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One in four workers shows burnout symptoms

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health is studying how exhaustion affects our brains -- and what can be done to help.

A test subject is fitted with sensors at the Institute of Occupational Health's brain lab.
A test subject is fitted with sensors at the Institute of Occupational Health's brain lab. Image: Yle

Researchers at the Institute's brain lab are investigating how the brain is affected by occupational burnout -- which they define as "a process during which individual resources are depleted as a result of prolonged work stress".

Lab staff simulate this kind of stress by putting subjects into situations where they're forced to quickly and constantly switch between various tasks. They then check how this affects brainwaves, breathing and heart functions.

Minna Huotilainen, a brain researcher at the Institute, says that patients report problems with memory, concentration and other problems that can be difficult to calibrate. Broader effects include deep fatigue, sleep disruptions as well as doubting one's own abilities and the meaningfulness of work.

"This is often seen in people who are highly conscientious about their work," says Ritva Muukkonen, an occupational nurse in Helsinki. "They may have struggled at the limits of their endurance for a long time, only seeking help when physical symptoms begin to crop up."

According to occupational health psychologist Marjukka Hämäläinen, treatment must seek changes in both the worker's own behaviour and ways of thinking as well as working conditions.

The institute's studies suggest that around a quarter of employees in Finland have some symptoms of work fatigue, while a few percent suffer from serious burnout.

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