What is the psychology of burnout


Burnout (synonym "The Burnout Syndrome") is a syndrome that is difficult to distinguish and therefore poorly defined with an "unspecific symptom pattern", so it is there are no typical symptoms, but symptoms that also occur in completely different diseases. The following are common ones Groups of symptoms to do, which are most visible in the job:

  • Mental symptoms: The psychological symptoms include emotional (e.g. feelings of guilt), cognitive (e.g. rigidity in thinking) and motor (e.g. tension) impairments. Furthermore, mental exhaustion, depression, emotional instability, aggressiveness, fears, nervousness.
  • Somatic symptoms: The physical symptoms show increased psychosomatic complaints (e.g. sleep disorders), illnesses (e.g. headaches) and physiological reactions (e.g. increased heartbeat rate). Furthermore, physical exhaustion, tiredness, sleep disorders, tension, digestive disorders, headaches, dizziness, hypertension, tachycardia (so-called "palpitations").
  • Cognitive symptoms: Concentration disorders, inability to make decisions, self-doubt, loss of all motivation, disappointment, resignation, boredom, feeling of total inner emptiness
  • Behavioral symptoms: Behavioral problems express themselves individually, e.g. in increased aggressiveness, excessive alcohol consumption or at work through absenteeism from work. Furthermore, hyper- or hypoactivity, impulsiveness, hesitation, postponing, increased consumption of addictive substances, high risk behavior, social withdrawal, neglect of leisure activities.
  • Social symptoms: Changes in dealing with other people (e.g. loss of positive feelings towards others), with colleagues (e.g. isolation) or in private life (e.g. loneliness) characterize social symptoms.
  • Attitude-related symptoms: In the case of burned-out people, the attitude towards their work also changes, whereby this can be seen, for example, in dealing with their clients (e.g. stereotyping of clients, cynicism) or at work (e.g. negative work attitude).

It is generally difficult to make a clear distinction between mental illnesses that require intensive drug and psychotherapeutic treatment and temporary exhaustion resulting from excessive demands at work or in private life. Before a final diagnosis should always be clarified medically whether a organic Causes such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism or an organically caused sleep disorder. The Symptoms can be viewed in different ways, linear (i.e. related to the course of the disease) or with regard to the type of symptoms.

Use of the term

Overload phenomena such as the feeling of uncontrollability of one's own professional development, the pressure to constantly relearn, subjective overstrain due to increased demands or time-consuming control procedures in the work context are risk factors that favor mental disorders in people who would previously have gotten through in activities that were less mentally demanding. The term burn-out (English for burned out) is now often used as a pure one Catchphrase used and many people do not even know what exactly is behind it.

The term was coined in the early 1970s by the New York psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger. He first noticed in himself that his job, which had previously given him pleasure, only tired and frustrated him. Freudenberger had also noticed that many of his colleagues became increasingly disgruntled and cynical over time and treated their patients increasingly carelessly and dismissively. Freudenberger then scrutinized people from other professional groups in order to keep registering the same problems: mood swings, depression, poor concentration, often in combination with physical symptoms such as back pain or digestive problems. Freudenberger then defined burnout syndrome as a state of exhausted physical and mental resources that is causally related to working life. In 1984, psychologist Christina Maslach described burnout as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal performance that can occur in individuals who work with people in some way.

Therefore, the burnout syndrome mainly affected people from professional groups who were exposed to increased emotional stress, in addition to doctors, teachers and firefighters. In the meantime there has been a rapid expansion of the attribution of the burn-out phenomenon to other professional groups. However, the burnout syndrome cannot be precisely recorded scientifically, as very different symptoms occur, so that it is a general, but statistically not precisely recorded statement.

Some experts also believe that by constant Presence in the media the impression arises that the burnout phenomenon has increased significantly in recent years. Studies show that increasing social insecurity and pressure at work are making people increasingly sick, but people have had significantly more mental problems in the previous decades, because just as many people suffered from the same stresses in the post-war period, but did not look so often to see a doctor.

In an interview, the neurologist Wolfgang Lalouschek expresses the suspicion that burnout is abused from many sides, with burnout or the fear of burnout being a projection screen for very different interests: “While professional representatives instrumentalize it as a kind of pressure tool to improve working conditions, employer representatives negate it the term as diagnosis. From the point of view of an overwhelmed employee, burnout is a diagnosis, from the point of view of many entrepreneurs, burnout is above all a privately generated problem ”. In his opinion it is Burnout as a topic a market become, d. In other words, there are many providers who want to help people out of burnout. There are therapists, coaches, management consultants, energetic specialists, but also psychotherapists, doctors and book authors, and the manufacturers of dietary supplements also want to address this group of exhausted people, each with their own offer and their own interests.

After a systemic view Burnout arises from one Imbalance between stress and recoveryg, i.e. from a combination of several stress factors, for example at the workplace (e.g. time pressure, work overload, lack of breaks, poor management behavior), in the person (e.g. ineffective stress management, lack of relaxation ability), in the private-family area (e.g. stress from relationship crises, care obligations of children, people in need of care, ...), but also in the social area (e.g. performance society, high unemployment in a problematic economic situation). Every person who experiences stress has to deal with this stress - deal with this stress. Not finding a constructive processing strategy therefore represents a further risk factor, whereby the recovery, the replenishment of the reserves, should represent an essential balancing factor.

Incidentally there is disease history There are striking analogies between the rapid increase in complaints about burnout in the last two decades and the wave of neurasthenia a century ago, because both diagnoses are imports from the USA and in both cases they are particularly popular in Germany. Nowadays, being constantly available via smartphone is a stress factor, and a hundred years ago the constant glance at the pocket watch caused unrest. In the scientific literature, the information about the Incidence of burnout mostly very strong, depending on the definition of burnout, which measuring instrument and which diagnostic methods were used.

Burnout as a medical health disorder

Burnout is currently not yet a defined, medically recognized health disorder and is currently only mentioned in the World Health Organization catalog in the appendix in the chapter on factors that influence the state of health and lead to the use of health services, or as an undefined disorder of impairments such as deficiency differentiated between relaxation and leisure. The World health organization but has now 2019 (The new classification list with the name ICD-11 will only come into force in January 2022) Burnout recognized as a disease, whereby with the announced decision, experts present a definition in which they refer to the phenomenon of chronic stress at work that is not successfully processed will lead back. Three dimensions of the illness are emphasized: a feeling of exhaustion, increasing intellectual distance or negative attitude towards one's own job, as well as reduced professional performance. In addition, the WHO points out that the term burn-out exclusively in a professional context and should not be used for experiences in other areas of life.

Burnout is therefore a dazzling phenomenon that is very often claimed without anyone knowing exactly what it is about. Burnout is not only to be found in the context of helping professions, but also athletes, managers and underemployed people complain about burnout, whereby the mental and physical symptoms that are attributed to burnout are completely unspecific, because these are found in a large number of stress-associated ones Disorders, such as the almost equally heterogeneous diagnosis of depression.

According to Markus Pawelzik (2011), burnout is so popular because it is a non-stigmatizing and in many cases even morally exonerating label for persistent subjective exhaustion, for example in contrast to psychiatric diagnoses such as depression. In this case, burnout is not understood as a result of individual failure, but rather the victims are victims of adverse circumstances, i.e. the problem is externalized. The persistent state of exhaustion is ultimately nothing more than the product of a lack of general performance and control of the organism and its current energy balance. Since people today often live in the culture of a misguided individualism and a naive hedonism, conditions of socialization arise under which the ability to adapt to changed conditions, to learn from failures and excessive demands and to repeatedly give a new direction to one's own efforts, is no longer adequately learned.

Some definitions of burnout

  • "... is a permanent, negative, work-related mental state of‘ normal ’individuals. It is primarily characterized by exhaustion, accompanied by restlessness and tension (distress), a feeling of decreased effectiveness, decreased motivation and the development of dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors at work. This mental state develops gradually, but can remain unnoticed by the affected person for a long time. It results from a mismatch between intentions and professional reality. Burnout often sustains itself because of unfavorable coping strategies associated with the syndrome ”(Schaufeli & Enzmann 1998).
  • “... an erosion of values, dignity, spirit and will - an erosion of the human soul. It is a disease that gradually and constantly spreads and pulls people into a downward spiral from which it is difficult to escape ”.
  • "... in the symptomatic center there is a process-like increasing inability to successfully regulate negative emotions such as displeasure, fear, disappointment, shame or anger without disconnecting from positive emotions such as joy, pride and gratitude".

The causes are situations of helplessness that are subjectively perceived as "falling", in which either with so much effort one does not get what one is aiming for, or cannot avoid or finish what one is not aiming for at the moment ”. Maybe that is extensive exhaustion, as Core symptom applies, a biologically based "Emergency shutdown response“, Which is supposed to protect the organism from wasting the last of its energy in hopeless places.

Defined in brief

The Burnout syndrome describes a complete loss of motivation that is initially inexplicable for those affected. This “burning out” does not happen suddenly, it goes creeping Ahead. Central factors in the development of burnout are often ambitious goals and needs that cannot be achieved or can only be achieved with great sacrifice. This can then be used if the goals are not achieved Feelings of despair and upon reaching Exhaustion result. This usually works with one retreat from the familiar social environment. The final stage of burnout - "Meltdown”- is through chronic feelings of helplessness and Suicidal ideation embossed.

Brain burnout

Burn-out is also a collapse for the brain, because in a person who burns out, significantly more nerve messenger substances are used than were produced, the brain "collapses" due to a lack of adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin or histamine, which leads to that nothing works anymore. This physical deficit must be treated before a person can begin to have his psyche treated and to give himself a new life structure. Such a lack of neurotransmitters does not make itself felt all of a sudden, but people have a depot of messenger substances that, depending on their disposition, lasts for around two years. If this depot is exhausted and the normal production of messenger substances can no longer keep pace with the release, then a deficiency occurs, which leads to a depression of exhaustion, for example. Rarely does a person exhaust himself to the point of exhaustion depression or burnout solely through the performance he is required to perform; instead, one usually expends himself at side scenes. At work, it is not the work itself that is the burden, but the growing fear of not being able to cope with it, of making mistakes or of not fulfilling one's plan. Fears of expectation and fear of failure are the real stressors in this case, which are often deeply anchored in us due to upbringing and life experience and can become so dominant that they dominate everyday life and people. The first signs that you are breaking up with your tasks and feelings are when you react either overly or apathetically, depending on the type. Whoever threatens to burn out, whoever falls into a depression of exhaustion, can have a dull look, the motor skills dragging, the facial expression resigned. In people who react too much, the face in the area of ​​the cheekbones in particular is extremely tense, the head bent a little forward as if one were always programmed to attack, the body like an arch under tension. The over-the-top type is exposed to a greater risk of suicide due to the greater potential for action. Not only adult men and women suffer from burnout syndromes, but also children and adolescents, whereby these show the same signs, but they express themselves differently, just as they can age-appropriate, namely not with words, but with deeds. They run away from home, they fight, they steal, they get sick, they “leave the social context”. Parents should pay the utmost attention if they notice a kink in their child's behavior pattern, if they do things that could not previously be observed in them. Even children often cannot cope with the complexity of everyday life, with the constant confrontation with stimuli and information. Parents in particular find it difficult to respect their own limits and those of the child.

Phases of burnout

These phases and symptoms cannot be strictly separated from one another, not all of them occur in every case and not necessarily in this order. The course is usually very individual and also depends on which causes are in the foreground. As a rule of thumb, it can be said that burnout can start after a few months and becomes apparent after three years at the latest. In companies, this is often evident from the Fluctuation rates.

Phase 1: Warning symptoms of the initial phase

Increased commitment to goals: feeling of indispensability, feeling of never having time, denial of personal needs, hyperactivity, at the same time feelings of exhaustion: tiredness, lack of energy, lack of sleep.

Phase 2: Reduced engagement / withdrawal
General: Inability or reluctance to give, loss of empathy, cynicism towards clients, patients, employees, customers, etc .: Loss of positive attitudes towards people to whom most of their own work is usually devoted, distance or avoidance of contacts, feeling of disillusionment;
- during work: negative attitudes towards work in general, reluctance, weariness, excessive work breaks, absenteeism, shifting emphasis to leisure time (“blooming on the weekend”);
- Increased demands: Loss of idealism, concentration on one's own demands, feeling of lack of recognition, private problems increase (e.g. problems with the children or the partner).

Phase 3: Emotional Responses / Assignment of Blame

- Depression: self-pity. Lack of humor, vague fear, abrupt mood swings, reduced emotional resilience, feeling of numbness or inner emptiness, apathy, feelings of guilt;
- Aggression: blaming or reproaching others, irritability, frequent conflicts with others, anger, intolerance, moodiness, negativism.

Phase 4: dismantling
- Mental performance: poor concentration and memory, inaccuracy, disorganization;
- Motivation: reduced initiative, following the rules;
- Creativity: decreased imagination, flexibility;
- Perception: undifferentiated, black and white thinking.

Phase 5: flattening
- Emotional life: indifference;
- Social life: preoccupation with oneself, discussions about one's own work are avoided, private contacts are avoided, loneliness;
- Spiritual life: disinterest, boredom, hobbies are given up.

Phase 6: Psychosomatic reactions
- difficulty sleeping, palpitations, tightness in the chest, muscle tension,
Weakening of the immune system, back pain and headaches, nausea, indigestion, changed eating habits, more alcohol, coffee, tobacco, drugs, sexual problems, etc.

Phase 7: Despair

- Negative attitude towards life, hopelessness, feeling of senselessness, existential despair, thoughts of suicide.

The course is very individual and also depends on which causes are in the foreground. As a rule of thumb, it can be said that burnout can start after a few months and becomes apparent after three years at the latest. In companies, this can often be seen in the fluctuation rates.

See also "People who are particularly at risk of burnout"


Burnout is a work-related illness in which the psychologically correct identification is of great importance, but the term burnout is used today inflationary used and many providers want to offer seemingly beneficial measures against burnout in companies and do not believe scientifically proven methods to be All-cure for burnout or burnout risk to have found. Sometimes gymnastics, massages or the like are offered as measures against the risk of burnout, but without really addressing work- or company-specific factors.

By the way are particularly capable people also most threatened by burnout, because being good at your job becomes a risk, as someone who does his job well often gets a project as well. The main triggers of chronic stress include volume of work, time pressure, little room for maneuver, parallel work on several tasks and constant availability. Ultimately, total exhaustion occurs when the work-related energy consumption can no longer be replenished.

In the Prevention Burnout usually only deals with stress factors in companies, but the roots of the stresses often lie in other social and personal areas. Workload is not to be equated with the amount of work and giving the advice to simply work a little less usually does not lead to a solution. Rather, the question arises as to which areas in companies can be changed, which on the one hand prevent burnout, maintain or even increase performance and which can actually be changed on the part of a company. At least the social relationships within a company through respectful, appreciative interaction can be used preventively. At Prevention programs should be reacquiring engagement or. motivation and the aspect of health the focus should be on promoting positive aspects and not just preventing burnout.

A recent study by the Institute for Psychology at the University of Graz with more than 500 employees, employers and executives showed that the factor justice plays a decisive role in a company, because wherever the sense of justice was high, the burnout syndrome was significantly lower.

Economic costs of burnout

In a study of the cost of burnout the Johannes Kepler University Linz It was shown that for a burnout recognized early, total economic costs of 1500 to 2300 euros arise per person affected, while a late diagnosis with months of sick leave and complex therapies can increase the costs to up to 130,000 euros. Already today, mental illnesses cause annual economic costs of seven billion euros. In other words, without countermeasures, the 10 billion barrier will fall in a few years. With the program "Stress-free Austria“, Which is available to companies throughout Austria, should be counteracted, with the aim of introducing employees and management through training courses to the topic of stress, because companies must look at how their employees are deployed, where they need support, but also the employees would have to learn to manage their resources and not always say: “I can do it”. The new initiative also wants to counter the prejudice that only weak or unwilling people are affected.

Burnout in the psychological market

Since burnout as a disease has extremely unclear and diffuse symptoms, over time it has grown into billions Psychomarket developed, which helps those affected little or not at all, but involves them in sometimes pointless therapies in order to earn money. The promises of many therapy offers are as vague as the diagnosis of burnout itself, because few people today do not complain of exhaustion depression. Private clinics in particular have discovered the topic of burnout, according to the motto: It won't do any harm to go there. Numerous offers of relaxation and anti-stress therapies are mainly offered to wealthy executives in such facilities. Insurance companies advertise the conclusion of occupational disability policies with reference to burnout, works councils are entitled to employer-paid training with anti-burnout coaches, whereby fees of 2,000 to 3,000 euros for a day seminar are not uncommon. The current popularity of burnout has created a market that makes use of scientific vocabulary, but which often goes beyond scientific claims.

Psychological and psychotherapeutic diagnosis of burnout

The increasing number of emotional stresses and the increasing number of burnout diagnoses make the demand for experts who are familiar with the diagnosis and differentiation of burnout, life crises, bullying, leadership errors and other stress disorders in everyday professional life. Psychotherapists are usually familiar with questions relating to psychosocial and psychosomatic disorders and ailments, so psychologists and psychotherapists as sworn experts are the appropriate contact persons for answering questions from the economy. Clear diagnoses lead to good communication between those affected and their employers regarding therapy and performance, retention of the job or reintegration after a burnout failure. Psychotherapeutic reports for the diagnosis of burnout, mental crises, depression, bullying, leadership errors, and workplace problems are a useful and valuable aid for decision-making by decision-makers. Such reports deal with psychosocial or psychosomatic behavior disorders and states of suffering of people that arise due to biological, psychological and socio-cultural factors and are suitable for assessing the ability or inability to work due to their content-related relationship. Medical findings can also support the findings.

Burnout from personal life

According to Christian Dogs, the medical director of the psychosomatic clinic at the Max Grundig Clinic Bühlerhöhe, burnout does not only affect the world of work, because if someone takes good care of himself in his private life, he does not burn out so easily. Burnout only happens to those people who exert themselves at work and cannot take countermeasures in private life. One of the causes is the permanent overstimulation, which many people expose themselves to in addition to their professional life as well as in their private life, because they are permanently accessible via the new media, so that any relaxation is destroyed by interruptions, whereby they often neglect their relationships, which leads to additional ones Problems. As a rule, all people who are burned out and suffer from burnout also have problems in their private lives and often only there. Paradoxically, when investigating the cause, they focus primarily on the world of work, because it seems easier to them, and persuade themselves that they have taken on themselves professionally. But if you have the feeling that everything is getting too much, you should do the Overstimulation in the private sphere prevent. To do this, you can just look out the window and do nothing or have a conversation with your partner.


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