Burnout – unravelling one of the big mysteries

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Doctors, engineers, car mechanics, chefs, social workers or athletes – people in virtually all professions are affected. The condition in question is known as burnout, a state of complete physical and psychological exhaustion associated with the sufferer’s work. In Germany, the BKK Dachverband – the umbrella organization of company health insurers – has compiled a “health atlas” which reveals that 15 percent of all medically-certified sick leave nowadays is down to conditions like burnout and other psychological problems. Many patients are written off sick for weeks.

Many symptoms, many definitions

Professor Clemens Kirschbaum

Burnout patients suffer from chronic fatigue, headaches, a feeling of inner emptiness, back-ache, insomnia and problems with digestion, and are emotionally exhausted, nervous and in some cases aggressive. Experts describe more than 100 psychological and physical symptoms of the burnout syndrome, and that is precisely the big problem: the condition is difficult to define. Furthermore, there are no really reliable figures about the number of people affected in Germany and worldwide. While some experts talk of a serious medical condition, others dismiss burnout as a fad.

Why is burnout often trivialized?

This annoys Professor Clemens Kirschbaum. “People play down burnout and often describe it merely as one aspect of depression”, says Kirschbaum, a stress researcher and biopsychology professor at TU Dresden . He explains that this is partly because there is simply far too little data from long-term studies about the biological and psychological dimensions of burnout. “From a biological viewpoint, burnout is completely under-researched”, says Kirschbaum.

World’s largest burnout study

Huge research project

This is set to change: a good year ago, in January 2015, he joined forces with colleagues at the Institute of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy at TU Dresden and launched a unique study (only in German). Over a period of twelve years, 10,000 people aged between 18 and 68 will be surveyed and studied – both healthy individuals and burnout sufferers. The research project, which claims to be the world’s largest of its kind to date, is exploring the syndrome from different perspectives: “For example, we conduct interviews with the test subjects, collect genetic information and investigate metabolic processes and hormones”, Kirschbaum explains. His burnout research team has ten members.

Which research questions are the focus?

The project’s work will focus on the following questions:

  • Which individual characteristics (e.g. biological markers, personality factors) and which characteristics of a person’s life and work situation contribute to the development of burnout? And what is the combined effect of these individual characteristics?
  • Who is at high risk of developing burnout and who is not?
  • Can a burnout risk be identified at an early stage?
  • Which measures can be taken to prevent burnout from occurring?

In eleven years’ time, the researchers hope to have “a huge wealth of data with valid information at their disposal. This should allow qualified scientific statements to be made for the first time about the development and progression of the condition”, says the Dresden researcher.

Good funding, numerous research partners

The first few years of this mammoth project are being funded by the Excellence Initiative. In addition, a variety of associations, unions and umbrella organizations are providing the study with non-financial support. Many different partners are also involved at the scientific level, such as a company which researches genetic markers. Furthermore, the project is soon to be joined by a working group from the University of Freiburg. “Together, we plan to offer an online-based tool which burnout sufferers can use to access help via the Internet in a quick and straightforward manner”, explains Kirschbaum.