Recognising the 4 key signs of burnout

The definition of burn-out and the questionnaire for its diagnosis are more than thirty years old. In order to define the condition more clearly and to diagnose it more correctly, researchers at KU Leuven defined fourmain symptoms of burn-out, and threesecondary symptoms.

With adjusted symptoms and improved analysis and diagnosis of burn-out, your company can reduce avoidable absenteeism over time. After all, the different symptoms of stress, burn-out and depression become clearer, allowing you to intervene more effectively.

"Changing behaviour in your employee is a first alarm signal", says Koen Van Hulst, Mensura's department head psychosocial aspects. "Whereas there used to be three related symptoms that served as the basis for a burn-out diagnosis, it has now been extended to four symptoms."

1. Physical and psychological exhaustion

The employee often experiences extreme fatigue and exhaustion. They feel not only physically drained but also mentally. “One of the signs is when an employee who is usually very active during meetings has become quieter and keeps to the background more often”, Koen explains. “The difference in energy is really noticeable. You can tell that their battery is running low.”

2. Memory and concentration problems

A burnout also affects cognitive performance, which means the employee will struggle to remain focused. Koen: “They start missing deadlines and make mistakes where they previously wouldn’t have.”

3. Emotional bursts

While most employees are able to control their feelings when being reprimanded or receiving feedback, burnout sufferers often struggle with this. Their tolerance threshold is much lower, which may cause frequent outbursts of anger or crying fits. “Someone who is experiencing burnout often responds very emotionally to minor setbacks. To colleagues, it may seem as if this person is simply overreacting.”

4. Mental (and physical) detachment

The employee starts putting up more and more resistance to his or her workload. For reasons of self-protection, this person may mentally (and sometimes physically) disconnect from all work-related matters. Koen: “This is most apparent during meetings and presentations, where their former enthusiasm is slowly replaced by indifference. This is a clear sign that something else is going on.”

Three secondary symptoms of burn-out

The four core symptoms are sometimes accompanied by mental stress complaints (e.g. sleep problems or panic attacks) and/or psychosomatic stress complaints (physical pain with a psychological cause, such as tension headaches). Often the employee does not take action until he or she suffers from these stress symptoms. But of course it's better to raise the alarm earlier.

In addition, a person with a burn-out is in a depressed mood. "As a result of underperformance and exhaustion, gloomy moods and feelings of guilt arise. As a result, the diagnosis of depression is sometimes misdiagnosed in case of burn-out. The main difference is that burn-out is an energy disorder and depression is a mood disorder.”

Preventing burnout

Preventing burnout begins with an analysis of psychosocial risks. All your employees will be asked to take part in a survey to help identify the main risk factors and points for improvement within your organisation.

Koen: “Employers should focus on the following two things: creating a solid buffer against burnout by providing a great work environment, a positive experience at work, and proper training for all employees. However, it is equally important to take immediate action as soon as you notice any changes in behaviour.”

Managers and supervisors will need to acquire the necessary stress awareness skills and promote open communication to be able to adequately deal with these issues. “They need to approach and talk to those workers who are displaying changes in behaviour and ask them whether there are any obvious causes”, Koen adds. “Together, they may be able to find a solution that addresses the reduced level of energy felt by the employee. What gives your employee the most job satisfaction? Is it possible to create more variety in their job duties? Or are there any projects they need assistance with? By recognising the tell-tale signs of burnout and taking preventive action, in other words by applying the principles of Mental Health First Aid, employers can considerably reduce the risk of burnout among their workers.”

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