Dossier: Stress and relaxation

Identifying and preventing burnout

The term burnout has been used a lot in recent years, but as a descriptive term it’s very accurate – it illustrates the gradual build-up of stress.

Text: Helwi Braunmiller

Total exhaustion – physical, emotional, psychological: anyone can suffer a burnout. A number of studies have shown that 7 out of 100 people in employment suffer from burnout. Other figures are significantly higher or lower. The problem is that, for a long time, burnout wasn’t classified as a psychological illness in the ICD catalogue, the international classification system for all illnesses. Instead, doctors usually had to use the ICD 10 code “Problems related to life management difficulty” when writing people off sick. However, burnout was added to the catalogue in May 2019.

Doctors and psychotherapists diagnose burnout primarily among managers, entrepreneurs and management consultants, but it’s also common among teachers, doctors or people who work in nursing or social-pedagogical professions. And it’s not just the number of hours worked in a week that’s the problem. Other factors include a bad working environment, mobbing, excessive stress, fear of unemployment and personal problems. Above all, however, individual characteristics play a key role. It is often idealistic and committed people who are pushed to their limits while striving to deliver perfection, achieve their ambitions and fulfil their sense of responsibility.

What is burnout?

The term burnout was coined in the USA in the 1970s in connection with nursing professions. Today, burnout has come to mean a state of total exhaustion with reduced performance, which develops slowly over longer periods of stress. It is often used as a synonym of “stress-induced depression.” The difference to depression lies in the fact that those affected often feel better again once the stress factors are removed.

Signs of burnout

Burnout often creeps up on you. People first try to cope with stress by working more and foregoing breaks and periods of recovery. Physical symptoms follow, but people suffering from burnout also distance themselves from friends and family and are resigned to their working situation. Finally they suffer total exhaustion – physically, emotionally, psychologically.

There is no clear clinical picture of burnout. However, symptoms similar to those of mild to moderate depression often occur:

  • Increasing listlessness both professionally and privately, decreasing interest in everything
  • Declining performance, concentration problems
  • Increased irritability
  • Problems switching off in free time 
  • Problems sleeping, always tired
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches and back pain
  • Dizziness and palpitations
  • Nervousness and anxiety, hollowness inside
  • Stomach and intestinal problems
  • Susceptible to infections
  • Tinnitus

How to prevent burnout

It is usually impossible to avoid stress entirely. In case of professional stress, talking to your boss could defuse the situation, but ultimately a lot depends on how you handle stress. In addition to making time for breaks and striving for a good balance, it can be helpful to scrutinise yourself and your aspirations. Often, personal perfectionism stands in the way of living a less stressful life.

Help with burnout
People who slide into a burnout usually have one thing in common: they try to keep going and ignore the warning signals for a long time. The first important step to getting better is to acknowledge that change and help are needed. Your family doctor or a psychologist would be a good first point of contact.

How you can help yourself:

  • Recognise stress triggers: In which situations do I feel overwhelmed? 
  • Analyse and change behavioural patterns: Why am I stressed? Where could I react differently and thus set a different course?
  • Change habits: Leave your laptop in the office, don’t check work emails in your free time, don’t try to be perfect, plan time for exercise, eat in peace, learn to say no sometimes.
  • Recognise your own needs and take them into consideration: How much sleep do I need? Where are my limits? Which jobs can I get done realistically? What things do me good?