Interview on the Subject of Burnout

"Everything seems to be becoming higher, faster, further. Limits to time and space are dissolving: Anything goes!"

Dr. Wehmeier, what is your opinion of the statement that “burnout” is merely a trendy diagnosis?

Burnout is not some passing fad. It´s not even a diagnosis as such. Rather it is a process of exhaustion that may result in clinical depression. Mental exhaustion can affect any one of us, regardless of age, sex or profession. A study of Robert Koch Institute in Berlin from 2012 showed that 5% of all adult women and 3% of all adult men queried in Germany were suffering from burnout. These numbers clearly demonstrate the extent of the problem and convey a feeling for the magnitude of the stress affecting such people.

What are the most typical signs of mental exhaustion?

Everyday life can be affected in many different ways. At work people suffering from burnout experience little joy in their job, they feel overwhelmed and taxed by their work. Some have the feeling of being snowed under and react with great irritability. But outside of work the signs of mental exhaustion continue: dejection, despondence, inner emptiness. They feel so exhausted that they are unable to participate in recreational activities as well and may even withdraw from their social surroundings completely. Many develop sleeping problems and drink more alcohol than they perhaps used to. Some people start taking tranquilizers. Some get physical or psychosomatic symptoms – headaches or backaches.

How do you explain the increase in the incidence of mental exhaustion?

Ours is a world oriented toward success. Being successful is considered one of the highest values in life – a measure of all things – at least for many of us. We all want to be appreciated and to be accepted in our professional lives. We always want to achieve more, to accomplish more, but there are limits. Higher, faster, further! Who wants to be left behind in such a world and be deemed a failure? On the other hand, the breadth of possible paths to success seems nearly unlimited. The multitude of possibilities before us puts pressure on the individual and creates great decision stress. Indecision as well as a great fear of failure may ensue.

Why should we turn to self-management?

The information we are constantly being fed and have to process is becoming ever more complex. Our mental capacities, our feelings, our decision-making capabilities are being stretched and strained in ways previously not experienced. Day in and day out we have to adapt at work to very rapidly changing demands that require our finding ways and means to plan our actions and make the respective decisions. Also, we are surrounded by colleagues with whom we must interact to ensure that our work is carried out appropriately and efficiently. In a sense, everyone has become his or her own “manager” – and self-management is one way to both think and act effectively.

How can self-management actually be implemented in daily life?

If you want to change something, you have to start with yourself. Change begins by looking in the mirror. First, you don´t always have to fulfill the expectations of others; rather, we should be completely conscious of our own needs. I always suggest to clients that they take a good hard look at what they usually consider “success.” Don´t be a failure simply because you´re chasing the wrong ideals. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. This also means taking control of your own life and changing what needs to be changed.

Can´t external factors sometimes lead to being overwhelmed by one´s own demands?

Oh, quite definitely! Our thoughts determine our feelings – and vice versa! A particular situation is not in and of itself “good” or “bad.” We all have the capacity to decide how we judge a particular situation. Once we learn to regulate our thoughts and feelings in a constructive manner, we are free to develop a generally positive approach to things. Our actions then become more constructive as well. Often we are too hard on ourselves, have very high expectations, are too serious and use too little humor. The negative emotions we foster can determine how much stress we experience and in fact sometimes even increase the load on our shoulders.

Who are you appealing to with your approach?

With my method of self-management I would like to reach people who are under great mental strain or may be approaching burnout. I would like to help them extract themselves from that situation and find a path to go forward. My method derives from practical experiences. A couple of years ago I developed a self-management program for managers and implemented it in an American company. The great success of that endeavor encouraged me to make the core elements of that program available to a wider audience.

What role does preventing mental exhaustion play?

Avoiding mental exhaustion in the first place is a very important step, for both individuals and for organizations and companies. I would like to help individuals to better perceive the warning signs and learn how to counteract them before they can cause harm; or if the person is already in the midst of a vicious circle leading to exhaustion, to help them find their way out. Managers must also be able to recognize and identify the warning signs exhibiting in their employees or coworkers. This allows us to intervene before a total collapse has occurred and before the person in question has effectively become incapacitated.

What final thoughts on this subject would you like to impart?

While reading Friedrich Nietzsche I found a very pertinent description of the role of tranquility and enjoying the good things in life: “All good things have a certain casualness about them, they lie like cows on the meadow.” That reflects much of what may also be found in Taoism, which may serve as a guiding theme for effective self-management: Find a way back to yourself and protect life with a sense of tranquility. That, in my opinion, is the most important message, both in self-management and in life in general.