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  • Writer's pictureMarie Simonsen

Stress and Burnout – The disease of the 21st century

Understanding the body’s unconcious reactions to release the feeling of shame and guilt

by Marie Simonsen , Exective Master HEC Paris & Certified EMDR and TRE Practitioner

Today’s business world is complex and in constant transformation. Employees at all levels in the hierarchy are under high pressure and this can have serious consequences on each individual’s health and as a consequence directly impact the financial results of the company. According to Harvard Business Review the estimated cost of the psychological and physical problems of burned-out employees is estimated to $125 billion to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the US, but the true cost to business can be far greater due to low productivity, high turnover and the loss of the most capable talent.

A lot is expected from today’s workforce. Harvard business publishing has identified 20 capabilities required to manage in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. 8 of these are identified as critical ; Develop personal adaptability, cultivate learning agility, leverage networks, inspire engagement, manage complexity, act strategically, manage global business and foster innovation. In other words, today’s leaders are expected to excel in many areas while the pressure is constantly increasing. This leadership ideal describes an omnipotent leader who should excel in a wide variety of fields. However, when we examine the general health of companies today, we notice that there is a lot of suffering and this is a trend that is infused at all levels in companies.

More than 2,5 million French employees currently suffer from burnout, according to the French Consultancy firm Baromètre Empreinte Humaine (Report published in September 2021). According to a study conducted by Malakoff Humanis in September 2021, 43% of French employees consider that their companies do not take enough into account the psychological suffering at the workplace. Only one third has put in place significant initiatives where top management is involved. According to the Global Workplace Report in 2021, 43% of people from over 100 countries claimed to have experienced workplace burnout. According to Harvard Business Review, one out of two millennials has already quit a job to preserve their psychological health. Psychological and physiological suffering increase in today’s corporate world. Stress and anxiety affect our behaviour and this happens on an unconcious level. Awareness and understanding of the biological mechanisms around the body’s stress response can help individuals cope and also heal from the damages caused by stress and burnout.

The neuro-science behind stress and the consequences on our behavior

Impulsive reactions, short sighted behaviors, bad decisions, depression, stress-related illnesses and substance abuse can all be the consequences of an overly stressed body and mind. During highly stressful events and stress experienced over time, the body can respond as if the individual was enduring a traumatic event. What is important to recognize is that our reactions are instinctual and therefore not under concious control. The body starts to produce more of the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and the frontal lobes of the cortex are disengaged by the activation of the limbic system and the brainstem. The goal of the brain is to activate our instinctive survival responses. The human organism hasn’t changed for the past 200 000 years, but our lives have! In the past when living on the Savannah, the body’s stress response would save us from dangerous animals and death. When the danger was over, the body would go back to a state of peace and relaxation. Today, the human body’s stress response is often activated by a very different type of threat ; a toxic boss, an important deadline, target achievement, pressure to remain in a certain position and the list goes on. We can become so accustomed to produce high levels of adrenaline and cortisol that the body automatically raises the baseline production of these chemicals when we no longer need them. In today’s world the body will often never go back to a state of rest and peace but constantly remain in a state of arrousal caused by stress hormones. Essentially, we become addicted to our own chemicals. Accompanying this adrenaline production is a reduction in serotonin. Serotonin is the « feel good drug » in the body. It is the chemical that inhibits us from acting on our aggressive impulses. Decreases in serotonin in humans, has repeatedly been correlated with impulsivity and aggression. The difficulty arises when the person leaves the stressful environment and returns to a normal environment. Their biochemical responses are still highly activated even though they are no longer necessary. This is what causes an individual to have an exaggerated reaction to normal everyday stressors. Stress and burnout and other forms of corporate suffering are all symptoms of this neurological separation. When we realize that our stress responses are not ourselves and that we can work them through and thus beccome ourselves, we then realize that we are not weak and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Burnout is when the body says no, because the mind is not setting the necessary boundaries for self protection.

Leadership, safety and our nervous system

Nelson Mandela refers to leadership in his book Long Walk to Freedom. In this autobiography he explains how one of the leaders from his tribe speaks about leadership : « A leader, he said, is like a shepard. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, wherupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind ». As Mandela points out, the true leader walks behind but he is present and he creates the feeling of safety, so each individual can build on their personal strenghts. This type of leadership makes people feel secure. When human beings feel safe they have access to their rational and creative capacaties and they maintain a healthy bio-chemical balance in the body. These are critical skills in today’s world and definately something companies should value in the competetive VUCA world. So when the body shows symptoms of burnout, don’t feel ashamed. Listen to the intelligence of your nervous system and tell yourself that your body is just protecting you from a perceived danger.

Burnout should be taken seriously - healing and recovery is possible. For more information visit my website at :

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