When I was 19, I moved across the country and took a year off school. To make ends meet, I worked two jobs and went weeks without taking a day off. I’d get home at 10 p.m. from my job at a chocolate shop and try to rush through a load of laundry, just to get up 5 a.m. the next day to go to my other job at a clothing store. After a couple of months working with just one or two days off, I was a mess. I was drinking too much (and drinking alone) to try to unwind after work and get to sleep, I was crying every day, and I felt totally empty. I was burnt out, and I needed to change my situation before I felt any worse.
This may sound like an extreme example—working seven days a week in the service industry is bananas—but think about the ambitious women you know who never take a day off. The ones who work full-time but also have side hustles they’re nurturing after work and on the weekends, not to mention caring for children, parents, friends, and partners, but rarely themselves. Sounds familiar, right? These days, more than half of millennials have a side gig, and more than two-thirds of Americans feel burnt out at work. The cherry on top? Most of us aren’t using our allotted vacation days, so we’re not even taking the time we need to rest and recharge.
While there’s no set medical definition of burnout, it’s typically characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, listlessness, and an inability to do simple tasks. It can also lead to substance misuse and abuse, as well as ulcers, heart disease and other serious psychological and physical ailments. It’s worth noting that depression can also be a cause of burnout (and burnout can cause depression), but that, of course, is a separate mental health issue that requires particular treatment. In some cases, burnout caused by work-related stress can be alleviated by reduced work hours, taking regular days off, and going on vacation—in short, you can conquer your burnout.
“Going more than seven days without taking a day off is harmful on your body and mind,” says Patrice N. Douglas, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “We need at least one to two days to recharge, whether it’s getting our needed amount of time to sleep, to focusing on other things that aren’t so draining—[it’s] what helps us to keep going.”
If you think you might be burnt out, keep reading to find out what can happen if you don’t take a day off. And of course, this article is no substitute for medical advice—talk to your doctor if you think you might be dealing with burnout or a mental illness like depression.
No surprise here—burnout is associated with high levels of exhaustion. Despite the fact that burnout isn’t an officially recognized mental disorder, research into work-related burnout has shown that exhaustion—feeling extremely tired, unmotivated, and emotionally overwhelmed—is common in over-stressed workers.
According to a 2017 report, “Managers, employees and workers in a variety of industries and sectors use the term [burnout] to describe feelings of stress, fatigue and exhaustion in the workplace and, more generally, in everyday life.”
Here’s a scary truth: Research has found that working long hours can lead to serious long-term health risks. One study found that working more than 11 hours per day was associated with a three times higher risk of having a heart attack, and a four times higher risk of developing diabetes.
Overwork leads to exhaustion, exhaustion leads to sleepiness, and all of the above leads to a higher chance of seriously injuring yourself. A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found that working overtime is associated with a 61% higher chance of injury than working regular hours. Plus, working long hours has been shown to up your chances of getting into a car accident.
Long, stressful work hours can throw off your body’s natural cortisol levels—the hormone that controls our fight-or-flight response and our body’s reactions to stress. If our cortisol levels get out of whack, our digestive systems can stop working the way they’re supposed to, causing an upset stomach.
If you’re stressed at work, it can be hard to unwind at the end of the day, but unwinding is key to getting a good night’s sleep. Research has shown that burnout leads to more trouble falling asleep at night, and fewer total hours of sleep. And too little sleep can lead to adverse health effects including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke—you need to get your zzz’s!
According to Douglas she often sees clients who come to her with depressive symptoms caused by burnout. “Many people feel restless or exhausted, do not feel pleasure in doing things they usually do, their mood is low and they may become irritable or isolated,” she says. “These symptoms mirror major depressive disorder, which can easily be caused by burnout.”
Aside from working less—seriously, we all need to put our side hustles aside sometimes and take a day off—Douglas says there are things we can do day-to-day to help reduce our chances of burning out.
“When we are burnt out, our productivity suffers in our work or businesses, our relationships suffer as we aren’t emotionally available to our loved ones, and our physical health can be impacted, such as migraines, hair falling out, low/or higher appetite or even stomach pains/ulcers,” she says. “Increasing your self-care daily will help prevent the crash and burn you may feel on your one to two days off. Exercising, watching a TV show, meditation, eating outside or trying something new will help keep your energy levels at a good rate so you can avoid burnout.”