Hearing loss and burnout – is there a link?

Is a hearing loss a contributor to a burnout?

In February last year, I was invited to annual event at Thomas More University in Antwerp, Belgium to discuss hearing loss and functionality .The question of link between hearing loss and burnout was raised during the event and from the perspective of lived experience, I would say yes, there is a link.

While for majority people without any health or disability issues it may not apply directly, hearing loss can be a major contributor to newly classified health condition – burnout. WHO describes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” , and when you add managing hearing loss in what is often very stressful environment, we have to take notice. Following WHO definitions, burnout consist of 4 core symptoms clusters and 3 secondary symptoms clusters as illustrated below.

So how hearing loss being connected to burnout? Recently I have seen more talks, articles in deaf and hard of hearing circles discussing” listening fatigue” and “concentration fatigue”, while this is not new experience, it is given a name and brings explanation to common feeling among us of “crashing out”, exhaustion after long day at work.

A study by Vanderbilt University has looked at listening fatigue in school children with hearing loss, and makes important connection between hearing loss and fatigue.

When hearing loss is present, the brain has to compensate for the loss and work harder than before to process the same information, causing stress on the brain and finally fatigue.…. This breakdown in speech understanding brings about increased listening effort, which in turn results in a reduction in available processing capacity that might otherwise be used for other purposes, such as memory recall (Hornsby 2014)

Indeed, it must be exhausting to keep listening during lessons and participating in social activities. We do not always realise how much effort it takes to manage difficult listening situation daily and how often it makes us too tired at end of the day. While the focus is on children in classrooms, we need to look at adults with hearing loss as well. We cannot choose where we work, the environment we are in. Even with use of assistive devices or programs to support hearing in noise, we are still finding ourselves exhausted at the end of the day.

Functionality and hearing loss is gaining attention of the professionals seeking to improve hearing care provision. The hearing care professionals also realise, life is very noisy and often challenging for hard of hearing people, even after they are fitted with their hearing aids! This is positive trend and we should encourage more discussions, but aside talking about this subject, what can be done to try and mitigate effect of hearing loss related stress which can lead to burnout?

First, we need to recognise how daily life is affecting us and for audiologist to communicate this as part of counselling. Being able to select best device fitting persons hearing profile and work-life lifestyle can be mitigating tool. How does this applies to cochlear implant users? It has same application of listening in challenging environment and our brains working harder to understand speech.

However, despite the best intentions and support, listening and concentration fatigue still happens. Some people can adapt easily and manage their hearing loss, but others cannot, they need support and reasonable adjustments to help them all to thrive. Being aware of the potential of burning out is important.

With Covid-19 bringing radical change in how we work and interact, people with hearing loss face increasing challenges when members of public and colleagues wear face masks. No longer possible to rely on lipreading, stress levels and frustration increase. Online meetings can also have issues such as issues with sound and video quality all contribute to higher levels of energy consumed by hard of hearing and deaf people alike. Have you heard of  “zoom fatigue?”. It is most talked about topic lately discussing how people with typical hearing need to recover from online meetings. People with hearing loss experience this daily! Add to this mix tinnitus and vertigo issues, and it can really be exhausting.

With the ongoing pandemic, we are reinventing the way we work. Virtual meetings can have added value of seeing face of the speaker closer for lipreading and to have good sound, however there are pitfalls too, when video freezes or participants do not use videos and participate by audio only. Those instances add extra burden for people with hearing loss and it can be exhausting. There are ways to help with overstimulation and feeling exhaustion.

Having real time captioning at the meeting, events and during lectures, both onsite and online can relieve listening fatigue as it allows to give a bit of rest from high level of concentration required while listening. Make sure you allow for “time out” to help with relaxing and to recover energy levels. Timed breaks can provide respite which can benefit everyone.

While listening fatigue affects people with hearing loss, a burnout also affects all persons with disabilities battling inaccessible society and attitudes. Talk to your employer if you find yourself exhausted after all day of work, and request reasonable adjustments. Work together on finding good solutions and consider flexible working time.

If you are interested in this topic, I suggest checking the burnout assessment tool from IDEWE.

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