Burnout Is a Real Workplace Injury; Are Your Employees at Risk?

New research suggests that burnout is linked to a heart condition associated with strokes, blood clots and other potentially deadly illnesses.
By: | January 23, 2020

Oft-dismissed as a millennial issue, employee burnout is starting to get some serious attention from both employers and researchers.  

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Company’s, like Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, have created policies encouraging workers to rest after meeting big deadlines; the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon; and studies are beginning to look at the effects burnout has on the human body.

One such study came from the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology this January. The study looked at the effects of burnout, or “vital exhaustion,” on the human heart. 

They found that in addition to impacting an employee’s mental health, the prolonged stress and exhaustion associated with burnout can have some serious physical consequences for the heart. 

“We usually just connect exhaustion with mental health,” the study’s co-author Parveen Garg told Inverse

“If you’re exhausted or burned out, you can develop depression or you can become socially isolated. But I think this paper, and our other research, demonstrates that exhaustion can affect the health of your heart as well.” 

The Study at a Glance

The study found burnout increases the risk of developing atrial fibrillation, a heart condition characterized by a fluttering, quickened or quivering heartbeat, by up to 20%. 

The condition can cause blood clots and is associated with an increased risk of stroke, heart failure and death. The condition is difficult to detect and many people don’t know they have it. Common symptoms include weakness and shortness of breath. 

In order to determine whether atrial fibrillation and burnout were linked, researchers looked at how factors, such as anger, antidepressant use and social support, influence the development of the condition  in a group of 11,445 people.

The team of researchers tracked cardiac health outcomes and periodically gathered data on participants’ psychological and social lives using data that goes back to 1990. In order to measure their level of burnout, participants filled out a survey that measured symptoms like crying spells, productivity and sleep patterns. 

Over the course of the 25 year study, researchers documents a total of 2,220 cases of atrial fibrillation. 

Participants who had a vital exhaustion score in the fourth quartile had a 20 percent higher risk of developing the condition compared to those in the first quartile, or those reporting zero or low symptoms of burnout. 

While researchers aren’t exactly sure how burnout and atrial fibrillation are linked, they believe two mechanisms, inflammation and high levels of stress hormones could be responsible for the link.  

Burnout’s Long Term Consequences

Burnout’s link to physical health risks suggests that employee stress and exhaustion are just the beginning of the health risks employers and workers’ compensation managers should be on the lookout for. 

Inflammation, high stress hormone levels and heart conditions are all potential comorbidities for workers’ compensation claims for burnt out employees.

Additionally, the mental health effects of burnout create their own problems in the workplace. A December 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report on occupational fatalities found that workplace suicides were up 11% since 2018. 

The number of workplace suicides, at 304, was the highest since the organization began tracking this metric.  

The fact that more Americans are killing themselves at work suggests that some mental health conditions, which were once thought of as personal, rather than professional issues, are linked to the workplace, according to analysis from the Washington Post

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“Ten years ago, most companies saw suicide as a personal or medical issue, and would say it has nothing to do with work,” Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and board president of United Suicide Survivors International, told the Washington Post.

“I was banging my head against the wall trying to convince companies to talk to me. Compared to now, when I’m getting calls from major global conglomerates seeking me out, looking for answers and strategy.”As workplace specific mental health conditions, like burnout, get more attention, employers need to take action to make sure they’re protecting both their employee’s physical and mental wellbeing. 

Recommended Reading

Certain types of employees are more susceptible to burnout than others. Identifying which employees are at risk can be key to protecting your workers.  

In addition to creating comorbidities through its physical health risks, employee burnout can create exhaustion and stress that inhibit and employee’s judgement and can cause accidents.

Here are three ways employers can take action before burnout becomes a safety hazard&

Courtney DuChene is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]