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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

The dynamics of burnout: An analysis from a freudo-lacanian point of view

Since we know from epidemiological research that burnout is a widespread phenomenon, its negative consequences should be considered a major problem. Social psychological research concerning burnout demonstrates that people afflicted with burnout often act in a destructive manner [2]. On the one hand, this destructive and counterproductive behaviour can be observed in their relationship towards the organisation they work for. For example, the mental condition of burnout seems to be statistically correlated to theft, dishonesty and other counterproductive deeds; in interpersonal contacts 'the burned-out professional can be irritable and oversensitive but also cool and unemotional bursts of anger may occur'; burnout in professionals correlates negatively with client-satisfaction. Other problems are that cognitive skills are often impaired, leading to all kinds of mistakes. Research on creativity, moreover, indicates that creativity and innovation are inhibited in people with burnout. Their mental condition seems to contradict the mental condition necessary for creative action. Intellectual skills such as fluency, flexibility, and originality of thinking are impaired in burned-out professionals. In 1974 Herbert Freudenberger - an American psychoanalyst - was the first to give burnout its psychological meaning. Although the problem was originally approached form a clinical point of view, the study of the phenomenon remained mainly academic and quantitative in nature. Classical burnout research also abounds with certain difficulties: for example, the discriminative validity of the concept is low (e.g. its difference from depression is hard to discern) and the quantitative research results indicate almost no starting points for intervention. Recently there has been a renewed interest in research that is more clinically and conceptually based. The necessary move we have to make in burnout research is the same move Freud made, i.e. a move from a symptomatic and descriptive picture to a study of causal dynamics (cf. Freud's study of traumatic neurosis). From our point of view, a study of causal dynamics is a precondition for a more precise understanding of the phenomenon.