What is burnout?

Just a few years ago, burnout was considered to be a special problem for teachers, nurses and managers. This emotional, physical and mental burnout can, however, affect anyone who suffers from severe stress. But what exactly is burnout and how do you recognise it? 

Burnout is described as a chronic, emotional and physical state of exhaustion. People affected are frequently overworked or overwhelmed and suffer from permanent stress and aggravation. Burnout syndrome develops gradually so that the first warning signs such as sleep disorders are frequently overlooked. The disease usually only becomes noticeable when permanent exhaustion, listlessness and fear of failure result in a significant deterioration in performance at work.

This phenomenon was first described in the 1970s by the American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger. The name of the syndrome essentially means "to burn out" and refers to a novel by the author Graham Greene. In "A Burnt-Out Case" he describes how an architect who is fed up of his job dared to escape from his life. The term burnout was also used by Freudenbergs' colleagues after he discovered it and the term became, thus, recognised worldwide.

In the past few decades, the number of people affected by burnout has increased significantly. According to estimates, around 30 % of all employees are at risk of developing burnout. This is primarily ascribed to changed work situations in many industries. Nowadays, each employee must take on more responsibility and simultaneously perform better. The stress resulting from this favours the development of burnout. 

What are the signs of burnout syndrome?

Burnout affects the body and the psyche. Generally, symptoms such as emotional and physical exhaustion and a deterioration in job performance are associated with it. However, sometimes the disorder can manifest with very different symptoms. Possible signs of burnout are:

  • Lack of energy and inability to recover
  • Memory and concentration Problems
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Fear of failure
  • Indifference and boredom
  • Disillusionment or despair
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling of weakness
  • Bitterness
  • Feeling of a lack of recognition
  • Low frustration threshold
  • Physical symptoms such as back pain or sleep disorders

How does burnout syndrome differ from depression?

Basically, it is difficult to distinguish between burnout and depression as both disorders have similar symptoms. This is partly due to the fact that there is no authoritative definition for burnout syndrome to date. Usually a difficult, strenuous and excessively stressful life situation is responsible for burnout.

Who is at risk?

To date, it is not completely understood how burnout develops. Causes are just as likely to include unfavourable living conditions as well as the personality of people affected or their private life.

Burnout very often affects people who are extremely dedicated to something, for example, nurses, paramedics, nursery-school teachers or teachers. So-called workaholics who always work overtime and persons with a pronounced helper syndrome and general overcommitment have a higher risk. The following factors also increase the likelihood of Burnout:

  • Large degree of responsibility with time pressure or boring routines
  • Unachievable Targets
  • High expectations of yourself
  • Unclear or changing success criteria
  • Shift work or highly varying work hours
  • Lack of opportunities for influence and Control
  • Poor working Environment
  • Fear of losing your job

Often, people are also affected who demand too much from themselves and want to carry out all their tasks perfectly, but have low self-esteem at the same time. They barely trust themselves to do anything and find it hard to deal with disappointments, frustration and mortifications as they lack suitable coping strategies.

How is burnout diagnosed?

Usually, the general practitioner is the first point of contact with suspected burnout. They will refer to a specialist, if required, usually to a psychologist or a psychotherapist.

Initially, it is important to exclude physical causes that could result in similar symptoms. For lasting fatigue, triggers such as a chronic infection, vitamin or mineral deficiency or an underactive thyroid may also be possible. In addition to blood tests and imaging procedures such as ultrasound examinations, a variety of standardised questionnaires help doctors to classify the disorder more precisely.

What help is available for burnout?

As burnout treatment must always match the patient's personality and circumstances, there is no standard therapy concept. In an early stage, it may suffice as intervention to take a longer break from stress, for example in the form of a holiday for several weeks or treatment at a health resort. Thereby, it is particularly important to forget about everyday life and to take your mind off things in a different place. Therapists can also help with the fight against mild burnout. Patients are usually encouraged by therapists to change their work situation and their expectations of themselves and to reconsider their job.

 Psychotherapy and especially behavioural therapy has proved to be helpful for more severe symptoms. This can take place in an outpatient or inpatient setting, e.g in a psychosomatic clinic. If needed, medications that are also prescribed for depression are also used.

What can you do to prevent burnout?

Burnout prevention measures are recommended at the very first signs of extreme occupational stress. Excessive pressures should not become a permanent condition, but must be reduced as quickly as possible. What is important for this is to incorporate regular time for relaxation. A healthy lifestyle is just as relevant as overcoming stress, that is a balanced diet with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as sufficient exercise. In addition, a stable social environment that also offers enough support during stressful work periods helps against burnout.

 If you would like to go into the topic of burnout in more detail, you can find other helpful information on our webpages.

Physical symptoms are typical

At first we are often tormented by physical symptoms and it is hard to recognise that they are symptoms of burnout:

  • Chronic pain
  • Functional cardiovascular Problems
  • Gastrointestinal Problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Poor concentration
  • Fatigue
  • Poor physical capacity and lack of drive

Other advice for strong nerves

  • Learn to say "NO"!
  • Do not put yourself under pressure.
  • Talk with friends and a therapist.
  • Do regular relaxation exercises (e.g., yoga, autogenic training, Tai Chi)
  • Benefit from the the sun and sport's capacity to heal: take plenty of exercise in the fresh air
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