Tracing the causes of burnout

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Anyone can be hit by burnout and it can't be linked to any specific profession. Sufferers feel worn out inside and exhausted. But burnout is more than just a feeling of being overwhelmed: it is also a call to look inwards and to focus on oneself.

What is burnout?

Burnout is an emotional, mental and physical state of exhaustion. The WHO describes the syndrome as «workplace stress that has not been successfully managed». Sufferers no longer have the resources to cope with the excessive demands they face at work and experience permanent exhaustion.

The WHO defines the three main symptoms of burnout as follows:

  • feeling of exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativity about one's job
  • reduced professional efficacy

New definition: stress at work

It remains to be seen how the WHO's new definition of burnout (see text), which will come into force on 1 January 2022, will change the term or the diagnosis of burnout. The new definition refers exclusively to stress at work and doesn't take into account stressful situations in other areas of life. Experts predict that according to this new, narrow definition under ICD-11, there will be significantly fewer burnouts than generally assumed. The states of exhaustion that more and more people are feeling will then more likely be defined as exhaustion-related depression, other psychological disorders or mixed disease forms.

Causes of burnout

There are many causes of burnout. It is when stress factors occur repeatedly that burnout sets in. During the development of burnout, individual factors play a key role. Most experts agree that, besides workplace-related factors, individual factors also play a role: these include excessive demands, insufficient periods of relaxation, perfectionism or being under qualified for the job. The point at which a person’s resources are exhausted depends on their personal levels of expectations of themselves, skills, experience, and their general and current state of health.

Loss of resources and energy

When a person suffers from burnout, it isn't stress alone that is the cause. The cause is more often a state of constant tension that reduces a person's energy supplies on a long-term basis. This is compounded by the person’s inability to recharge their batteries when their periods of free time are insufficiently long. This loss of resources and energy, as well as the subjective feeling of being overwhelmed, can arise from a range of on-going situations. No burnout sufferer will feel exhausted, redundant and inadequate at work, and yet radiate energy, confidence and drive in their private life.

The strength of the inner reality

Stress never arises from the situation itself but from the subjective assessment of not feeling able to cope with a situation or a person. This feeling is based on the conscious and unconscious experiences that have shaped our thoughts, feelings and actions, and with which we judge our environment. A person who seeks their identity from an external source, rather than from within, runs a greater risk of suffering a breakdown when the external source is no longer there. This is underlined by Dr. med. Mirriam Priess, author of the bestseller Burnout kommt nicht nur von Stress (Burnout doesn't only come from stress).

The basis of good health is to have a relationship with yourself and to lead an authentic life.
Dr. med. Mirriam Priess

In her book, the author writes that «most stress arises in relationships – in the relationship to oneself or in the relationship to one’s environment.» People need good social contacts based on mutual respect – in their private and professional life alike. And what’s even more significant: many people become exhausted and burn themselves out because they have lost the relationship to themselves, the inner dialogue. It is important that we listen to ourselves and our own feelings and stay in contact with ourselves – what the author calls «inner dialogue ability».

Preventing burnout

We can all help protect ourselves from burnout. The key thing is to keep ourself in focus and to constantly ask ourself the same question: what do I need and how can I help create an authentic life? Mirriam Priess also specifies in her book the importance of strengthening our inner dialogue in order to create a balance between giving and taking in our relationships and actions. As Dr. med. Mirriam Priess says: «The basis of good health is to have a relationship with yourself and to lead an authentic life.»

Dialogue with yourself

The most important thing is that we take responsibility for our own life and do not turn to an external source to relieve stress, pressure and conflict. Seek the dialogue with yourself:

  1. How are you established in the various areas of your life?
  2. Why aren't you at the point where you should be?
  3. What makes you happy, what blocks you?
  4. Who are you? What do you want to achieve in life and where do your limits lie?

Other recommendations include being proactive in resolving conflict as quickly as possible instead of trying to suppress it, compensate for it, or sugar-coat it.

  • Mirriam Priess (2013). Burnout kommt nicht nur von Stress: Warum wir wirklich ausbrennen – und wie wir zu uns selbst zurückfinden. Überarbeitete und aktualisierte Neuauflage. (in german)