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The Vicious Circle of Sleep and Burn-Outs

Burn-out, sometimes referred to as professional exhaustion syndrome, is not a fatality, but the culmination of a long process of ongoing suffering in the workplace brought on by accumulative stress. This form of exhaustion is at once physical, mental and emotional and 20 % of white-collar workers say they have already experienced it. Pressure at work leads to poor sleep which then generates extra pressure at work. So let’s look at how we can sleep better and avoid burning-out.

Causes and symptoms of burn-out

It affects men as much as women, workers and students alike, when a person is utterly and truly drained, they burn-out: They feel “empty” and are unable to recuperate and find themselves in an extreme state of fatigue. Burn-outs are constantly on the rise. Nowadays, they are a real problem in society, and occupational health physicians need to be fully aware of them.

How does burn-out creep up on you?

The main cause is still chronic stress in a professional environment. However, there are actually two different kinds of stress. Stress in and of itself is a physiological reaction which is part of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). It can be both positive and negative.

This adaptive defense mechanism allows the human organism to confront exceptional situations by mobilizing physical and mental resources to the maximum. Once danger has passed, the individual is supposed to return to their initial state, or else they will end up exhausted.

Once stress and fatigue set in, it is obviously intensified if you are not sleeping well. Stress and sleep are never a good combination.

An afflicted person may also suffer burn-out denial and refuse to rest. They may even start working more because they are afraid they will come under criticism.

Exacerbating variables will tend to come in to the mix, in turn further lowering a person’s tolerance threshold when it comes to stress and pressure at work.

The risk factors may be professional first and foremost: a tiring environment, inhumane management, a lack of team spirit, a tough work schedule, company restructuring etc.

But the risk factors can also be more personal: a conscientious individual, psychological fragilities, a complicated social or family environment, not having any leisure activities… So it is a multifactorial process requiring an all-round approach to treatment.

How do you recognize a burn-out?

A burn-out is principally characterized as a form of intense fatigue which has a number of other implications.

It starts out with behavioral problems and an increase in the time spent working and leads to absenteeism, addictions, withdrawal, letting work invade one’s private life and neglecting one’s family and social life. All this is coupled with relational disorders because the afflicted individual no longer has the strength to build relationships or integrate socially.

There can be intellectual disturbances, apparent through a drop in the ability to work and organize one’s work, memory impairment, an inability to concentrate and chronic indecision. As burn-out victims are generally aware of their weak points, they will first try to compensate for their loss of productivity by working more.

Emotional and mental manifestations include nerves, a loss of self-confidence, and a loss of motivation with depression or dark thoughts, feelings of uselessness or hopelessness, jealousy towards other colleagues or cynicism, anxiety. We often talk about depersonalization as the individual can seem as though they’ve lost key traits of their personality and become a kind of “robot”.

Finally, bodily symptoms are commonplace, so there will often be physical issues on top of the fatigue: backache, stomachaches, migraines, heart palpitations, bulimia, weight gain, sexual dysfunctions and sleep problems.

Fatigue and burn-outs creep in over time. A person’s energy level can get so low that the simple act of getting out of bed, (often after a poor night’s sleep), can require superhuman effort on their part.

Among all of these elements, sleep disorders and insomnia stand out because they represent both one of the symptoms and a cause of burn-outs. We can thus clearly see a direct correlation between fatigue and burn-outs.

The vicious circle of sleep and burn-outs

Today, it is common knowledge that burn-outs and insomnia go together, creating a real vicious circle around sleep disorders in particular.

How does a burn-out create sleep disorders?

A French study demonstrated how burn-outs modify sleep.

Firstly the individual will go to bed in an increased state of agitation, constantly mulling over of the day’s failures.

This state of agitation causes their sleep to be more disturbed. They will wake-up more and more during the night and for longer periods as time goes on.

Even REM sleep, which is less restorative, is affected.

Sleep is negatively impacted both quantitatively (sleeping less) and qualitatively (less restorative sleep): in the end, the entire sleep cycle is negatively altered.

How do sleep disorders create a burn-out?

Sleep disorders are known to have a direct impact on employee productivity by lowering their concentration and all round efficiency. In parallel, their fatigue and irritability levels increase.

A conscientious worker will be well aware of their drop in performance and step up their efforts to compensate, creating a de facto state of being under pressure at work. The worse their sleep gets, the heavier this pressure will be, increasing the risk of a burn-out.

It makes sense to take on board a few pointers to improve your sleep if you realize you are in a vicious circle like this. You may well avoid ending up in a downward spiral.

How do you avoid a burn-out?

As burn-outs have an impact on both your personal and professional life, it is essential to address both spheres.

Managing stress at work

Burn-outs happen at work when there is a growing gap between what the employee must do (external demands from management but also internal demands and values) and what they think they are able to do (a real decrease in ability and productivity alongside a growing sense of incapacity). This creates pressure at work.

There are a few solutions to help alleviate stress at work.

  • Creating little moments for pleasure, such as meals or discussions with colleagues.

  • Reducing the use of stimulants, like coffee.

  • Being less of a perfectionist, giving yourself reasonable deadlines and fixing yourself limits.

  • Only doing one task at a time, so you have short term visibility and can progress step by step.

  • Making sure you reward yourself with 10-minute break every 2 hours, to release the pressure.

  • Arranging time for a nap, or 5 minute mini-breaks to simply close your eyes in a dark quiet environment.

  • Talking about your difficulties with management, or the occupational physician, and not hesitating to ask for help.

  • Making sure you do physical exercise to evacuate stress.

  • Always disconnecting when you are at home to create a wall between your personal life, and your professional life.

Managing sleep at home

In parallel, you will need to try out different tactics to help you get restorative sleep again. Ideally, it is best to start with natural methods first, and avoid using sleeping pills.

Phytotherapy and homeopathy can work in combination with breathing exercises or meditation. It is also important to suppress blue light in the evenings and create a ritual for going to bed.

New technologies are also increasingly providing us with innovative natural solutions to get restorative sleep again.

Numerous kinds of connected devices can enable you to analyze your sleep and understand where your issues lie: for example, you may be totally unaware you are micro-waking, but a sleep monitor will reveal it to you.

Getting an accurate diagnosis for your sleep disorder is already half the battle, or 50% of the solution!

Other forms of new technologies can even be used to restore sleep patterns. In sleep labs; Neurofeedback is used to help patients learn to produce the right kinds of brainwaves to sleep better.

Neurofeedback is in fact a natural solution for sleeping which is both powerful and efficient because it is based on mechanisms which are an active part of how our brain functions on a daily basis.

These natural sleep aids can help you to break the vicious circle which leads to burn-out, get more restorative sleep again, and experience less stress and professional exhaustion. Don’t wait until it’s too late to sort your sleep out!

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