News and Views



An informed view as a means of minimising the cost to both the individual and the organisation as a whole.

Table of contents:

What is "burnout"?
The causes and symptoms of burnout

1............Psychological causes and symptoms
2........... Physical causes and symptoms
3........... Behavioural causes and symptoms
4........... Social causes and symptoms
5........... Problematic attitudes
6........... Organisational causes and symptoms

Occurrence of burnout


Modern business is highly competitive, demanding and expensive. Companies, management and employees are under constant pressure to achieve higher targets. Solutions are expected to be quicker, smarter and cheaper - regardless of the cost.

Stress is well known as the price of success in this pressurised environment. According to research in the Netherlands, it is the number one cause of work-related illness. In light of the demanding working circumstances in business today, this should come as no surprise. A CBS (central statistics bureau) study commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1996 showed that 60% of the Dutch working population found their working environment too demanding (Starters Magazine). 30% of those who have recently become unemployable under the terms of the Disablement Insurance Act (W.A.O.) have done so on the grounds of stress-related symptoms. The financial consequences attributed to this phenomenon amount to NLG 6 billion per annum - NLG 500 million every month (Volkskrant).

But what is the actual price of success in today's fast-paced global working environment? Who pays this price? How can individuals and companies reduce the cost of success in the 21st century?

What is "burnout"?

In 1972 the American psychoanalyst, Dr Herbert J. Freudenberger, coined the term "burnout".

"Burnout is not the same as depressed, overworked or mentally broken down. It is a subtle process, in which somebody is gradually caught in a state of mental fatigue, completely empty and drained of all energy" (Volkskrant, 29 April 1989). According to Maslach and Leiter (1998) burnout occurs when energy, involvement and effectivity erode into fatigue, cynicism and an inability to function productively.

Burnout should not be regarded as a new buzzword for the manifestation of stress in the workplace. Stress and burnout differ in the fact that indifference and reduced personal competency are seen as prevalent elements of the burnout syndrome and not of stress as such (Kleber, 1982, in Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992). When one considers the causes and symptoms of burnout in detail, it becomes clear that long-term stress is one of the causes of burnout. "Burnout is a process initiated by extremely intensive and long-term stress and tension in the working environment." (Cherniss, 1980a, in Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992).

As burnout is a gradual process, it is also an illness that cannot be cured overnight. Recovering from burnout is a process that is almost as long as the downward spiral causing it.

The causes and symptoms of burnout

The causes and symptoms of burnout should be considered interrelated and in the specific context of their occurrence. Not only do they differ from person to person, if left untreated they create a powerful downward spiral of cause and effect, begetting and feeding off each other.

The individual symptoms of burnout can be classified in five different categories (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992):

1. Psychological symptoms
2. Physical symptoms
3. Behavioural symptoms
4. Social symptoms
5. Problematic attitudes

In view of the interconnectivity of cause and effect, Schaufeli & Buunk's classification of the symptoms are used as a general guideline for both the origin and symptoms of burnout in this discussion, with the addition of a sixth category: Organisational causes and symptoms.

1. Psychological causes and symptoms

The array of psychological symptoms can be subcategorised into feelings of depression, anger and frustration, and cognitive and motor disabilities, including lack of concentration and restlessness (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992).

These symptoms result in a feeling of "reduced personal accomplishment", which in turn is a cause of a number of other symptoms of burnout. However, when displayed by a number of employees within an organisation it becomes a symptom of organisational burnout, which can be incredibly costly to any organisation and should in itself be a reason to work towards the prevention and cure of burnout in both the individual and the organisation.

As is known from a variety of stress-related studies, an individual's personality can also be a determining effect in the development of or resistance to burnout (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992). People who have a higher stress-threshold tend to feel more in control of their lives and have a greater resistance to the development of stress-related illness and burnout. Such individuals are more confident and tend not to compare their performance with that of others as a measure of success or self-worth. For this reason they are also less prone to developing a feeling of inadequacy.

The development of burnout has also been linked to the feelings of disappointment and frustration in the working environment. These feelings (in a causal role) have been ascribed to factors such as unrealistic expectations of their function, working environment, colleagues and superiors (Fischer, 1974, Freudenberger & Richelson, 1980, Meier, 1983, in Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992).

2. Physical causes and symptoms

Schaufeli & Buunk also divide the physical symptoms into three categories:

  • Vague physical symptoms of tension, such as headaches, nausea, aching muscles and excessive or chronic fatigue.
  • Psychosomatic disorders, such as ulcers, abdominal-intestinal disorders and functional heart problems.
  • Physiological stress reactions, such as increased breathing and heart rate, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

3. Behavioural causes and symptoms

Here Schaufeli & Buunk distinguish between behaviour displayed by individuals in general as a result of increased tension (such as hyperactivity, excessive smoking, as well as an increase in the consumption of caffeine, alcohol and medication) and the specific behaviour in the working environment, which is characterised mainly by reduced productivity and an increase in absenteeism.

Sufferers of burnout tend to isolate themselves from their working environment and be less involved in the organisation as a whole (discussed below). This could be construed both as a cause and symptom of burnout.

4. Social causes and symptoms

The manifestation of social symptoms of burnout mainly takes place in the workplace. Sufferers tend to isolate themselves from their colleagues, both psychically and psychologically (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992). Particularly in cases where their function requires contact with others, for example students, patients and customers or clients (also Maslach, 1982, in Schaufeli & Buunk) the isolation is psychological in nature.

People who are very involved with their work are at a greater risk of suffering burnout, as - ironically - these are also the people who are less involved in the organisation as a whole. This upholds the idea that support from one's social environment is an essential element in the prevention of burnout. Once again the cyclic character of the causes and symptoms of burnout become apparent: a lack of social support results in a feeling of displacement, leading to the further social isolation of an individual - a process which has the potential to continue in an endless downward spiral and attribute significantly to the development of burnout.

Harrison (1983, in Schaufeli & Buunk) also identifies the individual's inability to influence his social environment as an important contributing factor to the development of burnout.

The greater the extent of social isolation of the individual, the greater his inability to influence his social environment. This phenomenon is once again applicable to the cyclical character of the cause and effect of burnout. Buunk, Schaufeli and Ybema (1990), Van Yperen, Buunk en Schaufeli (1990) - all in Schaufeli & Buunk (1992) - conclude that burnout is a phenomenon that occurs within the social environment and that its occurrence is highly dependent on the manner in which the individual interprets this environment and the "return on investment" he receives from interaction with his social (and working) environment.

5. Problematic attitudes

Negativity, cynicism, discouragement, pessimism and indifference are among the foremost attitudinal symptoms of burnout (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992). One of the most important factors associated with burnout is job dissatisfaction, both as a cause and a symptom. A negative view of colleagues, customers or patients has also been identified as both a cause and a symptom of burnout.

6. Organisational causes and symptoms

In addition, Maslach and Leiter (1998) identify a number of organisational causes of burnout. These include aspects such as too high a workload, a lack of autonomy (also Burisch, 1989, in Schaufeli & Buunk) and authority, insufficient reward and a growing discrepancy between personal and organisational values. Due to the fact that burnout is largely identified in young, highly educated, ambitious starters many consider the dissonance between expectations and reality as one of the main causes of burnout.

Burnout has been related to both the objective experience of a high workload (i.e. an actual excessive workload) and the subjective experience of excessive pressure in the workplace (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992).

Other factors identified in Schaufeli & Buunk include role-conflicts and ambiguities, style of leadership (to a lesser degree), as well as other factors known to contribute to stress, such as a lack of feedback and involvement in decision-making.

Schaufeli & Buunk also identify the following factors as specifically related to development of burnout:

  • Working in a bureaucratic or governmental organisation.
  • High demands on the knowledge and qualification of the employee.
  • Intensive and emotionally demanding contact with customers, patients, etc.

Dr Arnold Bakker, industrial and organisational psychologist at the University of Utrecht also believes that burnout is "contagious" (Volkskrant, 25 July 1998). He ascribes this mainly to the fact that the work pressure and stress of people working in the same departments as people suffering from burnout increases as their burnt-out colleagues become less effective, while the total workload remains unchanged. This could also be attributed to the de-motivating effect of the negative attitudes of people suffering from burnout.

Occurrence of burnout

Burnout is mainly identified in highly educated individuals younger than 30 or 40 years (Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992). A study by Slot and Steinbuch (1988, in Schaufeli & Buunk) showed that most of the individuals who have been classified as unemployable due to stress-related illness under the Disablement Insurance Act are young and highly-educated employees in the care or services industries.

This can be explained by the findings of the 1996 CBS study (mentioned above) that 62% of the working population between the ages of 24 and 34 postulate that they experience too much pressure at work. It can also be explained by considering the discrepancy between expectations and the actual working situation that is characteristic of starters in the job-market and has been identified as a possible cause of burnout. In addition, individuals who place a premium on higher education tend to demand more of themselves and their environments. They are ambitious and work harder, expecting a return on their effort investment.

The CBS study also showed that professionals in the transport, communication and business services industries experience the most pressure in the workplace. It was discovered that the positions resulting in the highest level of pressure are functions performed by highly educated individuals. These revelations of the study also explain the occurrence of burnout as identified by the various studies in this area.

People working in social services, education, law enforcement, etc. are particularly prone to the development of burnout (Volkskrant, 29 April 1989). When considering the fact that such individuals tend to be characterised as "warm and empathetic" (Carl Jung in Schaufeli & Buunk, 1992), and in light of the personality factors described in the section on psychological causes above, this is hardly surprising. In addition, the nature of these positions is such that the social relationships are largely one-sided. In view of the discussion of social factors as causes of burnout above, it is clear that professionals in care-provision functions could experience an overwhelming feeling of emotional drain, resulting in a greater risk of burnout.

Women run a high risk of developing burnout, as they need to prove themselves in more than one capacity: that of wife, mother, woman and employee (Volkskrant, 29 April 1989). In addition, women tend to work harder and give more in relationships with others, as pleasing and serving others is inherent in their nature.

Characteristics of people running a high risk of developing burnout include (Volkskrant, 29 April 1989): ambition, diligence, difficulty in saying "no", a need to prove their worth and a commitment to working hard in all they do.


From the above discussion it is clear that those individuals who are most likely to develop and suffer from burnout, are ambitious, well educated and hardworking professionals. These are also the people that add the most value to business and, seen from a larger perspective, the national and even the global economy.

The reduced effectiveness and absenteeism of individuals suffering from burnout necessitate significant additional expenditure by organisations in order to maintain a set level of productivity. The loss of productivity has to be compensated for by employing more staff, with the additional cost of recruitment, training and social security premiums.

Seen from a purely economic point of view, it is clear that business is forced to take steps to counter the potential effects of burnout on the profitability of the organisation as a whole. Prevention does not only offer a better chance of success, but in the long run it is also far cheaper than cure. Prevention guarantees the subsistence of existing human capital and the opportunity to grow the human resources of an organisation from a higher-than-entry level, while an attempt to combat already existing manifestations of burnout poses the risk of losing current resources and having to replace them with entry level resources.

In order to prevent (and combat) burnout within an organisation, it is necessary to effect changes to the organisational structure, style of leadership and manner in which people interact and cooperate in the working environment. These changes should lead to the formation of an environment in which the individual's need for autonomy, social support and recognition are met in order to enable these individuals to work together towards achieving the greater goal of optimal productivity and maximum profit.

- By Gilla Brunt -


Starters Magazine (date unknown). Hoge werkdruk Nederlanders
(The Netherlands' highly pressurised working environment)

Volkskrant (date unknown). Stress op het werk neemt epidemische vormen aan
(Stress in the working environment is reaching epidemic proportions)

Volkskrant (29 April 1989). Help, de chef brand uit
(Help, the manager is burning up)

Maslach, C. & Leiter, M.P. (1998). Burnout. Oorzaken, gevolgen, remedies. Amsterdam: Contact (Burnout. Causes, consequences, remedies.)

Volkskrant (25 July 1998). Mijdt de opgebrande collega (Avoid the burnt-out collegue)

Schaufeli, W. & Buunk, B. (1992). Burnout.
In Winnubst, J.A.M & Schabracq, M.J. (ed.) Handboek Arbeid en Gezondheid Psychology. Utrecht: Lemma (Industrial and Health Psychology Textbook

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