Original article

Scand J Work Environ Health 2012;38(4):358-369    pdf

doi:10.5271/sjweh.3256 | Published online: 24 Oct 2011, Issue date: 01 Jul 2012

Burned out cognition – cognitive functioning of burnout patients before and after a period with psychological treatment

by Oosterholt BG, Van der Linden D, Maes JHR, Verbraak MJPM, Kompier MAJ

Objectives Many employees with burnout report cognitive difficulties. However, the relation between burnout and cognitive functioning has hardly been empirically validated. Moreover, it is unknown whether the putative cognitive deficits in burnout are temporary or permanent. Therefore, the purpose of the study was to answer two related questions: (i) Is burnout associated with self-reported cognitive difficulties and with deficits in a specific and well-defined set of executive functions? (ii) Do these putative self-reported cognitive difficulties and deficits in executive functioning in burnout diminish after a 10-week period of cognitive behavioral therapy?

Methods Sixteen employees with burnout were compared with sixteen matched healthy employees on self-reported cognitive difficulties and tests measuring the basic executive functions, namely, updating, inhibition, and switching, on two test occasions. The interval between the test occasions was ten weeks, during which the burnout individuals received cognitive behavioral therapy.

Results On the first test occasion, and relative to healthy individuals, individuals with burnout reported more cognitive difficulties and showed deficits in the “updating” function. No group differences were found regarding the “inhibition” and “switching” functions, although individuals with burnout generally responded slower than healthy individuals on the latter test. Even though after the ten-week treatment period individuals with burnout revealed positive changes regarding burnout symptoms, general health, and self-reported cognitive difficulties, no evidence was found for improved cognitive test performance.

Conclusions These findings suggest that either (i) burnout leads to permanent cognitive deficits, (ii) subjective burnout complaints reduce faster than deficits in cognitive test performance, or (iii) cognitive deficits are a cause rather than a consequence of burnout.

This article refers to the following text of the Journal: 2007;33(3):223-232
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