity and change. Evolving social fabrics and technology also play a role in our stress-filled lives. Despite being “plugged in” around the clock, we are more disconnected from other people than ever, with more superficial connections that promote a constant state of anxiety over how we are measuring up in multiple arenas.

Chronic stress leads to countless negative health outcomes: high blood pressure, suppressed immune response, suppression of non-essential functions (e.g., growth, reproduction), and chronic disease, such as heart disease. Unrelenting stress literally kills off brain cells, specifically shrinking the hippocampal area of the brain, which is the seat of learning and memory. Chronic stress also decreases the number of dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is a “pleasure hormone” and fewer dopamine receptors essentially means when you are burnt out, everything feels less pleasurable. Disruption of the delicate hormone balance by the hormonal rush of the stress reaction plays a role in the obesity epidemic. We are even learning that unremitting stress causes chromosomal damage. We also just feel bad – unchecked stress leads to more minor symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, upset stomachs and fatigue. Burnout makes people sicker, fatter, sadder, and dumber. Not surprisingly, all of this impacts what goes on at work. Productivity plummets, health insurance premiums skyrocket. People are cranky and irritable; work relationships become strained. Rates of absenteeism (or worse, “presenteeism”) increase. Some estimates of the business costs of stress run as high as $300 billion a year due to errors, health care costs, and missed work.

So it may surprise you when I say: stress is not our enemy. Chronic stress is. Being steeped in stress hormones day to day across our lives – that is very bad, yes. This TEDTalk by Kelly McGonigall describes fascinating research suggesting that how we think about stress has a lot to do with its effects on our wellbeing. In a recent study, thirty thousand adults were tracked across eight years. Researchers assessed self-reported levels of stress, beliefs about stress, and mortality. As they would have guessed, increased stress was associated with an increased risk of dying – but only among people who also reported believing that stress is harmful for your health. The people with the lowest risk of dying were those with the highest stress AND who did not believe stress is harmful to health.

A subsequent study showed that when people were trained to interpret the physical sensations of the stress response differently, they responded to stress differently. If, instead of seeing their pounding heart, rapid breath, and cold sweat as signs of anxiety or failure to cope, they saw them as signs of being energized or galvanized – that is, if they were trained to think about the stress response as being helpful – they reported being less stressed, less anxious, and more confident. And the physical stress response also changed. The reason that chronic stress is associated with cardiac disease is because usually the heart rate goes up and blood vessels constrict; but when trained, participants’ blood vessels stayed relaxed, even when their hearts were pounding – which is a lot more like what happens in moments of joy and bravery. When you change your mind about stress, you change your body’s response to stress.

Another positive note about the boogie-man of stress, is that adrenaline and glucocorticoids are not the only hormones in the equation. Oxytocin is a neurohormone most commonly known as the “love” hormone, and which primes you to seek or strengthen close relationships and enhances empathy and helpfulness to others. When the hormonal floodgates of the stress response open, oxytocin is released as well. Oxytocin’s role in the stress response is to nudge you to seek support and be able to see when others need support. It also acts on the body as a natural anti-inflammatory, relaxing blood vessels and helping heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage. In fact, people who report spending time caring for or helping others are less likely to die, even if they report high levels of stress in their lives. Providing and receiving social support makes people more resilient against the effects of stress.

Some stress is good for you – coasting at equilibrium and maintaining the status quo at all costs is also not good for people or companies. We need purpose, challenge, and excitement – these are “good stressors” that invigorate us and move us to skillful action. I hope many of us have had the thrill of a roller coaster ride or stage performance, or of burning the midnight oil with team members to get a quality project delivered on time. The key is balancing these good stressors with the bad, and taking pains to ameliorate “bad stress” before it accumulates and becomes chronic. Individuals need to value time-tested stress management approaches like getting enough sleep and exercise and eating well and to explore other research-backed practices like meditation. Above all, reframe the way you think about stress, and don’t neglect your social support system – make time for relationships, and freely give help to and receive help from others.

Organizations are led by wise leaders who recognize the threat posed by troops of burned-out employees. Even in this economic era in which “do more with less” is starting to feel like a mantra, it is short-sighted to push people to the point of burnout. Managers need to be alert to the signs and symptoms of burnout in order to intervene and provide support. This is a tricky tightrope to walk, to be sure, as we exist in a cultural milieu that rewards imbalance and has yet to come to terms with the costs and benefits of 24/7 technology. But the case for making a concerted effort is plain; recognizing our humanness is both humane and good business sense.