Burnout is a topic that has triggered widespread interest among the general public and the media, with articles on the subject being published on a regular basis. While some articles have sought to question the existence of burnout, others have discussed its different stages, factors and warning signs, as well as investigating the actions and measures employers and employees can take to address the issue.
In addition to the attention it has received from the media, burnout has been the subject of research and policy responses across Europe. With a view to gaining an EU-wide perspective on the issue, Eurofound asked its Network of Correspondents in the 28 EU Member States of the European Union and Norway to identify the most relevant national research and policy debates on burnout – what is its incidence? Is it a disease or a syndrome? What are its work-related determinants? – and compare how the issue has been addressed by the social partners and in public policy in each country. Based on the responses of the correspondents to a standardised questionnaire, the present report presents a comparative review of the existing data and policy responses on burnout.
Overall, the responses confirm that burnout research is growing – particularly when it comes to small-scale occupational studies. However, they also show that while the issue is indeed widely studied, the research tends to be patchy, applies a range of different instruments to measure burnout and is not always carried out by the most authoritative organisations, such as governmental institutions and health institutes. As one correspondent put it, ‘it [burnout] is a popular topic for doctoral dissertations and master’s theses’.
The responses also reveal differences between self-reporting and medical diagnostics, which reflect different understandings and definitions of burnout.
The prevalence of burnout is usually higher in self-reported data and it is more frequent among women than among men. Overall, the data are difficult to compare, as they build on different definitions. Some define burnout as a syndrome, while others classify it as a disease – and in some countries it may be work-related or occupational. When burnout is considered as a syndrome, its measurement builds on different definitions and cut-off values. The data sources also differ in terms of their methodology for data collection, meaning they are not harmonised and therefore not comparable.
The responses of Eurofound’s correspondents confirm the multiple determinants of burnout in the case of workers, both work-related and individual.
Socio-economic researchers would perhaps argue that in the available research the focus is too often placed on individual determinants, implying work-related determinants are under-researched in comparison to personal factors determining burnout. In the present study, it was therefore only possible to present fragmented evidence – mainly stemming from small-scale occupational studies. While some work-related factors – such as exposure to psychosocial risks including heavy workload, long working hours and overtime – undoubtedly seem to trigger burnout, the influence of other factors is more ambiguous, according to the results of the different studies. These factors include autonomy, the degree of influence of management and the role of rewards.
The results also indicate that responses to burnout can be found under different policy headings, such as stress at work, (excessive) working time and mental health in the workplace, while burnout may also be included in national occupational safety and health strategies.
Without detection and proper treatment, the burnout symptoms are fairly chronic (and so is the risk to health) and may last for as long as eight years. Preventive actions include checklists, tools for early detection, training programmes for high-risk occupations, awareness-raising actions and good practice guidelines.