As the workplace headed into 2022—the third year of the pandemic—the incidence of job stress and burnout jumped to an all-time high. The American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-Being study found that 79% of the 1,501 employees surveyed experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey. Three in five workers said work-related stress caused them to have a lack of interest, motivation and energy at work. Plus, 36% had cognitive weariness, 32% emotional exhaustion, and 44% physical fatigue—a 38% jump from 2019.
Work stress shows up from our jobs in numerous ways. That sinking feeling before a presentation to colleagues or struggling with an impossible deadline. The negative chatter circling in our heads like a school of sharks. “Workjerkery,” pressures and demands from upper management. Or lately being forced back into the office after feeling productive working from home during the pandemic.
According to a Future Forum Pulse survey, work stress is at an all-time high, and work-life balance is at an all-time low. In April of this year, work-related stress hit its highest level since surveys began in the summer of 2020 as more workers are pulled back into full-time office positions after pandemic quarantines. These statistics are alarming because chronic work stress can cause brain damage.
Neurological Dangers Of Chronic Work Stress
We know that professional football players and boxers suffer brain damage from constant punches to the head. But recent research shows that acute stress also causes structural changes in the brain circuitry that can cause long-term harm on the nervous system. Chronic job stress such as an abusive boss, sexual harassment, a bully coworker or a work culture that thrives on crisis, chaos and pressure are examples of work stress that can cause atrophy of the brain mass and decrease in brain weight.
Prolonged cortisol levels that accompany chronic stress damage the brain’s hippocampus, creating loss of long-term memory and harm the brain’s prefrontal cortex necessary for focused attention and executive functioning. Other changes include increases in anxiety, mood disorders and decreases in cognitive flexibility. New research shows that chronic stress can even raise the risk of degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
In a healthy brain and in the short term, these changes are reversible, but over the long haul brain damage can persist. Although working under constant threat of job loss, fear of reprimands from management or financial uncertainty can raise your risk of physical and mental illness, there are steps you can take.
How to Prevent Brain Damage From Work Stress
Your work health is essential for long-term mental and physical viability and the trajectory of your career. If you toil in an toxic work culture, it’s important to weigh your options and find a workplace that prides itself on employee-centered empathy and care. These work cultures are increasing as a result of the pandemic and The Great Resignation and employee demands for positive change. Even if you work in a healthy environment, chronic stress doesn’t give your body a chance to return to its natural resting state. The key is to have a stress care plan to offset any potential stress damage so you can reset your brain and keep it healthy.
Here are 10 science-backed steps you can take to prevent brain damage from chronic job stress and thrive at work:
1. Meditation limits cortisol levels by 25%, according to research, and it reduces mind wandering and mistakes, keeping you on task at work.
2. Four Brain foods promote mindful productivity and career health: protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and Vitamin D.
3. Regular exercise such as brisk walking re-calibrates a fatigued brain and reduces your risk of developing anxiety by almost 60%.
4. Positive self-talk can stop catastrophic mind chatter that causes work stress and keep you calm in stressful situations.
5. Sleep deprivation leads to brain stress, and ample sleep is restorative for your brain health.
6. Microbreaks—short breaks of five minutes—throughout the workday mitigate brain fatigue and keep your brain rested and clear.
7. Mindful abdominal breathing keeps your brain sharp and focused in the present moment when job stress steals your breath away.
8. A positive outlook gives you better memory at work. Plus, looking for the opportunity in the problem helps you scale the career ladder faster and farther than pessimism, according to research.
9. Brain scans of people who spend time outdoors show their prefrontal cortex has more gray matter and a stronger ability to think clearly and self-regulate.
10. Social engagement mitigates cognitive decline and enhances gray matter in the brain. So it’s important to avoid working in isolation and maintain social connections with coworkers to keep your brain active and healthy.
Don’t wait for your company to decide what’s in your best mental and physical health interests. You’re in control of your health, not your employer. Evaluate your job and life and decide for yourself what’s reasonable. How long and far are you willing to continue working under chronic stress? Exactly what is it about your job that stresses you out? Is it the boss from hell? Inflexible schedules? Boredom with tedious work? Not enough money? Long hours? Heavy workload?
Your workplace shouldn’t make you sick. Be prepared to put your foot down if you believe your employer oversteps their boundaries. Drawing a line in the sand when you’re under stress and burnout without feeling guilty or disloyal is a healthy practice. There are other workplaces where you have choices to stay late, work weekends or enjoy a remote or hybrid schedule. If you’re in a toxic work environment, it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health when other job openings prioritize your emotional and physical well-being.
You’re not weak or selfish if you refuse to subject yourself to mistreatment. You’re a normal person responding to an abnormal work situation.
According to Joe Mercurio, project manager for Skynova, companies that allow work stress to run roughshod over their workforce are in for a rude awakening.“It might be time for employers to start listening to employees,” he said, “because 78% of employees with rigid schedules are considering finding another job.”