You often hear stories of office employees working 100 plus hours in a week in order to meet the demands of their companies. Getting asked whether you are okay working extra hours before you even start at a company is too often the case. But it’s a tricky balance to say the least and one that can often lead to some level of what we call burnout.
Burnout in it of itself is a term that tends to get used much too liberally these days. It is mainly used to imply some level of dissatisfaction or discomfort with ones current job. You get too tired or you have a dispute with your manager, and all too often you will hear the term ‘burnout’ being used to describe it. But I think it’s important to make the distinction between emotional burnout, such as not feeling joyful, and physical burnout, such as physically not feeling well.
I’ve personally experienced both stages during my corporate work in the past. And one is clearly more hazardous than the other. At past jobs in which deadlines were short, documentation was scarce and specifications changed often, stress was a commonplace occurrence. And those years were, from a health perspective, the worst that I have faced so far. Everything from joint pain, to headaches to digestive issues were waiting for me as soon as I woke up.
And within a few short weeks of leaving those jobs behind, the body goes back into repair mode and like magic many of those symptoms begin to go back into their dormant states awaiting the next bout of stressors. Because stress isn’t bad. It’s important for long term survival. But constant stress is definitely bad, and doesn’t help in that same regard. You can run from a lion for a short period of time until you find a village or get into a river, but you can’t do it for weeks or months at a time. The body just doesn’t have infinite energy stores at the ready.
The World Health Organization has not classified burnout as a medical condition just yet, but it has at least acknowledged it as an “occupational phenomenon”. I technically agree with their statements however. Running isn’t a medical disease either. But running to the point where you are causing joint deterioration can have severe health consequences down the line.
Truthfully, almost every reference I found online related to work induced burnout mainly focused on the feeling of tiredness and not on much else. The cause of the fatigue was never fully addressed or looked into. We know that working too many hours makes us tired, but we don’t know what impact that has on our overall health. Either we don’t know, or we are simply too busy and distracted to look into it. So I’ve spent some time looking into it this week, and what I found is definitely interesting.
Taking the world ‘burnout’ out of the equation for now, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that high enough levels of stress will lead to physiological changes in an individual. And not in a good way.
For one, there is the matter of increased nutrient requirements for higher cognitive load. And I think this is something that is still on the fringes or human understanding, even though we have research papers and experiments proving it, we don’t really like to allow for the fact that thinking more requires excess energy.
We still associate energy expenditure mainly with physical workouts and locomotive movement. Does solving math problems and playing video games for hours on end demand more calories? Truthfully, most of us don’t really care about the answer to that question, making this whole burnout thing much harder to analyze.
Robert Sapolsky, who studies primate behavior at Stanford University, suggests that grandmaster chess players can burn as much as 6,000 calories per day during the course of a chess tournament. The mechanism of action isn’t as mystical as one would think.
Sapolsky states that “Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners…”.
And the same can be true for any endeavor that requires long sustained periods of focus, not just chess. That includes doctors working 10 hours straight on surgeries or even college students putting in all-nighters in preparation for an exam the next day. But because this is still relatively new science, most office workers or companies won’t take this fact into account when working excessive hours. If anything, hustle culture at companies might actually promote this excessive load.
The biggest challenge here by far is that measuring true caloric or energetic expenditure accurately is not possible just yet. No, your fitness tracker is not 100% accurate. If you want proof, simply take it off for an hour and notice that it will still guesstimate your daily caloric requirements. And that’s because each band measures caloric burn using its own algorithm that mainly takes step count and heart rate into account.
A study conducted by Stanford researches measuring fitness band accuracy, found that certain wearable fitness devices could deviate from their standard by as much as 43%, essentially making them useless. But calories are one of the most popular gauges that we have to measure our idea of health, accurate or not.
The human body is much more complex than 60–80 beats per minute and 10,000 steps per day. As mentioned above, there is a constantly shifting metabolism that is reacting to everything that you do in a given moment. And there are also insulin spikes, blood pressure fluctuations and healing from daily trauma to the body that goes unnoticed for the most part. Did you bang your hand on the doorway on your way to the office? Yeah, that requires some form of healing which involves some form of energetic caloric burn.
So what do most companies do in order to appease the growing need of caloric burn for their employees? Well, many tend to have fully stocked kitchens with various levels of snacking items which may or may not rank high in the health department.
Note that this is not at all a jab at this type of culture. I myself have enjoyed plenty of such snacks in my day. When you are working 16 hours a day, at some point that sugary protein bar in the corner just makes sense. Truthfully at that point, any type of sustenance would make sense. As mentioned, the body needs nutrients, and it does not discriminate.
But it doesn’t come without a cost. Perhaps a cost that you can easily pay in your early 20’s. But one that will inevitably come at a higher price in your 30’s and beyond.
In 2008 when I began working professionally in a corporate environment as a programmer, deadlines were frequent and burnout was real. The temporary solution to the long work hours was an excess of sugary energy drinks and a substantial amount of company paid snacks. When I left that job in 2010 I was roughly 70lbs heavier with various auto-immune issues attached to my name.
No I didn’t blame the company for my weight gain or poor eating habits. But they did not help the situation by providing free relatively unhealthy sugary items minutes away from my cubicle.
After years of journeying into the health and fitness world, I inevitably lost all of that weight and found the diet that best suited my personal needs and I’ve never looked back. My auto-immune issues (which a doctor told me would require heavy anti-inflammatory agents) are completely gone and I can genuinely say I’m much healthier in my mid-30’s than I ever was in any of the 20's.
But that road to health wasn’t easy to navigate or to find. And truthfully I was only able to find it once I left the corporate world years ago. And having that outsider perspective now, I can see that there are still many people stuck in that loop of high-stress load and quick-reward systems that companies pretty much need in order to stay afloat.
However, this is only a band-aid on a very complex issue. An employee working excess hours fueled by an assortment of random nutrients in the vicinity will eventually hit that plateau that we call burnout. Real burnout. The kind that will require some form of medical intervention.
What’s the real cost of burning out in the workforce? Well, it isn’t simply just the added hours that you will spend in the office. Time is one of the variables, and an important one. But you have to look at it from a wider perspective on a longer timeline. The real cost comes in the increased physiological demands such as blood pressure elevations, constant muscle contractions, mineral deficiencies and, either, under eating or overeating, depending on your burn rate and the amount of overall damage that these things leave behind.
Inevitably this can lead to cascading issues further down the timeline, such as auto-immune issues, anxiety disorders or even depression at the farther end. And those issues can further trickle down into even worse if left untreated and unchecked for too long.
And that’s why the real impact is massive and affects every single person in our society. Because having a tired, inflamed, agitated workforce will lead to either early retirement or to a health crisis, which we are seeing now with the increased rate of heart disease. And in both situations we will lose lifetimes worth of talent and skill as individuals exit the workforce.
If we are going to make a dent into that hard to reach futuristic world of abundance and innovation that we often see in movies and in books, we are going to need to start to care about the health and function of each individual putting in the hours to do so.
Because at the end of the day, a clock is only as strong as its smallest gear. But that gear requires just as much energy to make and to maintain as all of the others. And if any one of those gears starts to burnout, the entire system will inevitably have to come to a halt.