Sometimes, it can feel like you’re on the right track with nearly everything — eating healthy, logging your food, getting enough sleep, making exercise a consistent priority and staying hydrated — and yet you’re getting no closer to your weight-loss goals. Worse, you might be headed in reverse, toward gaining some weight back you thought was gone for good.
A new study suggests all those good lifestyle habits might be sabotaged if you’re dealing with burnout. Even if you have a workplace wellness program, it might not be enough to counteract the negative effects of stress. As you stay in that state of chronic overwhelm, those healthy choices are more likely to slip.
“Job demands and burnout are rarely, if ever, incorporated into wellness or weight-loss interventions,” says Heather Padilla, PhD, lead author of the aforementioned study and assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health. “But that’s a problem, because if your energy is used up by working all the time, you often don’t have enough left to make healthy decisions about food and exercise.”
Looking at the relationship between workload, exhaustion and health behaviors, Padilla and her colleagues asked nearly 1,000 people questions related to how much work they were expected to do, at what speed and if they agree with statements like, “After work, I usually feel worn out and weary.”
They also asked about eating behaviors and exercise to measure levels of potential emotional eating, binge eating, percentage of calories from less-than healthy food and physical activity frequency and intensity.
They found the higher the workload and exhaustion levels, the more likely participants were to report poor eating choices and sedentary behavior. And the more they tended to struggle with weight gain, Padilla adds.
“Job burnout simply isn’t addressed often enough as a potential root cause of weight issues for many people,” she says.
Feeling stressed and overwhelmed occasionally is a part of many careers, especially when big project deadlines loom and meetings get stacked up.
But there’s a difference between normal work exhaustion, when you just feel like crashing out on the couch at the end of the day, and actual burnout — which can become a chronic condition that has numerous health impacts, according to Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, PhD, a New York-based clinical psychologist.
“Recognizing the early signs of burnout can be helpful for taking steps to shut it down before it becomes a major problem,” she says. “Often, people think burnout just feels like a higher level of stress, but that’s not true.”
When you’re stressed, you tend to feel irritated, frazzled and easily distracted, but you’re still able to complete most tasks. You tip into burnout when those projects are much harder to complete, deadlines whoosh past and you begin to dread the workday ahead.
Also, rather than the irritability that comes with stress, those with burnout are more likely to feel indifferent and numb, as if they can’t muster the energy to care about work.
All of this can lead to difficulty sleeping, drinking more alcohol, decreased sense of accomplishment, more self-doubt and being more prone to colds and the flu. Weight gain is also common, especially around the belly because of the increase in cortisol, the hormone related to your stress response, notes Molly Devine, a North Carolina-based registered dietitian.
“Burnout and weight gain very frequently go together,” she says. “This happens because of cortisol, but also because people who are burned out try to find ways to comfort themselves and feel better. Food may become that emotional go-to.”
If you’re tipping into burnout territory, it’s time to start implementing some downshift strategies. You might think your boss may not love your switch away from always-on employee, but considering the way that burnout can tank your productivity reserves, it’s actually a move in the right direction.
Consider self-care moves like making exercise a priority and putting it on the schedule, sticking to a consistent bedtime, increasing break times at work and delegating tasks you don’t need to do. Get outside, drink some water and do some deep breathing. Don’t be afraid to see a professional if you can’t seem to get a handle on the stress on your own.
“Putting these strategies in place now, even when you’re not feeling burned out, can make a huge difference,” says Devine. “You don’t come up with an evacuation plan when your house is on fire. So, don’t wait until you’re feeling burned out to implement lifestyle changes that make a difference.”