Burnout: how to recognize it and to avoid it

Burnout or depression? One may get the impression that burnout sounds better than depression, fatigue syndrome or adjustment disorder. For this reason, the word “burnout” is often used indistinctly for any sort of mental illness.

Fact is, there are many types and degrees of disorders from which burnout might be difficult to distinguish. For example, what is the difference between a burnout and a depression?

Generally speaking, a burnout is usually related to the work situation, that is, a situation that arises out of an excessive energy output in the work environment. As opposed to this, depression generally affects all spheres of life without being related to a specific cause.

However, depression can also be the consequence of an advanced burnout that has not been treated, especially because, in the course of a burnout, certain problems can overlap in other spheres of life. So, as soon as depressive symptoms add themselves to an existing burnout, it is no more “just” a burnout, but an actual depression.
If untreated, a burnout can develop into a serious illness, such as a depression, but also to pains that have no physical cause.

The end of a development process

Just like a depression can have evolved out of a burnout, a burnout also does not just arise from one day to the next. It may however appear suddenly - a void, a complete exhaustion, when nothing more seems possible.

A burnout is only the end of a long development process. The previous stages can be, for example, an increase in the work load with a lesser capacity to handle, restlessness, the feeling of never having enough time, the neglecting of one’s own needs, the fear of failure, sleep disturbances, depressiveness, a heightened aggression’s potential, and other symptoms such as cardiac disturbances, high blood pressure, headaches or tinnitus.

When such signals are ignored and a burnout is knocking at the door, it is hardly possible anymore to get out of it without any therapeutic support and no changes in the work and private environment. The following preventive measures may provide some short-term relief to the situation, but hardly any long-term results.

However, it can take some time before a person decides to ask for help and admits he or she may be undergoing a burnout. Indeed, admitting to have reached one’s own limits is always connected to the necessity of bringing changes to one’s life and to look into an unknown future. Such consequences first need to be accepted.

Adopting a counterapproach

Consequently, the best therapy involves not letting it come this far. Warning signals from the body need to be taken seriously and addressed in time.

To achieve this, the possibilities are as varied as the symptoms of the illness: at the center of such an endeavour is on the one hand stress reduction, and on the other, knowing how to deal with time and relaxation.

  • Regular check-up of one’s own individual and professional goals
  • Separation of the private and professional life. Work is work, time off is time off.
  • Not overloading the leisure time. Just enjoy doing nothing.
  • Enjoy the stillness and pursue some meditative or contemplative activities
  • Nurture social contacts
  • Fresh air, sport
  • Sufficient sleep
  • Knowing how to deal with addictive substances such as alcohol or nicotine

Employers must address their social responsibilities

The changing working world does not challenge only the employees – indeed, employers also need to develop more awareness about their social responsibilities. However, this cannot mean, for example, to force the employee to take care of his health by providing him with a subscription in a fitness studio.

What is needed is a genuine health management program. Such a program can however only be successful when all levels and domains of the organisation are taken into account and when it is anchored in the management and leadership levels as well.

A business health management program must aim at maintaining or improving the health of its employees, not only by reducing the absences, but rather by giving them explicit appreciation of their work.

For an enterprise to be successful requires having healthy and engaged employees. To achieve this, physical and mental health alone are not enough – rather, aspects such as motivation, satisfaction and a healthy environment are as decisive aspects.

Text: P. Gunti – 03/2011
Translation: MyH – 03/ 2015
Photo: pixelio.de