The Doctor Is In

The Biggest Problem With Ignoring Your Burnout

Is the syndrome something we necessarily have to push past?

Experts talk about the risks of ignoring burnout, from mental health issues to social isolation.
Sergey Narevskih/Stocksy

Six years ago, Mariette Lynn Clardy-Davis was in her Miami hotel room during a consulting trip when she felt like she was breaking. The compliance consultant and attorney, who was 34, was burned out. She’d been working up to 60-hour weeks, juggling volunteer and community commitments across church, choir, and friends, and didn’t see a way through her constant sense of fatigue. She called her therapist, expressed what she was feeling, and checked herself into a behavioral health treatment center a few days later, hoping to decompress. She stayed for two weeks, taking medical leave from work to do so, then returned to her job. Less than a month later, she was back in the treatment center. That time, she stayed for a month.

After Clardy-Davis’ second stay, she realized she had to take her burnout seriously. “I had to give myself the grace to realize that the only obligation I have to myself, to keep myself alive and as strong as I can [be],” she says.

She worked with her employer to adjust her schedule so she could attend therapy appointments, and began using software to help her proof documents when her anxiety kept her from focusing on them. She also paused her extracurriculars until she felt better.

Today, Clardy-Davis’ day-to-day working life is much different — for example, she no longer needs to jolt her nervous system into calming down by sticking her hands in cold water multiple times a week, and she can mediate for 30 minutes at a time instead of two or three — but she recognizes that she could still slip back into it if she’s not careful.

“It’s OK for us to not be OK.”

She’s since opened her own firm, M.L. Clardy Law, LLC. One of the services Clardy-Davis now offers her clients is Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation counsel. She works with her clients’ employers to put accommodations in place for their mental and physical health needs, which was the help she needed in order to successfully return to work after her “full and complete breakdown.”

Clardy-Davis’ work is especially meaningful to her because she knows she’s setting an example. “As a professional woman of color and a millennial, when I went to go seek tools and help, many times I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” she says. “When you don’t see anyone, you feel like you’re alone.”

In 2018, a Deloitte study of 1,000 employees found that 77% of American professionals had experienced burnout at their current job. That number’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. In 2020, 30% of essential workers reported a decline in mental health, according to the American Psychological Association, and those who have been lucky enough to work remotely have seen their social lives pared down while work expectations ballooned. Living through a crisis takes a toll.

While some people manage on their own, others, like Clardy-Davis, don’t take their burnout seriously until it's impossible to ignore. She’s found many clients, especially those in leadership positions, have struggled more in the last year than they have in their entire careers.

Below, medical professionals share what you risk if you don’t address your burnout.

Higher Rates Of Depression, Anxiety, & Other Mental Health Issues

A 2019 meta-analysis of multiple studies published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that while there’s no clear causal link between burnout and depression or anxiety, burnout is associated with both conditions. “It starts with our bodies, physical symptoms like headaches, feeling worn down, the cold you can’t shake,” says Pittsburgh-based social worker Sharise Nance, who specializes in compassion fatigue. “And there’s a lot of crossover with mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety.”

When your nervous system is experiencing long-term burnout, she says, it can show up as constant stress and malaise. Tasks can feel like they have no purpose, and optimism can be hard to come by. In extreme cases, including cases where patients have other diagnosed mental health conditions, it can lead to suicidal ideation.

When Nance sees clients who have mental health issues as a result of burnout, she starts by encouraging them to tweak their day-to-day schedules in order to find more space to decompress. She also helps them find self-care strategies, such as journaling, taking time off work, and saying “no” to requests for their time. In some cases, she refers them out for a psychiatric evaluation.

But accessing help, whether psychological or psychiatric, for burnout-related mental health issues isn’t always easy. For Dr. Rinki Goswami, M.D., an internal medicine resident in Ohio, she couldn’t find the time. She realized she was burning out while serving patients during the pandemic. At one point, she worked four months without a weekend off — instead of the usual four weeks. She was depressed, irritable, and unable to deal with others’ feelings. It took her three months to get an appointment with a therapist. “And that’s as someone with significant amounts of privilege,” Goswami says, “who knows how to navigate everything, has insurance, and who works in a hospital.”

Risks To Physical Health

Social determinants of health, which Goswami defines as things like a person’s education, socioeconomic status, employment, and neighborhood, don’t only affect access to mental health care. They also impact the toll burnout can have on someone’s physical health.

A 2017 study published in the scientific journal PLOS One found that burnout was a significant predictor of physical consequences like Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, muscle and joint pain, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, and mortality under the age of 45.

“If you’re more affluent, you can address burnout so that you don’t get to the point where you’re having to deal with chronic diseases,” says Goswami, who sees more physical complications of burnout from people in working-class jobs, which are disproportionately held by people of color. “If you’re forced to work in certain conditions [while] dealing with burnout, you might be less likely to take care of yourself physically and end up with more chronic diseases, because you’re just so tired from all the other things.”

Weakened Personal Relationships

For people stuck in a cycle of burnout and fatigue, their relationships are at risk, too. “Even making regular phone calls or being supportive of your partner or your family members, it’s impossible to put yourself out there,” says Goswami.

In the Deloitte survey, 83% of respondents noted that work burnout can negatively impact their personal relationships. A 2015 study of nurses in China found that the more burnout they experienced, the lower levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions they noted, including when it came to their satisfaction in their relationships.

Nance often sees that her burnout clients will socially isolate themselves. “When someone is experiencing burnout, they become really drained,” she says. “It can come across as them being distant [or] anti-social. It’s a way of them protecting themselves and their energy.” She’s noticed this particularly among Black women, who she sees grind through burnout without calling on their communities for support.

“As a Black woman, there are expectations that come from our community,” she says. “You’re running yourself into the ground because you don’t want to disappoint anybody. I’m tired of being the ‘strong Black woman.’ It’s generational. … I love my elders and my ancestors, and I’m thankful for them being trailblazers and paving the way, but I rebuke that. It’s OK for us to not be OK. We’re going to burn out, and we are [at risk of having] nervous breakdowns if we don’t acknowledge it.”


Sharise Nance, LCSW, CCTP, social worker, author, founder of Vitamin C Healing

Dr. Rinki Goswami, M.D., MSc, internal medicine resident