Worker ‘burnout’ is triggered by a drastic re-setting of sleep patterns, rather than high levels of stress per se, according to a study of patients in Sweden.

A new treatment based partly on these findings is among the first to show clear success, researchers say.



Burnout is not recognised in the classic manuals of mental health disorders. But the main symptoms are taken to be long-term, excessive fatigue and cognitive impairment.



“It usually affects people who are very committed to work. One day they wake up and they just can’t get out of bed. Then they take a few weeks’ sick leave, but they don’t improve,” says Torbjörn Åkerstedt at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who led the new work.



While stress is clearly involved, the precise causes of the symptoms have been unclear. A high level of the stress hormone cortisol has been blamed, for instance. But based on his team’s recent work, Åkerstedt says: “We think that people can function quite well on high levels of stress – it’s only when their sleep is disrupted that you get burnout.”



The team took regular sleep EEG readings of 35 patients who had been off work for a minimum of three months. The tests consistently showed extreme sleep fragmentation and disruption. These patients were living on as little as four or five hours of sleep each night, with a 40% reduction in slow-wave sleep compared with healthy people.



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