Recognising the sneaky tell-tale signs of burnout can be the difference between bouncing back versus becoming chronically ill, over time developing into serious illnesses. The COVID-19 global pandemic not only stretched thin essential workers such as doctors, nurses, and teachers, but also blurred the boundaries between work and life as we continue to rely on remote work technology.
Burnout has real consequences. It’s a significant predictor of high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pain conditions, digestive issues, respiratory problems, and even mortality before the age of 45.
What Is Burnout?
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Physician Peh Wei Jie describes burnout as a syndrome many living in urban populations face. It results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. He says individuals face a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion due to excessive and prolonged stress. They find an inability to cope with daily tasks.
“From the TCM perspective, this state of chronic fatigue can be classified under consumptive disease. It refers to a deficiency in one of the organ systems in the human body,” elaborates Physician Peh.
“When one faces chronic fatigue, the Liver, Kidney, and Spleen are usually involved. The most fundamental concept of TCM is that of qi, which refers to the energy and life force that flows through the human body. It’s fundamental to our body’s processes and daily activities. Fatigue is related to the quantity and quality of qi a person can maintain; hence the primary cause of fatigue would be a Qi Deficiency. Prolonged periods of fatigue can lead to other deficiencies, namely blood, Yin, or Yang Deficiency,” he says.
Signs of Burnout
Some experts compare burnout to trying to drive your car for too long or too fast, to the point where the petrol tank empties but your foot is still on the accelerator. The engine heats up and overwhelms the car’s mechanism and ends up breaking down. Here are some signs of burnout to look out for.
1. Feeling fatigued, not just tired
Fatigue is different from just being tired from over-exerting yourself occasionally. Your body literally runs out of energy and optimal levels of functioning and essentially shuts down to a level of low activity. You may start off feeling a “normal” sort of tired, but as you approach burnout, it will feel like you are extremely tired all the time.
2. Changes in sleep and diet
Sure, you’re sleeping but your quality of sleep suffers. You may also eat more or less than usual, as well as develop gastrointestinal issues. “Liver Qi Stagnation and Spleen Deficiency are where chronic stress leads to extreme mood swings, low self-esteem, and feelings of depression, affecting the Liver, causing a Stagnation of Liver qi,” explains Physician Peh. “This is presented with bloating, indigestion, loose stools, or constipation. This often results from erratic eating patterns, or excessive worrying and over-thinking, which is common from individuals experiencing burnout.”
3. You don’t feel rested despite resting
When your body is exhausted, it forgets when to switch from an active state to a resting state. In a healthy body, we’ll instinctively wind down towards the end of the day, in preparation for a good night’s sleep. When you’re in a state of burnout, your mind keeps racing – you can’t switch off.
4. Work suffers
With no switching off, you wake up the next day tired, with a sense of dread or indifference. You feel overwhelmed by simple tasks and make mistakes. According to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Study, eight out of ten workers in Asia report feeling at risk of burnout. The longer you ignore it, the less you enjoy the things at work that used to motivate you.
5. You fall sick easily
Sometimes burnout itself can be a result of weakened immunity due to other illnesses, but often it is the other way around – burnout weakens immunity. “This deficiency often arises in individuals having to manage a lot in their capacity. They experience inadequate rest, or grief and sadness frequently, weakening the Lung qi. This often presents via a higher susceptibility to coughs or cold,” describes Physician Peh.
6. Aches and pains
Did you know that back pain itself can be one of the signs of burnout? “Kidney Qi Deficiency refers to a depletion in the deepest foundation of energy (qi) in the human body, especially when we try to function without sufficient nutrition or rest. Consumption of caffeine, recreational drugs and excessive stress often deplete Kidney qi, which will cause a reduction in Kidney yin and yang in the long run. Individuals facing this usually encounter weakness and aches in the lower back or knees, memory loss or even deafness and osteoporosis,” warns Physician Peh.
How to Stop Burning the Candle at Both Ends
Stop burnout in its tracks at the earliest signs, because ignoring them can lead to compromised health. A key first step is to admit that you are burnt out. This honest recognition paves the way for a reset and healing.
You may then try the following approaches to prevent the signs of burnout:
Acupuncture and acupressure massage
Physician Peh recommends acupoints on the Liver meridian to correct qi circulation within the body. One such common acupoint will be tai chong (LR3, 太沖), which can clear Qi Stagnation and improve circulation. “This acupoint is also one of the points of the Four Gates (四关), which have the function to open and circulate the energy flow within the body. This is akin to unblocking a stagnant drain and helps the body to relax.”
A study involving nurses reported that acupuncture promotes less stress, more patience with patients, better sleep, and increased mindfulness in 60% of the respondents. In a clinical trial involving 120 patients with increased stress levels, divided into three groups, acupuncture was shown to be significantly better than conventional treatment. Physician Peh also encourages other remedies such as cupping therapy, or Qigong for busy individuals.
In the field of TCM, many herbs can be utilised to nourish the body. The organs in particular are the Spleen and Kidney and to treat burnout and its corresponding symptoms. Some common ones include goji berries (gou qi, 枸杞) and cinnamon (rou gui, 肉桂), which can boost the Kidney yin and yang respectively. Ginseng (yang shen, 洋参) also provides relaxation, boosts vital qi, and strengthens the immune system, which can aid the recovery and alleviate symptoms of mental and physical exhaustion from burnout.
“However, one should first consult a licensed TCM physician for a detailed diagnosis before consuming such herbs,” Physician Peh cautions.
A nourishing diet
“The Spleen and Stomach are the body’s powerhouse, providing qi and blood we require for our daily activities. It is important to consume adequate amounts of nutritious food at the right time to replenish the nutrients we require,” says Physician Peh.
He suggests abstaining from excessive alcohol intake, reducing sugar, and consuming fewer cold or processed foods. These will lead to increased exhaustion. Warm and nourishing foods and beverages can be chosen instead. This helps replenish qi and yin within the body and to combat fatigue. Concentrated TCM formulas such as essence of chicken or essence of ocean fish are great for jumpstarting your health.
As you rebuild your health after an episode of burnout, take care to prevent it in the future. Keep your qi flowing optimally by building in breaks to properly rest and refuel, drawing clear boundaries at work, and recognising the tell-tale signs to prevent you from being overwhelmed.
- Cleveland Clinic. 2022. What Is Burnout? [online] [Accessed 20 May 2022].
- Boston University. 2022. Work Burnout Signs: What to Look for and What to Do about It. [online] [Accessed 20 May 2022].
- Applied Nursing Research. 2019. Auricular acupressure reduces anxiety and burnout in behavioral healthcare. [online] [Accessed 20 May 2022].
- PLOS ONE. 2020. Acupuncture in persons with an increased stress level—Results from a randomized-controlled pilot trial. [online] [Accessed 20 May 2022].
- PLOS ONE. 2017. Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. [online] [Accessed 20 May 2022].
- HR World. 2022. From the Great Resignation to the Great Burnout, employers in Asia continue to grapple with shifting employee priorities. [Accessed 18 July 2022].
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