It often starts with exceptional memory issues and increasing frustration. You are easily irritated, sleep poorly, and everything you need to do feels forced. All these are signals which can point at a developing burnout. What can you do about it? How do you recover? And how do you get back to work? It is surprising how Frans Van De Ven and Paul Koeck discuss burnout in a context of optimism, self-leadership and responsibility. Frans Van De Ven is a consultant and career counselor at Randstad-Galilei. Paul Koeck is active as a doctor, coach, and founder of the online self-help program for burnout, '15Minutes4Me.com'.
What is a burnout?
Koeck, MD: "Burnout is an exhaustion of the brain, mainly caused by a chronic stress. Cortisol is a stress hormone, produced in the adrenal gland. With excess stress, too much cortisol enters the bloodstream. This causes a poisoning in the brain, killing neurons. Up to 25% of the cells in the hippocampus, the primitive brain, are sensitive to cortisol. In case of a long-term burnout, up to 10% can get damaged. The hippocampus is responsible for focus and memory. The first thing you notice in the starting stages of burnout is a decrease in memory and focus, followed by fatigue."
Koeck, MD: "After that, the prefrontal cortex can get damaged. This brain center is important for future focused thinking, like understanding goals and time management. Then, the left prefrontal cortex is damaged. This brain part is responsible for positive thoughts. That explains why employees who start to get a burnout often find the cause in their environment and start to doubt themselves. They are often the first who complain about bullying at work, and sometimes become borderline paranoid. Burnout brings you into a downwards spiral. Preventing and curing is only possible by treating the cause of whatever it is that is causing you long-term stress."
Self-leadership and responsibility
A burnout often affects motivated and dedicated people, according to Frans Van De Ven. "Often, the 'perfect' employees are the ones that get hurt: they are dedicated, motivated and hard-working. Due to circumstances they start to put more and more energy into their job, making them more and more exhausted. As they stay loyal to their work, they keep going like this for years, until they are physically and mentally exhausted." The criteria which companies often use and value as markers of presentation, are also the risk factors, according to Frans Van De Ven. "Criteria like loyalty, initiative, 100% dedication, focus on results, ... are promising but can also cause extreme stress." Koeck, MD: "Compared to the last century, people need to make many more choices nowadays. Our brains have not adapted to this yet. The 24/7 manner of living, the idea that you must multitask and the fact that people can work anywhere at any time, make it so that there is much more stress now than there used to be in the past."
The responsibility in a fight against burnout is shared between the employer and the employee. "Media which say that the responsibility lies mainly with the employer paint a wrong picture", Paul Koeck says. "The employee of course stays in control of their own life." Frans Van De Ven: "This of course does not mean that there is nothing the employer can or should do. And then I do not mean by starting a 9-to-5 regime or limiting access to company e-mail and phone during weekends to let the employee have their mental resting time. It all starts with sensibility. An awareness at work. In the manager, too." "Employers can let their employees do a preventive self-test, and let the employees at risk follow a scientifically proven self-help program. This all under guidance of a specialist and after discussion with the work physician", Paul Koeck, MD, states.
More long-term absence
There are more and more case of sick leave caused by psychological problems in our country. The length of these absences increases, too. This has its effects at the job. Frans Van De Ven: "Not only does this cost a lot of money, there also is a domino effect as the colleagues are put under even more pressure at work. Also, the healing process of someone with a burnout cannot be hastened. That is to benefit all parties involved." Koeck, MD: "Exactly. Recovering from a burnout is a process with different stages: after resting and healing, relapse prevention needs to be learned and practised. After that, re-integration can be started. After the re-integration period, after-care follows."
Getting back to work
If the employee does not get professional guidance, there is a risk that they return back to work too early or that they want to return by 100% right away. Frans Van De Ven: "Generally people know what they do not want after recovery, but they do not yet have a structure for the things which they do want. This does not only require a lot of self-knowledge, but also some workplace planning. Experience shows that the amount of people returning to their old job is rather small." "At the moment of re-integration, the brain is not yet recovered to such an extent that it is possible to make long-term decisions", Paul Koeck, MD, adds. "The tendency to make extreme choices is too large at the start. Then you end up in situations where a manager recovering from burnout suddenly wants to open a bookstore, for example. At such a moment the brain is ready to, with guidance, learn some essential skills needed to take the step to the workspace." Frans Van De Ven: "For example, we teach employees to estimate their boundaries. In the start these often lie closer than they think. They learn to talk about this with their boss. We work out a very flexible schedule to build on and we teach them to talk about this to their employer. This with the needs of the body and the needs of the company in mind. Often we recommend that people start part-time first, for example, and to then build up. We also teach them how they can take away the pressure they experience."
Chance of relapse
In the best case, the employer also is taught about what burnout is and how to deal with it. The chance of a relapse namely is real. Paul Koeck, MD: "After a real burnout, 6 months of after-care and relapse prevention are needed. Most participants experience 3 or 4 near-relapse periods during these 6 months. Good guidance teaches them to recognize the signals early on and to steer clear." "Also, we teach people management skills needed to deliver the desired professional output without experiencing negative stress again: time management, priority management, win-win negotiations with one's boss about priorities, strengthening teamwork skills and relational skills for at work and at home", Frans Van De Ven says. "In short, successfully re-entering the labor market takes time, guidance, and input from both sides", Paul Koeck, MD, concludes.
Download the full Dutch article:: Burnout? Treat it!
Source: Randstand HR Topics