Reduced recognition of facial emotional expressions in global burnout and burnout depersonalization in healthcare providers

Valentina Colonnello, Luca Carnevali, Paolo Maria Russo, Cristina Ottaviani, Valeria Cremonini, Emanuele Venturi, Katia Mattarozzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The healthcare provider profession strongly relies on the ability to care for others' emotional experiences. To what extent burnout may relate to an actual alteration of this key professional ability has been little investigated. In an experimentally controlled setting, we investigated whether subjective experiences of global burnout or burnout depersonalization (the interpersonal component of burnout) relate to objectively measured alterations in emotion recognition and to what extent such alterations are emotion specific. Healthcare workers (n = 90) completed the Maslach Burnout Inventory and a dynamic emotion recognition task in which faces with neutral emotional expressions gradually changed to display a specific basic emotion (happiness, anger, fear, or sadness). Participants were asked to identify and then classify each displayed emotion. Before the task, a subsample of 46 participants underwent two salivary cortisol assessments. Individuals with global burnout were less accurate at recognizing others' emotional expressions of anger and fear, tending to misclassify these as happiness, compared to individuals without global burnout. Individuals with high burnout depersonalization were more accurate in recognizing happiness and less accurate in recognizing all negative emotions, with a tendency to misclassify the latter as positive ones, compared to healthcare workers with moderate/low depersonalization. Moreover, individuals with high depersonalization-but not participants with global burnout-were characterized by higher cortisol levels. These results suggest that the subjective burnout experience relates to an actual, but selective, reduction in the recognition of facial emotional expressions, characterized by a tendency to misclassify negative emotional expressions as positive ones, perhaps due to an enhanced seeking of positive social cues. This study adds to the understanding of emotional processing in burnout and paves the way for more nuanced studies on the role of altered processing of threat signals in the development and/or persistence of burnout.

Original languageEnglish
Article number10610
Publication statusPublished - Jan 13 2021


  • Burnout
  • Emotion recognition
  • Experimental task
  • Healthcare providers
  • Nurses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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