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..
A lot of employers offer pseudo-interventions I call “burn-washing” — they give employees a week off, for example, and proclaim themselves mental health heroes — to deflect accountability for job burnout.
I’m all for time off, but it doesn’t do anything for burnout if workers return to the same job conditions — or conditions that are worse because workload accumulated while everyone was kicking back for a week.
In a recent post, I shared the American Psychiatric Association’s latest tips on how to burn-wash. Yeesh.
A new vision of burnout solutions will have to address not just individual treatments and not just organizational interventions… but requisite changes in how our society views work, merit, and leisure. More on this in a future post.
The media and self-help industry offer a lot of bad advice on how to ease burnout: Be here now. Suffer through a resilience workshop. Dance to your favorite song (no, really — I witnessed a PhD-level psychologist prescribing this as a burnout remedy in a webinar for mental health coaches).
Now, in a post called Burnout: Small Changes Lead to Big Results (soon to be followed by an infographic), the American Psychiatric Association weighs in with its own tepid, unfounded advice, cloaked in a veneer of evidence: “Remind leaders…; Find opportunities…; Remind everyone…; Find ways…; Evaluate and ensure…; Consider part of the job… Find ways.”
“Small Changes, Big Impact“? Well, the first half is true.
There’s no reason to think the Association’s tips will lead to any impact at all — big or small. To suggest otherwise is as dismissive of the pain of hardworking people as… well, as advice to dance to your favorite song.
I don’t mean to throw shade on the American Psychiatric Association. They don’t have much to work with. Nearly 50 years ago, psychologists came up with some compelling ideas about burnout. All these years later, we have no meaningful advice to offer employers — and no response to the folk remedies hawked by the self-help, HR consulting, and burgeoning mental health industries — because the research has been nothing other than a hot mess ever since.
Maybe it’s time for a reset? I’ll say more about this in a future post.
We have to do better than “Find ways.”
If you can find some downtime (or some treadmill time?), listen to “Dealing With Burnout” the Wisconsin Public Radio Morning Show. One of the guests was Monique Valcour PhD CPCC, who has a gift for articulating, in super-practical terms, the connection between work and wellbeing. Monique explains what burnout really is, and delivers keen insight when the first caller makes a reference to the role of autonomy in addressing his own burnout. She talks about burnout as an “interpersonal phenomenon” and notes the supportive effects of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. And she provides practical tips for workplace leaders.
By the way, not only is it essential for us wellness professionals to address the burnout that occurs amongst employees, but I’m observing that it’s increasingly common within HR, Employee Benefits, and Employee Wellness teams. So if you don’t feel the need to learn about burnout for your organization, learn about it as an act of compassion for yourself.