Work Burnout and Sleep: Is Burnout Responsible for Your Sleep Problems?

Work burnout and sleep troubles often occur together, and much of this is because job-related stress can impact your health and your ability to sleep

By Nicole Gleichmann

Do you remember a time when sleep came so naturally that it wasn’t something you even thought about? You would just head to your bedroom after a busy day, slip under the covers, and miraculously, peacefully drift into dreamland. Come morning, you’d energetically pop out of bed, ready to start your day.

If you’re reading this article, chances are your relationship with sleep has become a bit more complicated. Somewhere along the path between childhood and the “real world,” effortless sleep vanished. Whether you find yourself unable to fall asleep at night or you feel like it’s impossible to drag yourself out of bed come morning, trouble sleeping can have a dramatic impact on your quality of life.

So, what changed? For many of us, sleep difficulties can be tied back to one thing: work burnout. In order to sleep better at night, addressing the burnout is a critical first step.

Tired female doctor trying to stay awake with cup of coffee while working at her office.

What is Work Burnout?

Work burnout isn’t a specific health condition, but rather a set of symptoms associated with work-related stress. Some of the common signs of burnout include:

  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty with focus and concentration
  • Irritability with others at work
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression or a low mood
  • High levels of anxiety, stress, or worry
  • Headaches and digestive upset
  • Feeling cynical or overly critical
  • Poor job performance

Work burnout can have one or multiple causes, including things like high work stress, unrealistic expectations, job instability, lack of appreciation, unhealthy workplace dynamics or relationships, or a poor work-life balance.

Why Work Burnout Impacts Our Health and Our Sleep

The primary way that work burnout and sleep are related revolves around stress. We all know what stress feels like. We experience it when we worry that we might lose our job, when our boss isn’t happy with our performance, or when we simply have too much on our plate at once. You might experience an elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and tightening muscles, which, when you think about it, aren’t exactly necessary for dealing with an emotional threat.

Evolutionarily, our stress response was designed to help us flee from danger. Mainly, to allow us to fight or flee when we encountered a predator.

Imagine that you came eye-to-eye with a tiger in the jungle. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline would be released, cueing a variety of physiological change. Blood would be diverted from your major organs and digestive tract to your major muscle groups. Your heart rate would quicken and your blood pressure would rise, pumping even more blood to your muscles to help you respond to danger. Simultaneously, your immune system response would be dampened to allow more resources to address the problem at hand. Once you escaped from the tiger, your body would return to normal.

But, as it stands today, our stress response is typically misused. It isn’t saving us from danger, but rather, treating every emotional trigger as if it were something that could kill us. With chronic stress, our bodies never have a chance to return to normal. This can cause damage to our mental and physical health, hindering our ability to enjoy a good night’s sleep.

How Work Burnout Can Lead to Sleep Troubles

Sleep troubles can be a clue that you’re suffering from burnout. There are many ways that burnout can influence your sleep.

1. Anxiety and Insomnia

Work-related troubles can make it hard to fall asleep or sleep through the night. In fact, some people have insomnia that is a direct result of chronic stress caused by work burnout. This lack of sleep can in turn contribute to your job burnout, making it harder to feel motivated or get along well with coworkers. When you are stuck in a cycle of work anxiety and insomnia, they can continue to exacerbate one another.

2. Related Health Problems and Trouble Sleeping

Have you ever noticed that you get a headache or stomachache when you’re feeling stressed? These effects demonstrate the whole-body impact that stress has. Over time, stress hormones and the related inflammation can damage tissues throughout your body, leading to things like irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, headaches, and nausea. These conditions can all interfere with your ability to sleep, particularly if you experience pain at nighttime.

3. Depression and Oversleeping

Do you find yourself sleeping in on the weekends way longer than your body needs because you just don’t have the drive to get yourself out of bed in the mornings? Or maybe you go to sleep earlier than you need to because you don’t have the desire to do anything else? This can be a sign of depression, a mood disorder that is often intricately tied to work burnout.

Some experts believe that work burnout itself causes depression. Having too much demanded of you, not being passionate about what you’re doing, not getting along with coworkers, or job instability can build up to the point where you begin to feel hopeless. Over time, job burnout can lead to depression, where even when you aren’t at work you have trouble finding motivation or feeling joy about things that would have otherwise excited you.

Yet, other experts hold that underlying depression can itself lead to job burnout. When you’re in a depressed mood, the demands of a job might be too much to handle. When there is instability or a disagreement, it can be harder to manage than it would be were you not depressed.

Whether depression leads to burnout, burnout leads to depression, or a little bit of both, depression often results in oversleeping. And sleeping too many hours can be just as detrimental to your health as sleeping too few hours. If you find that you’re regularly getting more than nine hours of sleep each night, it’s important to do what you can to normalize your sleep schedule.

4. Caffeine and Alcohol Disrupt Sleep

Some people will turn to caffeine and alcohol to cope with the effects of job burnout. Caffeine can help to provide you with energy and motivation, allowing you to pay attention all day. Alcohol can help you unwind after a long day’s work. Unfortunately, both caffeine and alcohol consumption impair your sleep. Caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep and alcohol can harm the quality of sleep that you get during the night. This is particularly true if you have either later in the day.

Improve Your Sleep by Addressing Work Burnout

It can be tempting to target sleep troubles themselves rather than track down what’s causing them. Many people who experience stress and burnout will use sleeping pills to help them get a good night’s rest. They will wake up and have coffee throughout the day just to get by. Instead, work to fix the cause of the problem: work burnout.

Talk to your family and friends to help you decide the best action to take. You might try stress management techniques like meditation and exercise. Even 30 minutes of meditation each night before sleep can help to relieve your stress and improve your sleep. Or you might find that changing your job is the only solution that will offer long-term results.

Just remember, try to do what is best for your physical and mental health. It will help improve not only your sleep, but your day-to-day happiness, too.

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