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Too much of a good thing: What role does over-engagement play in the development of burnout?

Ever since the New York psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger coined the term burnout to describe typical reactions of overwork of initially highly motivated employees, it has been used to describe particular exhaustion syndromes at work. In his first article, published in 1974, Freudenberger combined experiences from therapeutic practice with personal observations.

He recorded how many employees of the social reform free clinic movement in New York had distanced themselves inwardly from their work and their clients after prolonged frustration experiences in their work, and how they had later fallen into seemingly depressive states of exhaustion.

However, the phenomenon was apparently not limited to this social circle. Freudenberger’s descriptions seemed so accurate to his contemporaries that the burnout concept quickly made an impressive career, even including uses in sociology and philosophy.

Today, authors like Alain Ehrenberg discuss such exhaustion phenomena as symptoms of modern societies that threaten to take hold of us all. The freedom to design oneself brings with it an enormous pressure, as Ehrenberg points out in a broad view of the modern depression industry. He aptly titled it “The Exhausted Self” (Ehrenberg, 2004). In his shadow, the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han also wrote his bestsellers on “Fatigue Society” (Han, 2015).

For this article we want to go back to the origins of the concept and take a closer look at the observations on which it is based. It will become clear that in modern representations a dimension has often been pushed into the background that plays an important role in the emergence of burnout: It is the high level of commitment that precedes exhaustion even in time.

Herbert Freudenberger (1926-1999), who studied psychology in the USA after fleeing from National Socialist Germany and who had launched a career as a lecturer and psychoanalyst with great commitment, knew what he was talking about from his own work experience: to characterize the phenomenon, he had used physiological signs and behavioural indicators that he had also perceived in himself.

In his first description he referred to the cognitive, evaluative and emotional aspects that accompany the process: ” The dictionary defines the verb “burn-out” as ‘ ‘to fail, wear out, or become exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.” And that is exactly what happens when a staff member in an alternative institution “burns out” for whatever reasons, and becomes inoperative for all intents and and purposes ” Freudenberger (1974). Another aspect became apparent in the more precise characterization of the syndrome. According to Freudenberg, the problem developed very individually in terms of symptoms and severity. One could also say that every burnout is unique.

Healing professions and broadening the focus’.

The syndrome is no longer limited to the original group of healing, nursing and therapeutic professions, but the basic characteristics have remained the same in the new fields. In fact, in the 1980s, in addition to a widely used questionnaire, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach & Jackson, 1981a), further questionnaires were developed for employees in the so-called Human Services (including healthcare). In addition, questionnaires for educational settings were also published, and finally, with the MBI-GS, a more general version (Leiter & Maslach, 2001). This version could now also scientifically map the experiences of managers, team leaders in start-ups, project managers or employees without management responsibility. Burnout had finally arrived in the world of executive coaching and job coaching with empirical evidence. And similar to the first MBI questionnaire, exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional effectiveness were now named as central categories in the extended version MBI-GS (Leiter & Maslach, 2001).

The difference to depression

At first glance, it would seem obvious to locate burnout in the circle of depressive disorders (lack of drive or increased fatigue are one of the three main symptoms of depression), but the other relevant main or additional symptoms are formally missing. For a long time, it was not clear to health insurance companies how to deal with the phenomenon and in which of the established categories it should be classified. In the latest version of the catalogue of disorders relevant for health policy and health insurance companies worldwide, the ICD-11, burnout is defined as follows: “Burnout is a syndrome that is conceptualised as a consequence of chronic stress at work that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  •  feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased inner distance from work or feelings of negativism or cynicism about work;
  • and decreased professional effectiveness.

It is listed under Z 73, which is reserved for non-specific disorders.

But the reference to the working environment is central: “Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the professional context and should not be used to describe experiences in other areas of life,” says the ICD-11.

The occupation with the phenomenon of burnout is thus decades old. But even before the term was coined by Freudenberger, there were scientific authors who recognized how, in the work context, particularities of organization and team dynamics can coincide unfavourably with high self-expectations.

In his survey volume “Das Burnout-Syndrom”, for example, author Matthias Burisch quotes an early study by Schwartz and Will (1953), in which they describe the case of a nurse with exhaustion syndrome. The extremely committed employee wants to reverse the negative change in her working conditions following a reorganization of her work area by offering constructive dialogue. However, she does not receive positive reactions from her colleagues. She responds, in turn, with withdrawal and resignation. The resulting frustration and feelings of unsuccessful work lead to depressive feelings, a cascade of depersonalisation and an ambivalent mixture of indifference and feelings of guilt (Burisch, 2006, p. 195f.).

Every burnout is unique, we said above. This is consistent and the prevention work in executive coaching confirms this in practice again and again. But the individual development of each person also has commonalities with other courses.

Freudenberger described this common pattern as follows: about a year after joining an institution with a manager who was initially considered charismatic but is disenchanted later, the syndrome would develop in certain employees. The physiological signs could include weaknesses of the immune system, but also more direct physical symptoms (headaches or irritation of the digestive tract). Behaviour would show irritability, suspicion and excessive risk taking, as well as growing reticence and tendencies towards negative evaluations, often accompanied by decreasing productivity. Was this due to a lack of strength or resources? Were the people concerned not powerful enough? No, Freudenberger explained. The cause was not a lack of power, but rather positive expectations of the work and a high level of commitment.

“Who tends to burnout?” Freudenberger asked, and gave the answer himself. “The committed ones” (Freudenberger, 1974).

Who tends to burnout? The committed ones.

The fact that commitment and passionate inner involvement – initiated by superiors or of one’s own accord – could be a requirement for the chronic frustration of burnout observed later on was a surprising point in Freudenberger’s text: “(…) precisely because we are committed, we fall into a burnout trap. We work too much, too long and too intensively. We feel a pressure from inside to work and to help, and we feel a pressure from outside to give. (Freudenberger, 1974).

According to Freudenberger, the decisive factor in the development of a burnout syndrome was the difference between “mature commitment and participation” and “commitment as a sign of a personal need to be accepted and liked.” Analytical Business Coaching has a language at its disposal with which this difference can be presented. It can also be asked, together with the client, what unconscious conflicts have an impact, and how this is reflected in our personality and individual work and leadership style.

The question of the correct assessment of commitment thereby also became a task for managers – also, but by no means only, with regard to themselves: Even Freudenberger linked his presentation from the very beginning with practical advice, such as his recommendations on limiting working hours for eager employees (Freudenberger, 1974). In modern job coaching these are recurring themes for burnout prevention. Especially in executive coaching, it is not only about one’s own limits, but also about sharpening one’s awareness of developments among employees. Appropriate team supervision in combination with good conflict management or change management are important pillars of good development, but self-management and inner conflict management are just as essential.

The terminology used to describe the burnout phenomenon today is correspondingly diverse, but the core content is closely related to Freudenberger’s sketch. In addition to Burnout (the term exists in various spellings), the concepts “Flame-Out” (Golembiewski, 1982, quoted after Burisch, 2006) or the German variant “Ausgebrannt” (Freudenberger & Richelson, 1980) also address the modern exhaustion syndrome. Other authors characterize burnout as a form of “job stress”, which involves a constant reaction to stressors in interpersonal relationships. The main symptoms they mention are: emotional exhaustion, inner distance (depersonalization) and a decrease in the feeling of having achieved something personally (Leiter & Maslach, 2001; Maslach & Goldberg, 1998).

The twelve burnout phases

So burnout is at the end of a process that has many steps. At the beginning, however, and this is particularly important to us as a prevention topic in executive and business coaching, there is an extremely high level of commitment. At the beginning of his phase model, Freudenberger himself had set the intense urge of a person to prove himself. He called it: “excessive ambition”, which would be accompanied by increased commitment at work (see Table 1).

Burnout phases according to Freudenberger

  • Compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition)
  • Work harder
  • Neglegt of own needs
  • Supression of conflicts and needs
  • No more time for non-work-related needs
  • Denial of the problem, decreasing flexibility in thought/behaviour
  • Retreat, lack of direction, cynicism
  • Changes in behaviour/psychological reactions
  • Depersonalisation: loss of contact with oneself and one’s needs
  • Inner emtiness, fears, dependence behaviour
  • Increased feeling of senselessness and loss of interest
  • Physical exhaustion, which can be life-threatening

Table 1: Freudenberger‘s burnout phase modell (after Kaschka, Korczak & Broich, 2011)

The more research investigated the phenomenon, the clearer it became that burnout could only be described inadequately by a mere drop in performance. When Maslach and Jackson (1981b) examined the main factors of burnout in their much-cited studies, they also found a fourth factor in addition to the main factors of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and personal performance: involvement (Maslach & Jackson, 1981b).

Involvement and Burnout

This fourth category repeatedly reminds us that a mere definition of burnout via the physical aspects of exhaustion would mean overestimating the stress component. Exhaustion is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in the context of burnout. It would not include the critical relationship people have with their work (see Leiter & Maslach, 2001). It is therefore suggested that burnout and engagement should be seen as the poles of a continuum:

“Engagement is defined in the same three dimensions as burnout, but at the positive end of these dimensions and not at the negative. As such engagement consists of a state of higher energy (instead of exhaustion), strong involvement (instead of cynicism) and a sense of effectiveness (instead of a reduced sense of achievement)” (Leiter & Maslach, 2001).

The view of burnout shifts in this way: it can be better understood through the high commitment of employees and managers in the company, through energy, participation and the feeling of effectiveness, not through exhaustion itself.

The concept of over-commitment (Schmidbauer)

In German-speaking countries, the psychologist Wolfgang Schmidbauer (2006) has used his accounts to draw attention to over-engagement as a central component of the burnout syndrome. It is helpful to include his perspective when examining the complex role of over-engagement and involvement in the context of burnout.

Schmidbauer describes the process as follows: The incipient symptoms include chronic fatigue, unwillingness to start work, increasing distance from one’s own tasks, alienation from clients and a feeling of being poorly paid and exploited in the job (Schmidbauer, 2006). But the series always begins with a high input of energy:

“One of the first signals of burnout is over-commitment. (…) While a normal job involves the alternation of work and leisure, they idealize work and pretend that they do not need any rest at all. Relaxation phases are dispensed with, and one’s own commitment is presented as exemplary. Those affected tend to be over-active, feel indispensable, deny their own needs in order to keep the role perfect”. (Schmidbauer, 2006). If, according to Schmidbauer, conflicts with colleagues arose from this constellation, such employees would often become unpopular. This in turn “reinforces the excessive commitment to work, which becomes the only source of social recognition.” (Schmidbauer, 2006).

Schmidbauer describes how this structure is not permanently up to the external, but above all the internal demands of such employees and managers, who often act with the best (conscious) intentions. Nobody is able to permanently bear such a permanent strain and overstretching of resources. And no company is well advised to overlook such overload processes. The personal costs are too high. The foreseeable consequence: the loss of valuable employees.

Commitment and distance

In the context of the burnout discussion, commitment (involvement, being energetic and having a feeling of effectiveness) or over-commitment has a complex meaning, especially in psychodynamic considerations in leadership training or business coaching, which always also ask about the unconscious motives of our actions.

Burnout is a factor that influences the quality of work, but also job changes, absences and mood at work, apart from the serious, personal consequences that arise because the feelings of unwillingness are carried over into partnerships, or are answered with strategies that are permanently directed against those affected (Irving, Dobkin & Park, 2009; Maslach & Jackson, 1981b).

This does not have to be the case. It is worth taking signs of work-related exhaustion resulting from high levels of commitment seriously and asking yourself important questions in advance: What are the expectations of your role at work? What is your drive? What are the goals for professional action? Executive coaching can be very helpful in clarifying one’s own motives, both conscious and unconscious, and thereby in gaining new scope for action.

Everyone will benefit from such an examination in business coaching: The company, the colleagues and employees – and first and foremost yourself.

Robert Weixlbaumer, M.Sc. Psychologist


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