Prevalence of burnout among workers

Through a survey of burnout cases identified at general practitioner (GP) surgeries and health surveillance by occupational health physicians (OPs), the prevalence of burnout in the Belgian working population was estimated at about 0.8% (that is, about 19,000 people). Most people with symptoms of burnout consulted their GP first rather than an OP. Work pressure, organisational change and time pressure were the three most frequently reported factors leading to burnout.

Introduction

The study, Recherche sur le burnout au sein de la population active belge, aimed to estimate as objectively as possible the prevalence of burnout among Belgian workers through the identification of cases by general practitioners (GPs) and occupational health physicians (OPs). The study was commissioned by the Ministry of Labour and carried out by four Belgian academics.

Methodology

Based on the previously published studies and discussions at focus group meetings, a diagnosis form was developed to help health professionals screen job-related illness and burnout symptoms when they examined workers. The form was also designed to discriminate between early onset and more severe burnout cases.

The diagnosis form was used by 178 GPs (3% of Belgian GPs) and 168 OPs (12.5% of Belgian OPs) to collect information about burnout cases during a three-month period in 2010.

Prevalence of burnout

During the survey, 135,131 patients/contacts were registered. From these, 1,089 patients were diagnosed as suffering from burnout. The prevalence can thus be estimated at about 0.8% of the Belgian working population; this figure is similar among workers consulting GPs and OPs.

Although this estimate is very low compared with employee self-assessment figures (30–40%), they can be considered as real and ‘actual’ cases since they are people who have taken the step of seeking medical advice on the matter. Aggregated to the total Belgian workforce, this figure represents a group of about 19,000 people.

Furthermore, the results show that burnout leads particularly to sleeping disorders (60% of the confirmed cases). Other important medical symptoms are reduced energy (53%), neurovegetative and functional complaints (52%) and a reduction in motivation (48%).

The survey found that women and the middle-aged were more likely to be diagnosed with burnout. No information was given on prevalence in occupational groups.

Screening for burnout

Important for the general monitoring and detection of burnout is the finding that patients with burnout mostly go to their GP first instead of to an occupational health physician. Employees who went to see an occupational health physician had, in 67% of cases, already consulted their GP. Other health professionals (mainly psychologists and psychiatrists) had been consulted in 31% of cases. According to the study’s authors, this confirms the importance of individual treatment of burnout cases.

In the majority of cases (95%), the patients themselves linked their symptoms to their job.

Job factors and burnout

The analysis also identified the key factors related to the burnout syndrome. These were:

  • work pressure (58% of cases);
  • organisational change (58%);
  • time pressure (41%);
  • conflicts at work (37%);
  • difficulties combining working and private life (30%).

Important measures in the working environment for dealing with the factors that lead to burnout and which were missing in the cases identified by the survey include:

  • support from the employee’s direct supervisor (63.2%);
  • recognition for a worker’s efforts (47%);
  • support by colleagues (29%);
  • career development opportunities (23%);
  • a good job description (20%).

According to the study’s authors, these results confirm the job demands–resources model (JD-R model) developed, among others, by Bakker and Demerouti (2007).

Commentary

The method used in the study (that is, medical monitoring) produced some interesting results, particularly on possible secondary prevention strategies. The diagnosis form developed for the study could be a valuable tool for health professionals in this area. However, as acknowledged by its authors, the study has a major limitation in that the selected sample comes from people who have chosen to consult a doctor about their symptoms.

References

Bakker, A.B. and Demerouti, E. (2007), ‘The job demands–resources model: State of the art’, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 22, 2007, pp. 309–328.

Hansez, I., Mairiaux, P., Firket, P. and Braeckman, L. (2011), Recherche sur le Burnout au sein de la population active belge, Service public fédéral Emploi, Travail et Concertation sociale, Brussels.

Guy Van Gyes, HIVA-KU Leuven

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