Burned out or "just" depressed? An existential phenomenological exploration of burnout


Publication date


Series/Report no

Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice;First published 12 September 2019



Document type


Rationale, aim, and objective: An increasing number of patients are on sick leave from work due to fatigue‐ and pain‐related symptoms that could indicate burnout. The aetiology is unknown, and recently, it has been considered whether burnout should be a distinct medical diagnosis or “just” a form of depression. Little attention has been given to these individuals' experiences. Therefore, we conducted a phenomenological study to explore burnout from a first person perspective. The aim of the study was to obtain a deeper understanding of burnout as phenomenon. Theoretical perspective and method: We are inspired by Merleau‐Ponty's phenomenological approach and gestalt theory. The phenomenological focus is to attend to the embodied consciousness of the lived experience of being human. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was chosen to uncover how the interviewees made meaning of their situation. Six individuals who had been on sick leave at 50% to 100% for at least 3 months due to fatigue‐ and pain‐related symptoms were interviewed. Results:Four narrative phases mirroring burnout as a temporal sequence stood out: achievement, pressure, psychosomatic collapse, and personal meaning and reorientation. We identified several interruptions to contact, which seemed to boost the interviewees' ability to continue striving beyond their limits. The results of this study contribute to a deeper understanding of how complex factors might influence individual vulnerability and lead to a fatigue reaction. Conclusion: The findings indicate that lack of recognition of the interviewees' illness may have affected the healing process. When understanding burnout as an intersubjective, lived, contextual, and temporal experience, it is important to take the implications of such factors into consideration for both medical theory and clinical practice. On the basis of our findings, we argue that reducing burnout to a form of depression will neither solve the problem of its unknown aetiology nor provide for meaningful individual health care.




Permanent URL (for citation purposes)

  • https://hdl.handle.net/10642/8095