burnout

The discovery — for lack of a better word — and naming of burnout is usually attributed to clinical psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and social psychologist Christina Maslach. The two (both of whom have extraordinary personal backgrounds, but we’ll leave that for another time) worked separately and apparently unknown to each other, but identified similar syndromes — originally considered something more like compassion fatigue unique to helping professions — and assigned the same name to it: Burnout.

This was in the early 1970s.

Maslach defined burnout as a work-related syndrome characterized by exhaustion, depersonalization (later, reframed as cynicism) and occupational inefficacy. But the term was quickly adopted as a popular catchall, taken to mean anything from overwork to acute stress to tiredness to job dissatisfaction to personal overwhelm. (Experts will say they agree on what burnout is and how it should be measured, but their work reveals they’re just as loosey-goosey as the rest of us. Based on a systematic review of physician burnout, researchers found there was little they could conclude about it: “Studies used at least 142 unique definitions for meeting overall burnout or burnout subscale criteria, indicating substantial disagreement in the literature on what constituted burnout…. Overall burnout prevalence ranged from 0% to 80.5%.”)

The public’s use of burnout to mean whatever we want it to mean in the moment was inevitable; burnout was a crowdsourced term with multiple meanings long before Freudenberger and Maslach appropriated it.

Freudenberger would’ve been hearing the term from his free-clinic patients (he quotes a dictionary definition in his original paper on the topic), and Maslach heard the term growing up as the daughter of an engineer who worked with the space program and spoke of burned out rocket boosters. Eventually she asked study subjects what they’d call their debilitating job experience and observed them perk up when they heard the suggestion, “Burnout?” 

Burnout always meant a lot of things. The word even was front and center in Graham Greene’s popular 1960 novel A Burnt-out Case. Its use as a wildcard only accelerated as the term was popularized by psychologists.

The etymology of burnout should offer us lessons in claiming and naming supposed psychological discoveries. If burnout was originally dubbed with a specific, descriptive term like Tridimensional Occupational Stress Syndrome (TOSS) — rather than asking subjects what they’d call it and offering a few suggestions from popular idioms — our course of understanding, preventing, and remediating it may have unfolded more efficiently and effectively..