Human beings who grow weary of their work environments tend to hide their stress for as long as possible, collecting a paycheck, ticking off task boxes, and collapsing at home until the next day begins. You can’t see burnout with the naked eye, but you can feel it. The symptoms are lethargy, lack of motivation, anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure), irritability, and low mood.
Think about those symptoms and ask yourself, “Am I coping with burnout at my job?” Then consider this: Maybe your brain is on fire. I say maybe because we don’t know yet. Neuroscientist Jean Philippe Blankert proposes that researchers will soon begin studying what happens to the brain when we lose interest and motivation in our careers. He submits that the symptoms of job burnout are akin to those of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, amounting to an “emotional allergy.”
Blankert proposes that neurobiological measurements likely would find neuroinflammation in the brains of burnout patients, which would substantiate the idea that burnout functions as a psychological disease (think “dis-ease”) and as a physiologically measurable illness. He contends that if you add overactive neurons to ongoing stress, the outcome is a metaphorical forest fire in your brain.
What it comes down to is stress: what we do with stress, what it does to us, and how we handle it. The ongoing experience of pressure and strain inspires some people to find ways to make changes in their current jobs—small adjustments that make big differences in their daily lives. For others, that means retiring or leaving an old job for a new one that offers bigger challenges, greater work/life balance, or simply more time or more money.
A close friend of mine ran a blog series on major job changes. He interviewed friends who had made significant career leaps and asked them to discuss what those transitions meant to them. Many indicated a dip in satisfaction in a former career and/or a readiness to try something new, revitalizing, and personally fulfilling. They were looking for renewal.
I’ve made leaps like that during different stages in life. First, I worked as a salad bar attendant, then as a real estate secretary, then as a medical assistant and part-time janitor, then as an associate director at a clinic. Later, I made the leap to private practice as a therapist. Now I’m working as a writer, which is a more mobile career and leaves me with more time to spend with my spouse, family, and friends. Each job was good for me while it existed, but it’s important to know when to leave, when to let go. Each change represents an upward trajectory and a new set of interesting and invigorating experiences.
It made me think of something I learned on a trip to Wyoming. I remember seeing majestic mountains, green valleys, and lush forests…until we drove past a disturbing sight: a forest that had been burned to the ground, nothing but charred and fallen tree trunks, singed foliage (what was left of it), and blackened earth. I remember feeling sad to think that what had once been a beautiful forest trail was now reduced to a scorched patch of sooty darkness. I said something to that effect to our tour guide, who explained to me that what I was seeing was the beginning of renewal. Many fires are part of the natural ecosystem, helping to clean out the old plant matter and create space and soil nutrients for new plants and important tree species to grow big and tall and green. At certain ages, many forests are overdue for “large-scale burns.”
We may exercise, sleep, and get proper nutrition (all things that reduce the cumulative load of inflammation in our bodies) and still experience burnout. If, in fact, as Blankert suggests, neuroinflammation occurs in your brain due to dissatisfaction in your professional life, then, much the same as with some forest fires, it’s important to recognize that it’s not the end of the world; it might be the beginning of a new one. Burnout, compassion fatigue, career exhaustion—you can rewire your brain to see these afflictions as opportunities for embarking on a new path. You don’t have to stay on a dead-end street.
Are you overdue for a large-scale burn? You might be, and you might discover a surprising amount of personal growth in the aftermath.