Vagal and sympathetic activity in burnouts during a mentally demanding workday

Ydwine J. Zanstra, Jan M. H. Schellekens*, Cas Schaap, Libbe Kooistra

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Objective: We study differences in task performance and related sympathetic-vagal reaction patterns between burnouts and controls during a mentally demanding workday. Method: Thirty-nine adults with burnout and 40 healthy controls performed mental tasks during a simulated workday. At pretest, just before lunch (lunch test) and at the end of the day (posttest), a Stroop color word task was administered as a probe task. Efficiency (the relation between performance and effort during the probe task), performance (reaction time and errors), and effort (self-report) were measured, as well as cardiovascular indices of sympathetic (blood pressure) and vagal (respiratory sinus arrhythmia) activity. Results: Performance and effort investment of both burnouts and controls did not differ during pretest. As the day progressed the performance of controls improved more than the performance of burnouts. Moreover, the control group showed a decrease of blood pressure in response to mental task demands, a decrease in respiratory sinus arrhythmia activity, and no change in experienced effort. In the burnout group, no change could be demonstrated in blood pressure, suggesting a sympathetic predominance in the sympathetic-vagal balance. Burnouts experienced an increase in effort and were more tired at the end of the workday. Conclusion: Burnouts and healthy controls differ in their pattern of sympathetic-vagal activity only after long-lasting work demands. Findings give limited support to Porges's view that in healthy subjects, the vagal system is more responsive to challenging task situations than in chronically stressed individuals. The distinction between two phases in the burnout on the basis of behavioral and physiological characteristics is discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)583-590
Number of pages8
JournalPsychosomatic Medicine
Volume68
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2006

Keywords

  • burnout
  • cardiovascular reactivity
  • autonomic control
  • blood pressure
  • heart rate variability
  • parasympathetic-vagal balance
  • EFFORT-REWARD IMBALANCE
  • HEART-RATE-VARIABILITY
  • BLOOD-PRESSURE
  • CARDIAC CONTROL
  • JOB STRAIN
  • CORTISOL
  • STRESS
  • ASSOCIATION
  • ENDOCRINE
  • RESPONSES

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