What is burnout?

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People who have burnout feel exhausted, empty and, as the name states, "burned out." It is caused by stressful life circumstances. It is important to differentiate between and burnout.

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in caregiving professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless, and overwhelmed. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these caregiving professions, or for the dark side of self-sacrifice. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.

Burnout syndrome is not considered to be a separate disease by medical experts. They rather assume that the symptoms of burnout are related to other mental illnesses, and that they can increase the risk of depression, for instance. There are also very different ideas about what exactly makes up burnout, and how it can be diagnosed.

How does burnout develop?

A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and overwhelmed. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms. Possible causes include

  • feeling either constantly overworked or under-challenged,
  • being under time pressure all the time,
  • having conflicts with colleagues, and
  • extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs.

Problems caused by stress at work are a common reason for taking sick leave. Exhaustion is a perfectly normal reaction to stress. But burnout is more than usual feelings of being stressed. The symptoms are similar to those of other mental health conditions, but there are critical differences.

What are the signs of burnout?

Burnout is typically thought to be caused by work-related or other kinds of stress. The signs of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion: People affected feel drained and emotionally exhausted. They report not having enough energy, being overwhelmed and feeling tired and down. They may also develop physical symptoms like pain and gastrointestinal (stomach or bowel) problems.
  • Alienation from (work-related) activities: People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions or colleagues. They may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start showing less interest in their work.
  • Reduced performance: Burnout mainly affects everyday tasks at work, at home or when caring for family members. People with burnout are very negative about their tasks, find it hard to concentrate, are listless and lack creativity.

Changes in their professional setting can sometime already help with problems at the workplace. More practical help in everyday life situations can reduce strain on people who feel overwhelmed by caring for a family member at home.

How is burnout diagnosed?

Doctors and psychologists often use questionnaires to diagnose burnout. But because there's no generally accepted definition of burnout, it isn’t clear whether questionnaires can actually “measure” burnout and distinguish it from other illnesses. The most common questionnaire is the “Maslach Burnout Inventory” (MBI), which is available for different professional groups. But this questionnaire was originally developed for research purposes, not for use by doctors.

Online questionnaires on the risk of burnout aren't suitable for determining whether someone has burnout. The symptoms that are said to be a result of burnout can generally also have other causes, including mental or psychosomatic illnesses like or anxiety disorders. But physical illnesses or certain medications can cause symptoms such as exhaustion and tiredness too. So it's important to consider other possible causes first together with a doctor.

What is the difference between burnout and depression?

Certain symptoms that are considered to be typical for burnout also occur in . These include

  • extreme exhaustion,
  • feeling down, and
  • reduced performance.

Because the symptoms are similar, some people may be diagnosed with burnout although they really have . That can lead to the wrong treatment: People who are exhausted “only” because of work can recover if they go on a longer vacation or take some time off from work. But if people with do so it might actually make things worse because the kind of help they need is very different, such as psychological treatment or medication.

Some characteristics of burnout are very specific, though. In , negative thoughts and feelings aren’t only about specific demands (such as job-related ones), but about all areas of life. Other typical symptoms of include

  • low self-esteem,
  • feelings of guilt,
  • hopelessness and
  • suicidal tendencies (thinking about killing yourself).

These aren't regarded as typical symptoms of burnout. So people with burnout don’t always have . But burnout may increase the risk of someone getting . That makes it even more important to take burnout seriously and to find a medical expert who can make the right .

Bundesärztekammer, Kassenärztliche Bundesvereinigung (KBV), Arbeitsgemeinschaft der wissenschaftlichen medizinischen Fachgesellschaften (AWMF). Nationale Versorgungsleitlinie Unipolare Depression. AWMF-Registernr.: nvl-005. 2022.

Korczak D, Kister C, Huber B. Differentialdiagnostik des Burnout-Syndroms (Schriftenreihe Health Technology Assessments (HTA)). 2010.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on April 15, 2024

Next planned update: 2027


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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