The ISHN BlogAmericans work longer hours, take fewer vacations, and retire later than employees in most other industrialized countries, so it figures that many of us are prime candidates for job burnout -- the physical and cognitive exhaustion that comes from too much stress at work over a long period of time. So says an article in Fortune magazine.

45% of EHS pros surveyed by ISHN in September 2012 agreed that job burnout is a major problem in the EHS field due to increasing demands, lean budgets and staffs.

I would add, the fact that many ISHN readers are age 50+ (the majority actually) and have been toiling away at demanding work for more than 30 years now.

Another 17% “strongly agree” with the burnout factor. Taken together, that’s almost two-thirds of pros survey.

Research has shown that job burnout can lead to a range of health problems, including obesity, insomnia, and anxiety. It is important for health care providers to know that some of their patients are experiencing high levels of stress at work to monitor them closely for signs of coronary heart disease.

You can monitor yourself for these signs of burnout:

1. How often are you tired and lacking energy to go to work in the morning?
2. How often do you feel physically drained, as if your batteries were dead?
3. How often is your thinking process sluggish or your concentration impaired?
4. How often do you struggle to think over complex problems at work?
5. How often do you feel emotionally detached from coworkers or customers, and unable to respond to their needs?

Two or more responses of "often" or "always" are a red flag, according to burnout experts. They note time-tested stress reducers like exercise and more sleep could help. Looking for a different job might help even more.

Although looking for a new job in this economy if you are in your mid-50s or older is no small order.

But if you feel your job is doing you in, you’ll need to take matters into your own hands.

You are up against a powerful social stigma. OSHA, for instance, does not list job burnout or job stress in its A-Z list of occupational safety and health issues. It has zero, zip to say or advice on the subject. Why?

As OSHA boss Dr. David Michaels recently said at the AIHce meeting in Montreal: “Some people would look at my job and say I should be incredibly stressed. I’m not at all. I love my job.”

Corporations would put Dr. Michaels on the stand in court to defend themselves against charges that they burn out employees. “We have many employees who can handle the load. So why can’t you?”

Plus, in American society, resilience, endurance, energy, individual fortitude, and the ability to go it alone (Emerson’s famous self-reliance) are prized attributes. They help you get jobs. In the business world, to show signs of sliding in these areas are taken as signs of weakness, of being possibly damaged goods,  no longer up to the task.

So many people take personal burnout feeling and stuff them, hide them from co-workers and particularly bosses. Deny them to themselves.

One –third of ISHN’s readers say they do nothing to address their burnout symptoms.

Maybe they will feel different after reading this interview with Canadian physician and stress management specialist David Posen, author of a new book Is Work Killing You? A Doctor's Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress.

Q: What is it about the work environment today that seems to make it so much more stressful than in the past?

A: A lot of people talk about the fact that work is killing them. I would say it's killing their family life and their personal life. It's killing their spirit, and in some cases, it's causing very serious health problems. But the psychological effect of stress — after a while — is very damaging. They are not engaged and not enthusiastic. There's kind of an underlying resentment. There's a sullen compliance to the demands of work. They know they have to do it, but it's a struggle just to be there and be present and be focused.

Q: You've written about stress at work before. Now, though, you blame the workplace. Why?

A: I don't necessarily like the word "blame." I want to hold the workplace accountable and responsible for a good part of the problem. Too much of the onus been put on the employees to deal with their stress themselves, and their work-life balance. I believe now that the workplace is shirking its responsibility and generating stress that even the most expert stress manager can't dissipate. Downsizing is the biggest contributor to increased workload, which leads to longer hours. When researchers ask people why they're not taking better care of themselves, the No. 1 answer is "I don't have time."

Q: You identify three big problems that contribute to burnout and low productivity. What are they?

A: The first is the volume of work — the workload itself — which I attribute to too few hands to share the load. The volume of work contributes to longer hours that affects home life and family life. The second problem is what I call velocity — the pace of the workplace. Everything has gotten faster, largely because of technology, and expectations have increased. The third aspect is abuse. There's a pattern of being rude, embarrassing people in front of other people, of harassment, of bullying, of game-playing and head games. It can include sexism and racism and things like trying to steal credit for other people's work. It can come from colleagues, bosses and even subordinates.

Q: As a physician, you have insight into the biology of stress as well as the psychological effects. Why have some workplace changes contributed to individual stress?

A: First, people are expected to multitask. Really, what we're doing is switch tasking — toggling back and forth. But it's also very stressful for the brain and raises cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) levels, which have damaging effects for the whole body. Cortisol, when there's too much, also affects memory. Another aspect is multiple and conflicting priorities. Deadlines are getting tighter. That's tremendously stressful. People are being asked at job interviews if they're good at multitasking. We have to stop thinking of it as a virtue, because when we try to multitask, we are inefficient and make more mistakes.

Q: What has technology done to our stress levels?

A: It has increased the speed of not only the workplace but life in general to a level that is uncomfortable for most people and not sustainable. It has contributed to off-hours work. It's increased work hours. It has interfered with sleep. Reading on a tablet in bed — the light is coming at your eyes and it is biologically stimulating the brain to stay awake.

Q: So what can we do, other than quit our jobs?

A: I'm trying to raise awareness of this problem and make it OK to talk about it.

Stress is affecting everybody, all the way up the hierarchy. It's not just front-line workers.

The second thing is to identify small things that can make a difference and can help. For example, taking breaks throughout the day. There should be a mid-morning break, a break at lunch, a mid-afternoon break and a break at supper. In other words, we need to pace ourselves.

Every couple of hours, your energy and concentration start to flag anyway. Stress builds up and there's no time to let it settle. Taking time-outs through the day is crucial and everybody needs to understand this.

What individuals can also do is get the sleep they need. Not enough sleep makes us less resilient in dealing with stress and makes us less productive.

Another one is, people need to get regular exercise, which they are not getting — even walking around the block or walking at lunch or going to the gym.