Burnout – signs, therapy & prevention

Burnout - signs, therapy & prevention

Anyone who puts their foot down at work and constantly demands top performance from themselves runs the risk of developing burnout syndrome. Burnout can have a substantial impact on well-being and bring with it physical and mental health problems. Late effects are also possible. What are the exact causes behind burnout, what are the signs of the syndrome, and what are the options for prevention and treatment?

Definition: What is burnout?

The American psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout syndrome” for the first time in 1974. In doctors, he had identified a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion from prolonged and repetitive stress. Today, it is understood as a persistent reaction to stress in the working world that cannot be successfully managed. Burnout is thus not defined as a disease in its own right in the medical sense but as a work-related syndrome.

However, with its inclusion in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), burnout is now at least recognized as a syndrome that affects health.

 

Burnout: What are the possible causes?

The list of causes of burnout is long and varied. Factors that can trigger the syndrome include:

  • the ominous atmosphere at work or bullying
  • frequent overtime
  • long-term stress
  • a high pressure to perform
  • Fear of job loss
  • too high demands
  • constant time pressure
  • too short or no recovery periods

However, crises in the family or organizational weaknesses can also contribute.

In addition, there are organic causes that, as risk factors, can promote the development of burnout. Triggered by chronic stress, the stress regulation in the brain can be disrupted. This keeps the level of stress hormones, such as cortisol, permanently high. The tendency to develop such a regulatory disorder can be genetic, i.e. it can be inherited. Extremely negative experiences in early childhood (such as neglect or abuse) are also suspected of promoting the development of burnout syndrome.

In addition, some personal characteristics play a role in developing burnout. Read what these are below.

Which risk groups are particularly at risk?

Personal characteristics can also trigger burnout or at least promote it. It has been shown that it is more difficult for perfectionistic and idealistic people and people with a great need for harmony to say “no”. Therefore, they rarely manage to refuse overtime. The demands they place on themselves are often so great that failure is almost inevitable. The constant overload throws body and soul more and more out of balance.

In addition, the risk increases with:

  • people with multiple burdens
  • highly committed people with a high level of initiative
  • overly ambitious or achievement-oriented people
  • People for whom appreciation and recognition are critical
  • People who are bad at managing their time
  • People who cannot delegate work to others
  • People who ignore the body’s warning signals, such as fatigue

 

Identify signs of burnout.

The symptoms of the disease are very complex: some feel nervous and tense, restless and irritable. Others are depressed or anxious. Physical reactions can also be very different.

However, there are a few ubiquitous signs. Typical symptoms of burnout include:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • the feeling of not being able to achieve anything professionally or privately
  • a feeling of loss of control and helplessness
  • an indifferent to cynical attitude towards the job

Once the soul is so stricken, physical complaints can also manifest themselves. These include, among others:

Burnout develops in phases.

The disease does not appear overnight but develops over a more extended period. Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to the first symptoms and signs and react as early as possible.

Excessive commitment at work is the first behaviour that can mark the beginning of burnout. Affected people feel indispensable, their needs are neglected, and there is little space for relaxation. Hobbies and circle of friends should be more attention. It is difficult for the people concerned to calm down and relax when not working.

This phase of excessive commitment is followed by solid professional dissatisfaction, difficulty concentrating, restlessness, and increased conflicts in the private sphere or at work. At the same time, performance decreases.

To compensate for chronic stress, many people develop increased reward behaviour – either in the form of unhealthy food, through shopping or the increased consumption of addictive substances such as alcohol and pills.

Physical reactions usually only appear at a later stage of burnout. In the end, there is a physical, mental and emotional burnout.

Diagnose eines Burnouts

If burnout is suspected, the first point of contact is usually the family doctor’s office. Existing symptoms and the current life situation can be discussed in the doctor-patient conversation (anamnesis), and, if necessary, other diseases can be checked as triggers for the symptoms. Eligible diseases are, for example, deficiency symptoms or hypothyroidism.

If no organic cause can be identified and the signs point to burnout or another mental illness, a referral to a psychiatrist will usually take place. The living conditions and the existing symptoms are also discussed again. Specific questionnaires on the topic of burnout can support the diagnosis.

 

Burnout treatment: professional therapy

If burnout is present, therapy is essential to alleviate the symptoms and improve the quality of life of the person concerned. Different therapeutic methods are often combined to treat burnout.

Central therapeutic approaches are:

  • Behaviour therapy: This form of psychotherapy helps people deal better with stressful situations in the future. Those affected learn, for example, active stress management and better regulation of emotions such as aggression or fear.
  • Body psychotherapy: This includes the reduction of stress triggers, reflection on your needs and targeted relaxation. Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and qigong can help.
  • Physiotherapeutic treatment:  massages, tub therapy or moderate endurance training supplement the psychotherapy.
  • Psychotropic drugs: Psychotropic drugs can be used temporarily to treat acute symptoms. These can help with severe insomnia, for example.
  • Art therapy: Music therapy can also be used with other types of therapy.

In principle, it is advisable to change jobs or positions within the company in the event of burnout. In the case of severe symptoms, a temporary stay in a clinic specializing in burnout can also be helpful.

Sick leave for burnout

In the event of burnout, the family doctor can give the person concerned sick leave. The period for which a sick note is issued varies from person to person and depends very much on individual complaints and personal situations. In 2022, the average downtime of people with mental health problems in Germany was 39 days.

Burnout: possible late effects

Without a suitable therapy, burnout can lead to further complaints in the long term, which can manifest themselves both mentally and physically. For example, burnout can promote the development of cardiovascular diseases such as cardiac arrhythmias or high blood pressureTinnitus is also a disease that is often associated with burnout syndrome.

Depression and anxiety disorders can also arise as a result of burnout. The transitions between depression and burnout are fluid from a particular stage of burnout. The burnout syndrome is, therefore, sometimes referred to as a precursor to stress-related depression. Chronic stress can also promote the development of depression.

In addition, many people develop addictions in the sense of dependence on drugs, alcohol or medication to be able to deal better with chronic stress.

 

burnout prevention

Anyone who discovers the first signs of burnout should strive to change their deadlocked situation and bring more relaxation. This is how you can prevent the development of the syndrome. The priority is, therefore, an analysis of the life situation and the situations that trigger chronic stress. Due to the analysis, it may then be necessary to redefine your personal and professional goals.

Creating a new balance and finding your way back to a balanced life is essential. This includes:

  • enough sleep
  • a healthy diet
  • enough exercise
  • conscious time-outs and better stress management

Friends and family also contribute to more security and serenity when dealing with stress – they give the soul the support it needs.

Regular breaks should be planned into everyday life. For example, you can walk during your lunch break, get some fresh air, do sports after work, or listen to relaxing music for 20 minutes to switch off. Especially in stressful phases, the time you consciously invest in relaxation is well invested to prevent burnout.

 

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