Burnout: Do You Know What It Is?

The word burnout has many definitions.

  • When I was in high school and college (quite a few years ago), a person called a burnout was someone who was irresponsible and careless due to frequent drug use.
  • Car enthusiasts use the word burnout to describe cars and trucks spinning wheels on asphalt when not moving to create a cloud of smoke from the burning rubber tires.
  • Game players recognize burnout as the name of a game series that featured high-speed racing and crashes.
Burnout from being Buried Alive

Photo credit: Sarah Williams

The most important concept of burnout was coined by Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1974 in an article entitled “Staff burn-out.” In this definition of burnout, it refers to the fallout from dealing with excessive stress for extended periods of time. Since Freudenberger coined the term, there have been several studies to better understand the topic. Burnout can also be called burnout syndrome, exhaustion syndrome and exhaustion depression.

Here are a couple of definitions for burnout:

A Burn-Out is a person overcome by fatigue and frustration which are usually brought about when a job, a cause, a way of life, or relationship fails to produce the expected reward.
— Dr. Herbert J. Freudenbergger in BURN-OUT: The High Cost of High Achievement

Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do “people-work” of some kind.
— Christina Maslach in Burnout: The Cost of Caring

These definitions provide some interesting insight into what burnout is (and isn’t).

  • The lack of desire and energy to be productive is not due to laziness for a person suffering from burnout.
  • The potential for burnout goes well beyond just those who are social workers. Most other jobs, relationships and even volunteers can be at risk.
  • Burnout can be costly due to its negative impact on a person’s ability to be productive.

The impact of burnout makes it important that we all understand what it is and how to avoid it. This not only applies to us as individuals, but it also applies to the organizations we support.

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