New traffic light model helps in identifying risk of occupational burnout

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health publishes a new, freely available method for assessing risk of occupational burnout. This traffic light model based on limit values is much needed, as research shows that approximately one in four working Finns experiences symptoms of occupational burnout.
Työntekijät tutkivat päätettä varastossa
Jari Hakanen
Jari Hakanen
Janne Kaltiainen
Janne Kaltiainen

Finnish Institute of Occupational Health media release, 30 November 2022

A new method for assessing occupational burnout, developed in Belgium, was tested and validated in the “Resilient Employees in Changing Work Life” research project conducted by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health. The method takes into account the four symptoms that are currently considered signs of occupational burnout: chronic fatigue, mental distancing from work, impairment of cognitive function and disruption of emotional control.

“Occupational burnout is a persistent problem in Finnish work life, and many people who experience burnout as well as their supervisors and colleagues report that they have not recognised the symptoms in time. Now we have a reliable and free-of-charge method that can be used by occupational health services and even directly at workplaces in order to identify work communities with high levels of stress,” says Jari Hakanen, Research Professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

Limit values indicate elevated risk

The project produced a so-called traffic light model based on limit values for elevated risk of experiencing occupational burnout and for likely occupational burnout. The limit values are based on statistical comparison of responses by randomly selected working-age Finns and clients of Mehiläinen Oy experiencing occupational burnout. This approach allowed defining the limit values of occupational burnout more reliably than before.

According to the new limit values, in June 2021 a total of 16.5 per cent of working-age Finns had an elevated risk of occupational burnout and 7.4 per cent experienced likely occupational burnout. At the end of 2019, three months before the pandemic began, these figures were 14.9 per cent for elevated risk and 6.7 per cent for likely occupational burnout, demonstrating a slight increase in occupational burnout during the first year of COVID-19.

Finland, Belgium and the Netherlands are the only countries that have defined similar limit values for occupational burnout. It was also shown that the limit values are surprisingly similar in all three countries, so the limit values presented now apply to all three of these countries.

“The assessment method and the traffic light model will help occupational health services in assessing both the situation of individual employees and well-being of entire work communities. Responding to the survey by itself already constitutes an intervention that promotes impactful factors that create change,” says Suvi Suortamo, leading occupational psychologist for Mehiläinen.

Occupational burnout assessment handbook to be freely available

In connection with publishing the new occupational burnout assessment tool (Burnout Assessment Tool or BAT) and the traffic light model, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health will also publish a handbook that inspects the method’s reliability and provides instructions in its use. The handbook will be freely available.

Defined by core symptoms, occupational burnout refers to an inability and resulting lack of motivation to invest in work. The handbook presents the so-called traffic light model of occupational burnout, meaning limit values for likely occupational burnout (red zone), elevated risk of occupational burnout (yellow zone) and a lack of occupational burnout symptoms (green zone).

“Inspected in a variety of ways, the new method was found to be reliable. As expected, it demonstrates a clear correlation with stress factors, such as excessive amount of work and an inverse correlation with occupational resources, such as good management and functional collegial relationships. The method also successfully differentiated occupational burnout from symptoms of depression, demonstrating that these are two different phenomena,” says Specialist Researcher Janne Kaltiainen.

It was also found that, for the most part, stress in private life is clearly less correlated with occupational burnout compared with occupational stress. Other factors that showed very little correlation to occupational burnout include age, gender and level of education.

“In public discourse, common ideas include phenomena such as prevalence of occupational burnout symptoms among young people and women. Although women and people with lower levels of education were slightly more likely to experience symptoms of occupational burnout, differences with other groups of people remained very small. Occupational burnout can happen to anyone in stressful situations with insufficient resources,” says Jari Hakanen.

Further information

Research Professor Jari Hakanen, jari.hakanen [at] (jari[dot]hakanen[at]ttl[dot]fi), tel. +358 40 562 5433

Specialist Researcher Janne Kaltiainen, janne.kaltiainen [at] (janne[dot]kaltiainen[at]ttl[dot]fi), tel. +358 50 476 5980


Resilient employees in changing work life research project 2019–2022

  • The project aims to increase understanding of proactive, communal, and management methods that can promote well-being at work in changing work life.
  • The research also re-defined occupational burnout in order to promote its identification, prevention and follow-up.
  • The project carried out a study based on a representative sample of working-age Finns that surveyed the state and prevalence of occupational burnout, work engagement and workaholism in Finland. A total of seven workplace took part in the project’s longitudinal follow-up: A-lehdet, Fujitsu, IBM, Ilmarinen, the City of Kuopio, NCC and Snellman. They represent a variety of different industrial sectors and professional groups.
    Mehiläinen Oy was a co-operative partner of the project in creating the traffic light model of occupational burnout.
  • The project was funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and the pension insurance company Varma.

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