Occupational Burnout Can Have Long-Term Effects on Physical and Mental Health

Westman Islands fish processing plant

About a third of people who suffered from occupational burnout haven’t recovered seven years later, RÚV reports. This was among the findings discussed at a conference on burnout, stress, and working environments that was held by the Federation of State and Municipal Employees (BSRB) on Friday.

“There’s something physical and probably also something to do with brain functioning tha occurs and has these long-term effects. This is an immense cause for concern and tells me that prevention is the first, second, and third thing,” says Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir, a professor who studies stress therapy at the University of Gothenburg.

Ingibjörg says that Icelanders try to take on too much in their professional and private lives, which leads to a risk of burning out. “If life is a high jump, then it’s like you’ve set the bar way too high in terms of what you really can jump.” She continued by saying that Icelanders need to take preventative measures against occupational burnout and make changes in people’s work environments, rather than focusing solely on the consequences that burnout has for individuals. “Going through all that needs to be fixed and shifting the emphasis from only individuals at work, starting to determine what it is in the work environment that is not working,”—this is what needs to be done, she says, to effectively address this problem.

‘I Was Just Really Afraid of Being a Deadbeat’

Musician and actress Sigríður Eir Zophoníasardóttir says that there is a lot of pressure on people to work hard and perform well. “It’s ingrained in you really early to work hard and that work is both what defines us and what brings us distinction. And so I was just really afraid of being a deadbeat,” she remarked. Two years ago, she pushed herself in her work and took on all kinds of projects, on top of caring for an infant child. Finally, she hit a wall.

“Physically, I had insane muscle inflammation and a pinched nerve in my back that had started to force itself up to my head and down again. I had lost a bit of strength in my right hand and had chronic headaches and buzzing in my ears,” she recalled. She slept badly, had indigestion, back pain, and disliked being in social situations.

Mental Effects No Less Pronounced Than Physical Ones

“The ironic thing is that we were putting together a radio play about burnout, so I knew all about it,” said Sigríður.

After suffering a “minor nervous breakdown,” Sigríður took three months’ sick leave during which she didn’t work at all. She noticed that the mental side-effects of burnout were just as pronounced as the physical ones: “I lost interest in all sorts of things that I had enjoyed before.” Slowly, and with time, she began to recover, finally returning to the things that used to bring her pleasure, namely music and theatre.

The experience of burnout is one that’s stuck with her, however: “It was a very sad experience to find everything that I was doing ridiculously difficult and boring.”

Burnout on the Rise Among Young People

Young people, and more particularly, young women, are experiencing higher levels of burnout at work, RÚV reports. According to Linda Bára Lýðsdóttir, a psychologist at the Virk Vocational Rehabilitation Fund, anxiety and depression are on the rise, even as employment conditions are largely positive for a good portion of the nation. This increase used to be particularly prevalent among workers over the age of 40, but recent studies show that it is now becoming more common among younger people.

“This is a problem for everyone, but there’s increasing incidence among young people, and especially young women,” explains Linda. “It’s a cause for concern. I have a recent study from Britain – tens of thousands of people took part in their study – and in it, they point to the incidence of depression and anxiety disorders among young women rising a great deal nowadays, while it’s fairly stable among men.” She says that this is a problem in Iceland as well. “I don’t think we’re any exception there. This happens in most welfare states today.”

Professional environments that could be considered “women’s workplaces” are also particularly vulnerable to burnout, Linda continues. “We’re seeing burnout in a large proportion of women’s workplaces,” she says, “in the fields of education and health care and it’s more or less women who work there.”

It’s been speculated that this burnout could be connected to Iceland’s financial collapse ten years ago, says Linda, as the crash put increased pressure on people to work harder and overcome their economic straits. At the time, a great deal of emphasis was placed on keeping a close eye on children and it was said that attention would need to be paid to these young people’s wellbeing seven to ten years in the future, which is to say: now.

There’s been a great deal of discussion of late in regards to shortening Icelanders’ work hours, but Linda says that this is not necessarily the best solution. The issue, she says, is people’s workload, and nothing will be solved if workers are simply responsible for the same amount of work in a shorter time frame.