How Work-Related Burnout Impacts Brain Activity

A new Finnish study finds that people with symptoms of work-related burnout — exhaustion, concentration and memory problems, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy — show brain activity differences while completing stressful tasks.

For example, in people with symptoms of burnout, EEG measurements showed a decreased response in the posterior scalp compared to the brains of controls. But, according to the researchers, this was compensated for by an increased response in the frontal area.

Although work-related burnout symptoms vary around the world, in Finland (where the study was conducted), it is estimated that one in four working-age adults suffers from burnout. In North America, that number may be much higher, with some research showing that 64 percent of employees report high levels of stress, extreme fatigue, and feeling out of control.

“There is a lot of discussion about how important it is to recover from stress and brain research supports this notion. We also know that long-lasting stress is a risk factor in many mental and physical illnesses, therefore, the current situation where every fourth person has difficulties coping is not sustainable,” said psychologist Dr. Laura Sokka from the University of Helsinki.

Using EEG (electroencephalogram) measurements, the researchers analyzed the neural responses of 41 participants who had reported a wide range of burnout symptoms.

An EEG detects electrical activity in the brain using electrodes attached to the scalp. The participants were attached to the EEG while they performed a variety of information processing and auditory tasks. The researchers compared their findings to those of 26 individuals in a control group.

During the study, the participants completed demanding listening, attention, and memory tasks simulating real work assignments. The tasks required quick decision-making in distractive surroundings and alternation between different task types.

Participants experiencing mild burnout symptoms succeeded in the tasks well but their neural responses differed from their controls.

“Apparently, people with burnout symptoms struggle more in performing the tasks than the non-burnout controls. We observed decreased responses in the posterior scalp, and this decrement was compensated by increased responses in the frontal area,” Sokka said.

In addition to neural changes, those experiencing severe burnout symptoms made more errors in the tasks.

“People with mild symptoms can cope with their workload quite long even though it’s straining for the brain. When the symptoms worsen, they also start to make more errors,” she said.

Notably, the EEG measurements also revealed that the participants experiencing burnout symptoms did not react to sudden distracting noises as efficiently as their controls. The tasks and measurements were repeated on the participants this spring and a follow-up study will later give evidence on how permanent the neural response changes are.

Source: University of Helsinki