Burnout doesn’t just mean being tired, or stressed out, after a long day or before a big deadline – occasional stress is a normal part of a busy and healthy life.  Burnout syndrome is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and the U.S. National Library of Medicine.  Additionally, the Mayo Clinic distinguishes burnout as a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about either your competence or the value of your work.

The term “burnout” was coined by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger originally, in the 1970’s. He used it to specifically describe the experience of workers in the “helping” professions (doctors, nurses, etc.) who suffered severe stress and “high ideals” that often resulted in a feeling of being “burned out” — exhausted, listless, and unable to cope, as he defined. More broadly defined it has also been referred to as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.”  Since the 70’s, study into burnout syndrome has broadened, including ongoing research by Christina Maslach, professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.  Considered a “pioneer” in early burnout research since the 1970’s, she and her team developed a method to survey professional burnout, called the Maslach Burnout Inventory.  It uses 22 elements of assessment, broken down into the 3 broad areas considered critical for a diagnosis:

  • Emotional exhaustion — emotionally overextended, drained without a source of replenishment. The chronic feeling that an individual can’t face another day.
  • Cynicism or depersonalization — a loss of idealism, having a negative, callous or excessively detached response to other coworkers, patients and other people in general.
  • Reduced personal efficacy — a decline in feelings of competence and productivity at work, specifically related to the impact of one’s work. This is often combined with reduced work performance.

While not many statistics on the overall rate of burnout are available, it is clear that burnout isn’t just a problem in the US.  According to Professor Maslach, interest in burnout corresponds with the economic development of countries —as the economies of India and China grow, burnout reports and research is also growing.

Additionally, symptoms of burnout may overlap with other mental health disorders including depression.   A study done in the Department of Psychology at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health Burnout revealed that depressive disorders and burnout were clearly related. They found that the risk of depressive disorders, most notably major depressive disorder, was greater when burnout at work was severe. And half of the participants with that reported sever burnout had some depressive disorder.

So while not everyone who experiences work-related burnout will be clinically depressed, it may increase the risk; professionals recommend professional evaluation or help in the instance where symptoms persist over a long period.

To read more about burnout and it’s impact for mental health professionals, visit www.psychcentral.com