WHEN SUCCESS LEADS TO DISABILITY
“Stress is a form of suffering, but it is accepted as normal.”
— Eckhart Tolle
Today ambitious individuals are under more pressure to perform than ever before. Modern life keeps on coming up with innovative ways to expand our potential – letting us do things that yesterday were a thing from sci-fi books. And while this progress can be inspiring, it can also lead to a dangerous denial of our limitations as human beings. That denial infuses our life with a damaging strain we call stress.
To many of us, stress is an everyday occurrence: constant agitation about things being imperfect; a relentless need to prove ourselves; and at the same time not having enough hours in the day to finish all the tasks on our list. As a result, we grow tired, hyper-vigilant and feel utterly unfulfilled. What’s worse, often we don’t notice stress until it takes a dangerous toll doctors call burnout.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), chronic stress and burnout present the world’smost pronounced health risk. ICD-10, the WHO’s International Classification of Disease, characterizes burnout as “a state of vital exhaustion.” The way this condition shows itself initially is through cynicism, leading to poor relationships and inefficiency at work. But the damage is a lot greater than that.
A high-stress working environment can be akin to a daily micro dose of poison – it takes a while to notice the effects that lack of sleep and uncompromising job expectations have on our health. Often this happens because we are so focused on our goals that we become convinced that sacrificing our wellbeing will eventually pay-off. It can also happen if our job performance depends on us ignoring our emotions and putting up an iron front. As a result, when the first symptoms of burnout set in, we might not even notice, like the many others who make up the exponentially growing number of burned out professionals.
Dr Geri Puleo, the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change Model, believes burnout to be a far more dangerous condition than people think. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a diagnosis often given to war veterans, sexual abuse and natural disaster survivors and others who lived through a terrifying experience threatening one’s physical or emotional survival. According to Dr. Puleo, the symptoms of PTSD are dangerously similar to symptoms of burnout.
Those symptoms include:
1) debilitating levels of anxiety and depression,
2) chronic exhaustion,
3) health issues such as undermined immune system and even organ failure,
4) a need to avoid reminders of the traumatizing experience (for burned-out professionals this means repeated symptoms of exhaustion, anxiety and depression as a response to simply being reminded of a high-pressure working environment).
Does this suggest that pushing ourselves beyond the limit of our physical capacities may trigger permanent changes in our brain like in the case of PTSD?
According to Dr. Puleo, it could. Like PTSD, reminders of the past work stress trigger symptoms of burnout even years after recovery. When a job situation becomes overly demanding, the performance level of the formerly affected professionals seems to suddenly drop, and they experience the exhaustion and anxiety as they did at the onset of burnout. Like in the case of PTSD, the symptoms of burnout are severe, and it takes a long time to treat them.
Furthermore, the issue of burnout is difficult to resolve because the American Diagnostic Manual (DSM-5) that our health care system uses does not recognize burnout as a condition. As a result, insurance companies do not cover treatment of burnout as the work-related injury that it is. Thus, even though the symptoms of burnout are debilitating and long-lasting, until insurance providers recognize it as a disability, no appropriate work accommodations will be offered.
This goes to show that those of us who wish to reach for the stars should also remember to keep their feet firmly on the ground. No professional, if he or she is a human being, can ignore his or her basic survival needs. So, when we seek professional growth and success, we need to start by satisfying those basic needs that boost our physical and cognitive performance.
The best way to do this is through:
1) forming good sleep habits (7 hours minimum),
2) maintaining a healthy diet,
3) spending quality time with friends and family,
4) taking at least 15 min per day engaging into hobbies outside of one’s professional expertise
5) exercising regularly,
6) seeking psychotherapy treatment, for instance, if you tend to push the feelings to the back of your mind or feel unable to relax.
As ancient Romans said, “a healthy spirit in a healthy body.” So if you’re ambitious, a well-balanced lifestyle is going to be your most rewarding investment.
Lastovkova, A., Carder, M., Rasmussen, H. M., Sjoberg, L., Groene, G. J., Sauni, R., Vevoda, J., Vevodova, S., Lasfargues, G., Svartengren, M., Varga, M., Colosio, C., … Pelclova, D. (2017). Burnout syndrome as an occupational disease in the European Union: an exploratory study. Industrial health, 56(2), 160-165.