To Your Health: Burnout

Aug 7, 2019

In the late 1970s, psychoanalyst Herbert Fruedenberger coined the term “burnout” to compare his feelings of exhaustion in response to stress with the way his patients’ cigarettes sometimes burned out while they were holding them. While burnout has been the focus of many studies in the last four decades, and an inventory was developed by Dr. Christina Maslach to measure it, the concept of burnout was often disputed and not officially recognized as a mental disorder. The World Health Organization only recently recognized burnout in 2018 as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Although it is unclear precisely what causes burnout, Dr. Maslach and her colleagues postulate that the best and most idealistic workers experience burnout—stating, “You have to have been on fire in order to burn out.”. Dedicated workers are more likely to develop exhaustion, depersonalization, and the feeling of a lack of personal achievement when their sacrifice is insufficient to achieve their goals.

Because burnout is unlike depression in that it applies specifically to the context of work, organizational solutions need to be sought rather than individual ones. This can put the worker in a tough position, as it can be hard to ask employers for shorter working hours, job rotation, new training opportunities or other ways to improve their job conditions. However, the support of colleagues, friends, and family can often help someone cope with burnout.


Freudenberger, H. J. (1977). Speaking from Experience. Training & Development Journal, 31(7), 26.

World Health Organization. (2018). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th Revision). Retrieved from

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job Burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397-423.