Occupational Burnout

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), occupational burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress, with symptoms characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Let’s boil this down to have a better understanding and ways out.

Recently – partially also accelerated by the social situation caused by COVID-19 in Germany – I see many cases of burnout around me. If one finds him/herselfs in the following situation, take a moment to accept this and start to find a way out which may involve the help of others and this article.

Risk factors

There are six1. Take a deep look at the following list and see how many match your workplace:

  • Mismatch in workload
  • Mismatch in control
  • Lack of appropriate awards
  • Loss of a sense of positive connection with others in the work place
  • (Perceived) lack of fairness
  • Conflict between values

These give way to some subtypes2 as not all risk factors may be present.


These are:

  • “wearout” and “brown-out,” = too much stress and/or too little reward
  • “classic/frenetic burnout,” = increasing load on oneself in stressful situation and/or while seeking reward for work
  • “underchallenged burnout,” = low stress, but the work is unrewarding.

Yepp, one can have burnout from being underchallenged and having an unrewarding work experience. Some well known German companies used these strategies specifically to force workers to quit.


Burnout is depression3 as it comes with the full array of depressive symptoms4:

  • cynicism
  • lack of efficacy, especially professional efficacy
  • exhaustion
  • low mood
  • cognitive alterations
  • sleep disturbence

and is also often treated like it.

Short and long-term effects

These might seem obvious, but sometimes are not. Especially, when the affected person is in a depressive state:


  • can induce further mental health problems,
  • reduces overall efficacy,
  • causes cognitive impairments (memory/attention),
  • can cause loss of workplace.

Even though it might not be obvious, these are protection mechanisms by the mind. A stressor is attempted to be evaded. Be it by cynicism, absenteeism and finally if no path out is found: a weaker ‘connection to reality’.

Treatment & paths out of it

As already said, the regular treatment of depression is applied often. Additionally to this, the stressors have to be removed to avoid relapse. This can happen in various ways. Here is a selection to get started:

  • Set boundaries. Write them down. Commit them to memory. (Example: I’ll stop working at 19:00 latest, to go for a run or call a friend.)
  • Start the day with a relaxing ritual. (Example: Lay the phone in another room and optionally turn it off. Do some yoga, or just sit and drink coffee without touching or looking at any bright rectangle.)
  • Search for a workplace where the risk factors are minimal. In short: A workplace with good workload, (own) control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Sometimes this is not possible, then:
  • Create a vision to achieve the above. Sometimes this needs a change of lifestyle - usually towards a ‘simpler’ but happier life.
  • Involve loved ones or good friends. (Ideally the type that doesn’t let you down no matter what.)

Good luck, you can do it!