Burnout can no longer remain taboo

  • Burnout may affect one out of six workers.
  • The universities of Liège and Ghent sound the alarm and make recommendations.

Less than one percent of the active population suffers from burnout. Is that a serious condition, Doctor? Yes, it’s serious because that figure (closer to .8%) is only the tip of the immense iceberg of illness in the workplace.

To determine the prevalence of burnout in the Belgian world of work, researchers commissioned by minister Onkelinx (1) developed a very selective analysis that distinguishes the forms and stages of the stress process. They then asked the medical world to respond yes or no to the ultimate question of this analysis applied to a thousand patients: “Can we conclude that there is a professional exhaustion syndrome?” For approximately 1% of the active population, the answer is “yes.” On the other hand the researchers emphasize, cases of work-related illness including those that lead directly to burnout, are much more numerous.

Contrary to popular wisdom, burnout doesn’t strike without warning. There are three stages in the process: emotional exhaustion, change in attitude towards work, including cynicism and isolation, and a feeling of ineffectiveness or incompetence. “In studies within businesses when the law on well-being at work was passed, it appeared that 30 to 40% of workers said they had experienced the first stage of the process,” emphasized Professor Isabelle Hansez (ULG). “All together, the three criteria affect 15 to 20 percent of the active population.” 

In other words about one out of six workers are in a situation where they are at risk. In addition burnout doesn’t just affect those who are “weak” – another piece of conventional wisdom. Those who are strongly motivated, who live, eat and sleep their work, are in the group most at risk. “Those who have very high professional standards may find themselves at the end of a process whose beginning they didn’t even notice. They use adaptive strategies up until the moment they are overwhelmed. All of a sudden, they can no longer get out of bed.”

That is why prevention is so important according to the study results just provided to SPF Jobs, Work and Consultation. Following the study’s diagnostic phase, delivered in 2011, researchers lingered over a series of recommendations for employers, politicians and the medical world.

The medical world? “I’m struck by the fact that the vast majority of family physicians taking part in a conference on the subject knew almost nothing about the resources that are available in the area of psycho-social risks linked with work,” said Professor Pierre Firket, director of CITES (Center for Stress Information, Therapy and Studies). “It’s pretty unbelievable. Especially since they confirm daily visits for by people who are ‘suffering at work,’ and find themselves in serious trouble as a result.”

And employers? In Belgium there are currently 300,000 people on long-term disability – an increase of 33% in 10 years, one-third of which are for psychiatric issues. Even though the World Health Organization has found that stress has become the leading cause of disability, the subject is still taboo within businesses. Over the last 20 years work has taken on a hellish pace, leading to pressure and forced productivity increases. While the clock can’t be turned back 20 years, working conditions can still be better managed.


(1) Research on burnout in Belgium directed by the Universities of Liège and Ghent, CITES and Arista.

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