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New Research Reveals Another Reason to Keep Burnout at Bay — Your Heart Health

If it wasn’t enough that burnout can ruin your career and personal life, new research shows it condition can also harm your physical health.

If it wasn’t enough that burnout can harm your career and personal relationships, new research shows that the condition can also affect your physical health. Burnout, also known as “vital exhaustion,” comes from excessive or prolonged stress at work or home — and it can lead to life-threatening heart problems, according to a large study published in the European Journal of Cardiology.

What Did the Study Find?

The research included more than 11,000 people, who were surveyed for vital exhaustion, anger, antidepressant use, and poor social support, and monitored for 25 years. Researchers found that participants with the highest levels of vital exhaustion had a 20% higher risk of developing atrial fibrillation when compared to those with little or no signs of burnout.

Atrial fibrillation— which affects 2.7 to 6.1 million Americans and is on the rise— increases the risk of stroke.

“Vital exhaustion represents a combination of fatigue, irritability, and demoralization,” study author Parveen K. Garg, MD, says. “It’s a sense of fatigue or lack of energy that persists even after getting a good night’s sleep. The constant feeling of fatigue can subsequently result in feelings of irritability and demoralization. Exhaustion occurs when the stresses in our lives are profound and go unchecked for prolonged periods of time.” Dr. Garg adds: “We already know that exhaustion can be harmful to one’s overall mental well-being, but the study findings are important because they suggest that vital exhaustion may affect one’s heart, as well.”

Strategies to Prevent Burnout and Protect Heart Health

Fortunately, many of the habits that combat burnout because they boost one’s mood also have a direct impact on heart health. For example, Dr. Garg recommends regular exercise, a well-balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and practicing stress reduction. Therapy is invaluable, but even debriefing with a coworker after a tough shift can make a difference. Spending more time outside, yoga, and meditation are also effective strategies.

But before you begin to prioritize healthy habits, you must be aware that you are struggling with burnout in the first place, stresses Stéphane Manzo-Silberman, MD, spokesperson for the European Society of Cardiology. Once you’ve completed this step, Dr. Manzo-Silberman says you should preserve your personal environment as a source of “support and well-being.” 

When your professional life is super demanding, as it is when you work in healthcare, finding the right balance is vital, she adds. Another strategy is to think about your life as a pie, which includes a job, relationships, family, faith — whatever is important to you.

“All needs their equal place, and it will result in overall health benefits,” Satjit Bhusri, MD, FACC, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, New York, said. “We can all benefit from work-life balance and daily mindfulness.”

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