Burnout

A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure. When it gets to the point that they feel exhausted, alienated, and unable to cope, it is often referred to as burnout. It is a reaction to being constantly overloaded in personal or work life.

At a glance

  • Symptoms that arise due to people being permanently overworked are often referred to as burnout.
  • Typical symptoms are exhaustion, alienation and reduced performance.
  • There is no exact scientific definition of “burnout”.
  • Constant stress at work leading to burnout is a common reason for people taking sick leave.
  • But the symptoms can also have other causes, such as depression or anxiety.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Burnout: man sitting in front of a screen with his eyes closed and his hand on his forehead.

What is burnout?

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s in the USA. The psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe the consequences of severe stress in “helping” professions. Doctors and nursing staff, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others in their work, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope.

Burnout is usually understood to be a personal crisis. It is a reaction to constant stress and overload in personal or work life.

Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions. Anyone can apparently get burnout, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees, students and homemakers.

Because there is no real definition, it’s not exactly clear what it means to have burnout and how it can be diagnosed, and it’s also not possible to say exactly how common it is.

What is a burnout?

The video below reports on the possible causes, risk factors, and symptoms of a burnout.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube.

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What are the signs of burnout?

All definitions of burnout given so far share the idea that the typical symptoms are thought to be caused by work-related or other kinds of stress. One example of a source of stress outside of work is caring for a family member.

Possible symptoms of burnout are emotional exhaustion, alienation from work and reduced performance.

There are three main symptoms that are considered to be signs of burnout:

Exhaustion

People with burnout feel drained and emotionally exhausted, tired and down, and don’t have enough energy. Physical symptoms include things like pain and gastrointestinal (stomach or bowel) problems.

Alienation from (work-related) activities

People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start feeling numb about their work, working conditions and even colleagues.

Reduced performance

Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and report they lack creativity and motivation.

Burnout: woman looking down with hand between nose and forehead.

What causes burnout?

Overburdening life situations can put people under extreme pressure. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms. Some people can get to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope.

Possible causes include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues or managers. Extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs may also be at the root of it. Problems caused by stress at work are a common reason for taking sick leave.

How is burnout diagnosed?

Unlike illnesses such as depression there is no clear definition for burnout. It is not yet recognized as a group of symptoms nor has there been enough scientific research into it.

Important: The symptoms that are said to be a result of burnout can also have other causes – for example depression, anxiety disorders or chronic fatigue syndrome. It is therefore important to also consider these conditions in the case of symptoms such as exhaustion and reduced performance. Physical illnesses or certain medications can also cause symptoms similar to those of burnout.

There are various questionnaires for self-assessment, but it is difficult to say whether they are actually meaningful enough and suitable for distinguishing burnout from other illnesses like depression. Online questionnaires aren’t appropriate for ascertaining burnout either.

How can burnout be treated?

Changes made to someone’s working environment and working conditions can already make a positive difference. For “burnt-out” people who can no longer cope with the stress of caring for ill relatives, more concrete support in their daily life can help to improve their situation.

First, though, it is important to rule out whether the symptoms are caused by a different illness. Symptoms that also occur in depression, for instance, include:

  • extreme exhaustion
  • feeling down
  • reduced performance

Because the symptoms are very similar, it’s important not to (self-) diagnose burnout too quickly. Doing so could lead to the wrong treatment. For instance, people who are “only” exhausted because of work can recover if they take a long vacation or time off work. But if people with depression do so it might actually make things worse because the kind of help they need is very different, such as psychological treatment or certain medication.

Further information

For more detailed information about burnout, such as what it is and how burnout differs from depression, visit gesundheitsinformation.de.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG). As at:

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