Burned-Out Employees Less Likely to Receive Intervention at Work

Oct. 5, 2007
Employees with symptoms of burnout are less likely to participate in work-based interventions--such as stress reduction or occupational training – than workers without burnout. On the other hand, burned-out workers are more likely to receive individual interventions – including antidepressants and other medications, according to the new research published in the September Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Researchers led by Kirsi Ahola from the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health, Helsinki, analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of 3,276 Finnish employees. The presence of burnout--defined as exhaustion accompanied by feelings of incompetence or that one's work isn't valuable--was assessed by questionnaire. Twenty-five percent of the workers had mild symptoms of burnout, while another 2.4 percent had severe burnout.

Workers with burnout--especially severe burnout--were less likely than workers without burnout to participate in occupationally focused interventions. This included various interventions designed to address workplace characteristics that may be associated with burnout such as:

  • Work practice improvement.
  • Occupational training.
  • Stress reduction.
  • Vocational rehabilitation programs.

With adjustment for other factors, workers with severe burnout were about 40 percent as likely to participate in occupational interventions.

Individual Interventions

In contrast, burnout was associated with higher rates of individual interventions – including counseling, psychotherapy, and medications – designed to increase the worker's psychological resources. Workers with severe burnout were more than fives times as likely to receive individual interventions, compared to those without burnout.

Workers with burnout were more likely to receive several types of medications for mental health problems, especially antidepressants. For workers with severe burnout, rates of antidepressant use were increased even after adjustment for the presence of depression and anxiety.

"The high antidepressant prescription rates raise the possibility that, in some cases, the symptoms of burnout have been misinterpreted as a mental disorder requiring medications and have therefore been treated with antidepressants or other psychotropics," the researchers write.

"These findings suggest that the current situation in the prevention and treatment of burnout is not optimal," Ahola said. According to her, the findings suggest that burned-out employees may be reluctant to talk about problems with conditions at work or their personal well-being, possibly for fear of being stigmatized.

In addition to further research and evidence-based interventions, the researchers call for efforts to extend stress management practices and occupational interventions to more employees with symptoms of burnout.

"Occupational health professionals may be encouraged to contact supervisors, with the consent of the employees', to co-operatively discuss and adjust the work situation with the aim of reducing work stress," researchers suggest.

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