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How to find meaning when everything is broken


“When you suffer from clinical burn-out, the question if there is any meaning in life often becomes central. Health care providers should therefore focus more on helping clinical burn-out patients to recover a sense of meaning in life,” says Ann-Kristin Eriksson, researcher at the University of Gävle.

We need a sense of meaning

Stress-related illness is today the most common reason for sick-leave in Sweden, and clinical burn-out is a growing public health problem involving suffering for the individual and great costs for society.

On-going research attempts to understand what is going on and what we need to understand to tackle this problem. When suffering from clinical burn-out, people are affected physically, psychologically and socially but also existentially.

“This resource for health is not used, although having and finding a meaning in life and to be able to reconnect to that sense of meaning is crucial,” Ann-Kristin Eriksson says.

“When losing their capacity to work, many people experience a loss of meaning in life. Still, in health care, existential questions, people’s need for a meaning in life, are not paid as much attention to as they should.”

What remains

Ann-Kristin interviewed patients who had been on sick-leave for several years and who attended a rehabilitation programme started by seven care providers. These care providers had earlier worked for several years with rehabilitation, but felt that people’s existential questions and needs were not given adequate attention in health care.

“When you become ill, your head is spinning with questions: what is really meaningful right now, and is there any point in living at all now? So, these existential issues are what remains.”

A sense of coherence

Research shows how important it is for people to have a sense of coherence—to see that life makes sense, that it can be reasonably managed and filled with meaning.

“If you have such a sense of coherence, you can deal with everything that we have to face, like stress, illness, misery and death; you have a platform that can function as a kind of resource.”

“You feel that even if you were hit by this distressing experience, there are still things in life that are meaningful, things that you still have.

‘Tacit knowledge’

Those who work in cancer care or in palliative care, recognise this connection and for them it is not strange that this is a resource.

“This tacit knowledge is shared by many who work in health care, but it is not given a place within the system.”

“This resource for health could be used also in preventive work, to make people stop and think before things have gone too far.”

Not letting things go too far

From a public health perspective, we shouldn’t let things go too far for the individual. Already at the healthcare centre, when the patient is seeking help for sleep disturbances or stomach aches, existential perspectives should be involved.

The interviewed people say that a few meetings with a psychologist are not enough. These issues are so complex that they need someone who can help them to see the whole picture.

“We should never forget the fact that we all have resources, a will to live and aspects of our lives that we find meaningful. But we may have distanced ourselves from these too much and need help to find them and reconnect with them again.”

“Our experiences affect our future life. But distressing ones do not only have to be negative, there can also be positive effects.”


Ann-Kristin Eriksson defended her dissertation ”Vid utmattningens gräns. Utmattningssyndrom som existentiellt tillstånd. Vårdtagares och vårdgivarens erfarenheter av utmattningssyndrom och rehabilitering med en existentiell ansats i svensk vårdkontext” at Mid Sweden University, 17 November 2016.

For more information, please contact:

Ann-Kristin Eriksson, lecturer in Religious Studies at University of Gävle
Tel: 026-64 84 25, 073- 745 46 48
e-post: ann-kristin.eriksson@hig.se

Text: Douglas Öhrbom   

Published by: Douglas Öhrbom Page responsible: Anders Munck Updated: 2017-03-10
Högskolan i Gävle
Box 801 76 GÄVLE
026-64 85 00 (växel)