Whether you’re an HR professional or last spoke to HR years ago when you were hired, you’re likely affected by HR’s current burnout crisis.  From pandemic-induced workplace upheaval, to the Great Resignation, to recent layoffs spilling over from tech industry woes, the past few years have put HR pros through the wringer. 

More than 40% of HR leaders stated in a recent survey that they are ‘likely or very likely’ to leave their jobs in the coming year.  This is not surprising given data from 2022 showed an 86% increase in stress levels across HR leaders and self-reported burnout rates of nearly 98%.

But for all the headlines on burnout (and the organizational climates that contribute to it), too little is being said about recovery: Is it possible and what does it require?  Hint: it takes more than just a long vacation.  

Burnout and Your Brain

Though there’s some debate on definitions, burnout is generally understood to result from “chronic exposure to emotionally draining environments” and is characterized by “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a decrease in self-fulfillment” (APA).  In other words, while burnout is an environmental and organizational problem, the effects are deeply personal and recovery ends up falling on the shoulders of individuals.

For neuroscientists, it is no surprise that once the damage is done (i.e., workplace burnout has occurred), the path to recovery lands in the lap of the individual.  Over the past decade a growing body of research has documented neurological dysfunction and changes to the brain anatomy in individuals exhibiting symptoms of workplace burnout.  

Enlargement of the amygdala (your emotion regulator), thinning of the frontal cortex (your brain’s executive function), and reduction in gray-matter volume (your information processor) have all been documented and help to explain the memory, mood and attention struggles experienced by individuals with burnout.  

Add to this neuroendocrine system disruptions leading to the overproduction of cortisol, low-grade inflammation and increased risk of coronary heart disease, and you have a ticking time bomb until brain health can be restored.

Recovering from Burnout

If your organization is adopting best practices in burnout prevention (e.g., establishing no-tolerance policies for toxic behavior, promoting sustainable workloads and work/life balance, enabling individual growth), we at WorkLife applaud this.  But if you’re already affected by burnout, you’ll want to commit to a recovery plan that puts your brain’s health front and center.

While much has been written on the benefits of rest and self-care, a simple reframing and focus on caring (deeply) for your brain, provides a new and powerful lens through which daily choices can be made.  And while self-care comes in many forms (all beneficial), the focus on brain health helps individuals target the heavy-hitters: meditation, moderate exercise (think 30 minutes of walking each day), and connecting with other people.  Done regularly and over time, all three activities have documented impact and fully capitalize on the brain’s remarkable plasticity, both restoring and resetting healthy brain function.

Weaving these brain boosting activities into an overpacked schedule can be a challenge, but WorkLife Partnership’s Resource Navigators can help anyone begin. Not only will connecting with a supportive and knowledgeable helping hand have benefits for the brain (connection – check!), but WorkLife Navigators are experts at guiding people through change and finding the resources people need to succeed with their goals.

Learn more about how WorkLife Partnership can support burnout recovery for your workforce:Contact us.