What is burnout?

Burnout facts

In the early 70s burnout was used to describe the consequences of people in health care who were exposed to severe stress and had difficulties coping with stress. Nowadays, everybody can experience burnout, from teachers to bankers and from self employed individuals to managers [1],[2],[3],[4].
When someone experiences a lot of stress (or is under a lot of pressure) for a long period of time and is unable to recharge enough emotionally and physically, then someone can slowly get burned out. Burned out individuals often report feelings of exhaustion, cognitive problems, difficulty concentrating, lack of empathy, motivation, and creativity. Also, burned out individuals report feeling cynical, irritable and take more sick leave, compared to healthy individuals. Experiencing traumatic or very stressful events can speed up the process of getting burned out, because it is more difficult to focus on one’s own needs. Neglecting personal needs, such as healthy nutrition, sufficient rest, exercise, and social interaction, make it more difficult to concentrate and enjoy life, can cause sexual problems, irritability, angry outbursts, a lack of appetite, and more [3],[6],[7].

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Burnout subscales

Researchers identified three burnout subscales: emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and professional efficacy [5]. People who are burned out do not need to score high on all three subscales, but a higher overall score indicates more and severe symptoms of burnout. Of the Dental medicine students at the universities of Manchester, Belfast, Helsinki, Amsterdam, and Cork, 39% displayed emotional exhaustion, 22% depersonalisation, and 41% had limited personal accomplishment [8]. Here is a brief definition of these subscales:

  • Emotional exhaustion: people scoring high on emotional exhaustion report feeling extremely tired, drained, and down; a lack of energy and the inability to recharge their energy levels.
  • Depersonalisation: people scoring high on depersonalisation have a distorted and impaired view of themselves, others, and one’s environment which is manifested by a lack of empathy, and often loss of motivation and a sense of isolation [8],[9],[10].
  • Professional efficacy: people scoring high on limited personal accomplishment experience concentration problems, find it difficult to focus on tasks, and have a negative attitude towards (work-related) tasks. These people also report being listless and a lack of creativity.

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On average, women score higher on the subscales emotional exhaustion and professional efficacy, whereas men score higher on depersonalisation [11]. Depersonalisation reduces stress, whereas professional efficacy increases stress [12]. The latter can be seen in academia where a lot of people with a PhD experience burnout symptoms. Read more about it here. In other words: a lack of empathy and reduced motivation and a negative attitude towards tasks seem to reduce stress levels. Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms are not enough to get rid of burnout.

Burnout versus depression

People may notice the similarities between depression and burnout, such as an overlap in symptoms: concentration loss, sleep problems, forgetfulness, and feeling tired/exhausted. However, there are differences between individuals who feel burned out or depressed. For instance, individuals who are depressed more often report a reduced sense of superiority and a perceived loss of status, than burned out individuals [17]. Individuals who are severely burned out more often meet the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (87.5%), than vice versa (26.2%), which suggests that burnout may lead to depression [18],[19],[20],[21]. Also, depression is associated with a lack of reciprocity in private life, whereas burned out individuals experience a lack of reciprocity at work (but not in private life) [20].

Burnout – sick leave

Being burned out reduces productivity at work [16], causes individuals to take longer sick leave [14],[15] and increases the risk of future absences because of mental and behavioural disorders or physical conditions [13],[14]. Also, more burned out people are present at work despite the fact that they are actually burned out [15], which indicates that the actual sick leave number should be higher. Having employees at work who are burned out is expensive for companies, due to the fact that they are less productive, make more cognitive mistakes, and are less motivated and engaged.

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  • [2] Vercambre, M. N., Brosselin, P., Gilbert, F., Nerrière, E., & Kovess-Masféty, V. (2009). Individual and contextual covariates of burnout: a cross-sectional nationwide study of French teachers. BMC Public Health, 9(1), 333.
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