From the beginning of our work together, back in the Before You Start section, we have noted that people in many professions, but particularly the helping professions, face significant burnout risks. We will spell that out in more detail here, providing you with some terminology, some signs and symptoms, and some reminders about stages of burnout.

One very useful definition of burnout which we have adapted from the seminal work of Herbert Freudenberger (1980), who coined the term "burnout," Christina Maslach (1982) and Bob Veninga and Jim Spradley (1981):

A debilitating psychological condition brought about by unrelieved work stress, resulting in:

  • Depleted energy and emotional exhaustion

  • Lowered resistance to illness

  • Increased depersonalization in interpersonal relationships

  • Increased dissatisfaction and pessimism
  • Increased absenteeism and work inefficiency
The key word in this definition is "unrelieved," not "stress." As we have said, stress is a given; it is a fact of life. The key is to personally and systemically ensure that the inevitable stresses are addressed, lest the burnout risks escalate if the stresses spiral up unabated and unchecked.

Freudenberger's seminal work, by the way, was with storefront clinic street workers in the 1960's, typically idealistic, well educated, committed young people who wanted to do their part to make the world a better place. They were very motivated and very energetic. When Freudenberger conducted his interviews with them several months into their placements, however, they often spoke of their physical and emotional exhaustion: "I just don't have any more fuel in my tank...I still care, but I have no energy any more...it's like I was on fire, but it burned out..." So the term "burnout" emerged organically from these conversations.

Before we go further, we want to go back to this notion of helping professionals being at greater burnout risk than people in other professions. The subtitle of Maslach's (1982) book title says it all: it is Burnout: The Cost of Caring. The very fact that you care about other people puts you at greater risk of burning out than if you did not care. It's another of those stress-related paradoxes we have mentioned throughout our work with you. If you were totally not invested in what you were doing, you might be at risk to rusting out, but not to burning out.

As Freudenberger learned all those years ago, to burn out carries with it the clear implication that at some point previously you were on fire. So, symbolically speaking, the essence of burnout prevention is keeping the fire stoked.

You enter the profession in the first place with high ideals of service to others -- this makes you a burnout risk. [Question: Doesn't it make sense that no one would enter a helping profession with the intention of messing up others' lives?]

In the helping professions, typically you daily face lots of red tape, regulations, and mandates, coupled with the high expectations of service, yet often accompanied by relatively low salaries -- this makes you a burnout risk.

You don't punch a clock, and since you care about what you do you typically take work home with you -- this makes you a burnout risk.

Even as hard as you have studied...this makes you a burnout risk.

Click here to read a story that exemplifies the burnout risk.

The cost of caring. Think about it for a moment: if you care about your job, you're going to tend to work harder at it. As you're successful at what you do, you are more likely to be noticed, respected, and asked to do more for the good of the cause at work or in the profession. This will put more demands on your time and energy. The very fact that you care will mean that you are more likely, not less likely, to be sought after for committee work and other leadership responsibilities because your peers respect and trust you. And, over time, as we mentioned above, unless you are taking care of yourself so as to prevent burnout, you will be increasingly at risk because of your commitment to giving and giving and giving. Unless you also are replenishing yourself, there are limits to how much you are able to continue to give, unabated.

Maslach and Leiter's (1997) more recent work, presented in their book The Truth about Burnout, defined burnout more in terms of the systemic disconnect between a person's true self and their expectations about their work, as opposed to the realities of what they actually find themselves experiencing at work. Their definition of burnout is given below.

Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will -- an erosion of the human soul. (Maslach and Leiter, 1997, p. 24)

Maslach and Leiter went on to reinforce the notion that it is not the fault of the worker that they experience burnout, but rather that the strong impact of the work environment mitigates either toward promoting burnout or preventing burnout in a particular setting. The six systemic sources of burnout that are discussed in detail in Maslach and Leiter's book are:

work overload
lack of control
insufficient reward
unfairness
breakdown of a sense of community
value conflict

Workplace leaders and administrative officers thus have a significant role to play in the promotion of healthy workplace environments. We would caution, however, that sometimes this is the case, and sometimes it decidedly is not. Therefore, we go back to our fundamental theme that it is essential for you to be paying careful attention to:

how well you are doing

how positively you are feeling about your experience

how well you are regularly engaging in the kinds of self-care activities that you know help to keep you vital

In other words, to paraphrase the environmentalist credo "Think globally, act locally," we urge you to "Think systemically, but continue to act personally." You always can be the critical element in your self-care, regardless of the nature of your workplace environment. [Recall the Commitment, Control, Challenge model cited from the work of Suzanne Kobasa and her colleagues in the Stress Resistant Personalities section of this website?]

To reinforce one crucial element of Maslach and Leiter's (1997) definition of burnout, we also would like to offer one more very straightforward definition, which one of us (Tim) first learned about in a training some years ago with psychotherapist Rachel Naomi Remen. Remen, whose clinical practice for years specialized in terminally ill persons, their family members, and burned out helping professionals, defined burnout as follows:

* Burnout is the loss of meaning in one's work *

Remen's work with her burned out clients, then, involved a process of accompanying them on an exploration of what drew them to their work in the first place, how that squared with their present experience, and how appropriately to mourn the loss of what no longer was in place for them so that they then could begin to move forward once again.

Similarly, Tom Skovholt's excellent book The Resilient Practitioner (2001) makes a distinction between the traditional notion of burnout as impacted by a person's caring [as we discussed earlier regarding Christina Maslach's work] and the notion of burnout as impacted by a person's meaning. Skovholt wrote:

Meaning burnout occurs when the calling of caring for others and giving to others in an area such as emotional development, intellectual growth, or physical wellness no longer gives sufficient meaning in one's life. Individuals in the caring professions derive much "psychic income" from helping others. In religious terms, such occupations are often labeled a calling, a calling to something of great value. When the meaning of the work disappears, an existential crisis can develop, and meaning burnout can result. My definition is that meaning burnout occurs when the meaning of the work has been lost and the existential purpose for the work is gone. (Skovholt, 2001, pp. 111-112)

To complete this section on burnout, we want to refer you to Veninga and Spradley's (1981) work on stages of burnout. Their model may help you to assess how far down the road toward burnout you might be at this point in time, The stages can be a useful tool for you to reality test how you are doing and also a potential wake-up call to action. Click on the button below to learn about descriptors of the stages of burnout.