Burnout – more than jst a fashionable complaint

Blurry image of busines people walking around (Rainer Sturm/pixelio.de)
The increasingly hectic professional and personal life takes its toll (Rainer Sturm/pixelio.de)

Hardly any other mental impairment has received as much attention in recent years as the burnout syndrome.

Burnout cannot be counted as a disease by definition; the clinical pictures are too diffuse and includes too many different symptoms. Nevertheless, more and more people fall ill to it.

Scientific definition

When speaking of mental illness, the term “burnout” comes up quickly these days. The International Classification of Disorders does list the term burnout, however, not as a real illness but as a so-called state image under the heading "problems related to difficulties in coping with life".

The psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger considered burnout as a state of exhaustion and frustration caused by unrealistic expectations. He defined burnout as consumption of energy – exhaustion due to excessive demands by family, work, friends, lovers, value systems, or society – that robs a person of all energy, coping mechanisms and inner strength.

Burnout is a feeling state that is accompanied by excessive stress, and ultimately affects the personal motivations, attitudes and behaviour.

Far more than a "managerial disease”

Burnout has long been known as "managerial disease". But it can affect each and every one, particularly vulnerable people who focus on relations with other people such as managers in middle management level, teachers, doctors or nurses but also politicians.

More and more employees are suffering under high workload, time pressure, increasing responsibility with perhaps little support, bullying and the fear of job loss.

This is reinforced by a permanent availability by mail, phone or tablet PC and to the concomitant use of social media, which also needs to be learned.

More women than men are affected. They often struggle with the double taxation as a career woman and mother, combined with too high expectations that bring them to their limits.

Burnout or depression?

A basic rule is that burnout is mostly work related, causally linked with excessive energy consumption. Meanwhile, a depression pervades all areas of life without having to have a specific origin.

If left untreated, a burnout can lead to serious illnesses such as depressions but it can also cause pain without actual physical cause.

The end of a development process

Burnout can occur suddenly but usually it is only the end of a long development process. The precursors are, for example, increased work activity with reduced performance, restlessness, a feeling of never having time, neglecting your own needs, fear of failure, insomnia, depression, an increased potential for aggression – as well as symptoms such as heart problems, high blood pressure, headaches and tinnitus .

If these warnings are ignored and a burnout occurs thereno way out without therapeutic help; accompanied by technical and changes in the work and in private environment.

However, it is usually a long process that most of the affected people must go before they receive medical help and can admit that they actually have a serious illness. Because having the understanding that they have reached their personal limits is always associated to the constraint of having to change life and possibly face an uncertain future.

The best treatment is, therefore, not letting it get that far. Warning signals by the body should be perceived to give counter-control.

Employers must carry out social responsibility

The changing business life challenges not only the employees but also the employers who need to be aware of their social responsibility. What is needed is a real health management.

To be successful, companies need healthy, committed and qualified employees. For those, not only the physical and mental health is important but also motivation, job satisfaction and work climate.


Text: P. Gunti – 03/2011

Translation: MPL

Pictures: DAK