Burnout Syndrome: Exploring Its Origin And Definition

July 3, 2023

Burnout Syndrome

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Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, there has been an 81% increase in online searches for the term “What is burnout?” according to a recent analysis of Google search data. This suggests that a significant number of people have faced difficulties adapting to the new work system.

Burnout syndrome has become a widespread problem in today’s fast-paced and demanding world, affecting individuals in various professions. To gain a better understanding of this complex phenomenon, it is crucial to comprehend its historical context, definition, assessment methods, theoretical models, the World Health Organization (WHO) perspective, and the current state of burnout. This blog post explores the burnout timeline and investigates its origin and current state.

The Birth of Burnout Syndrome

Burnout is a term that has been used to describe a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that results from prolonged stress. Since the 1970’s the concept of burnout has been explored, the publication of Herbert Freudenberger’s book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement helped researchers gain more insight into the meaning of burnout.

However, burnout was initially studied in the context of helping professions, such as healthcare and human services, where job demands can be emotionally taxing.

Herbert Freudenberger and the coining of the Term

Herbert Freudenberger was the first American psychologist to use the word  “burnout”  to describe the reaction of the body to severe stress and which was high in helping professionals.

 Freudenberg started a movement called Free Clinic which was the first of its kind in 1967 in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. The purpose of the clinic was to serve the population of the young and poor who needed help with issues such as ” infections, abscesses, bad drug trips, and general medical problems”.

As the Free Clinic initiative received massive growth Freudenbergers addressed a syndrome which he had experienced as a result of working in the Free Clinic. Freudenberger observed that volunteers whom he worked with in the therapeutic community for drug users also experienced a state of ” depression, apathy, and agitation” and this and other feelings were a vivid explanation of what he felt that led to the birth of the term  “burnt-out syndrome”.

Defining Burnout Syndrome

To understand burnout syndrome, we must grasp its defining features. Burnout is characterised by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy. Exhaustion refers to a state of overwhelming fatigue and lack of energy, both physically and emotionally. Cynicism manifests as a negative attitude, detachment, and a sense of disillusionment towards one’s work, colleagues, and clients. Reduced professional efficacy reflects a decline in productivity, increased errors, and a feeling of incompetence. These dimensions collectively form the framework for identifying and understanding burnout in individuals.

Is Burnout the same as Stress?

The word stress is used interchangeably with burnout hence it can be hard to differentiate between the two. Stress arises from an overwhelming workload, numerous responsibilities, and extended working hours. In contrast, burnout presents an opposite experience. It often leaves individuals feeling deficient—lacking motivation, energy, and genuine care for their work…

Do professionals also mistake depression for burnout? Yes, they do. This is because certain symptoms like exhaustion, and difficulty completing tasks are similar to the symptoms experienced during depression. However, burnout primarily stems from work-related factors and typically does not significantly impact daily life beyond professional settings. On the contrary, depression permeates every facet of one’s existence, accompanied by persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or helplessness.

Assessment for Burnout Syndrome

Burnout syndrome is a psychological syndrome that can affect individuals in various professions. There are several assessment tools available to measure burnout, Maslach Burnout Inventory is the most used assessment tool and is commercially available. However, there are other options, some of them free, such as the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory, the Educator Burnout Inventory, and the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory.

The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI) was originally developed by Demerouti and Nachreiner (1998) and consists of 16 items that evaluate two dimensions of burnout: disengagement and exhaustion. Disengagement refers to a negative attitude towards one’s job and a sense of detachment from work, while exhaustion refers to feelings of being emotionally drained and physically exhausted. OLBI has been found to have good psychometric properties and is used in various occupational groups and countries. OLBI has been found to have good psychometric properties and is used in various occupational groups and countries.

Another tool that can be used to measure burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). Maslach burnout inventory(MBI)  is usually referred to as “ the gold standard for measuring burnout”, MBI uses three scales for its assessment which are: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. The MBI is scored on a seven-point Likert scale, with higher scores indicating higher levels of burnout.

Theoretical Models Explaining Burnout

Here are various theoretical models that have been proposed to understand the mechanisms and contributing factors of burnout: 

The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model:

The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model is a highly influential framework developed by Demerouti, which initially focused on burnout. This model examines the different components within an occupation, namely job demands, and resources. 

Job demands encompass the physical, psychological, social, and organisational aspects of a job that necessitate continuous physical and/or psychological exertion or skills, resulting in potential physiological and/or psychological costs. Examples of job demands include excessive work pressure, unsatisfactory relationships with colleagues and superiors, inflexible working hours, and unfavourable working conditions. It is worth noting that job demands themselves are not inherently negative; they simply refer to the requirements of one’s job. However, they can become stressors when employees are required to exert additional effort to meet targets but struggle to effectively manage the high demands placed upon them.

In contrast, job resources encompass the physical, psychological, social, or organisational aspects of a job that fulfil one or more of the following functions: 

1) reduce job demands and the associated physiological and psychological costs, 

2) facilitate the achievement of work goals, and 3) promote personal growth, learning, and development.

Job resources not only serve as necessary means to meet high job demands but also hold intrinsic value on their own. 

They assist in mitigating the impact of work demands, and when job demands outweigh the available resources, it can lead to burnout.

ERI model:

The ERI model provides a systematic approach to measuring and analysing the interplay between the efforts employees exert in their work and the rewards they anticipate receiving in return. These rewards encompass various aspects such as financial compensation, respect, opportunities for career development, and job security. According to the ERI model, employees naturally expect their efforts to be met with commensurate rewards. However, when there is an imbalance between the level of effort expended and the corresponding rewards received, it creates a discordant scenario. 

This imbalance can lead to a range of negative consequences, including adverse physical and mental health impacts, diminished work efficiency, and even employee attrition. The ERI model specifically highlights factors such as the absence of reciprocity between effort and reward, as well as insufficient levels of respect, esteem, and recognition, as crucial elements in understanding and explaining the development of burnout.

Numerous studies have sought to explore and establish the relationship between ERI and burnout. Their findings consistently indicate that emotional exhaustion, a core component of burnout, is notably associated with factors such as prolonged working hours, high levels of job effort, and inadequate reward. In addition, researchers have observed that individuals who experience ERI tend to exhibit heightened levels of emotional exhaustion, further underscoring the intricate connection between these variables.

Veninga and Spradley’s Stage Model:

Burnout Syndrome

According to Veninga and Spradley (1981), burnout syndrome can be conceptualised as a progression through five distinct stages:

1      The “Honeymoon stage” is characterised by a sense of excitement, enthusiasm, and pride that stems from the novelty and challenges of a new job. However, the coping mechanisms and strategies employed during this stage may later prove to be ineffective. Additionally, this initial euphoria marks the onset of energy depletion.

2.     The “Fuel shortage stage” is marked by vague feelings of fatigue, disrupted sleep patterns, decreased efficiency, and growing dissatisfaction with one’s job. These indicators serve as warning signs of potential future difficulties. Moreover, individuals may resort to behaviours such as increased eating, drinking, and smoking as attempts to cope with the mounting stress

3.     In the “Chronic symptom stage” the physiological manifestations experienced in the previous stage become more pronounced. This stage is characterised by the development of physical symptoms, such as various illnesses, as well as heightened emotional responses like anger, irritability, and depression

4.      As time progresses, the symptoms may escalate to acute psychosomatic disorders during the “Crisis stage.” Conditions like peptic ulcers, tension headaches, chronic backaches, high blood pressure, and sleep disturbances may manifest. In response, individuals may adopt escape mechanisms to cope with feelings of self-doubt, a pessimistic outlook on life, and an overall sense of oppression.

5.       Finally, in the “Hitting the wall stage” individuals experience complete maladaptation due to the failure of their coping mechanisms to effectively address the stressors. It is at this critical point that the model proposed by Veninga and Spradley in 1981 becomes particularly evocative in imagery. Recognising the warning signals and taking preventive measures become crucial steps in managing burnout.

To summarise, Veninga and Spradley proposed a five-stage model to understand the progression of burnout. Starting with the honeymoon phase, individuals navigate through the fuel shortage, chronic symptom, and crisis stages, ultimately culminating in the hitting-the-wall stage. By acknowledging these stages and being aware of their associated warning signs, individuals can potentially take proactive measures to prevent or manage burnout effectively.

The World Health Organisation ‘s Perspective on Burnout

Burnout Syndrome has been acknowledged in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. Moreover, WHO does not classify burnout as a medical condition.

According to the ICD-11, burnout can be defined as follows:

Burnout is a syndrome that emerges when chronic workplace stress is not effectively managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

It is important to understand that burnout is applicable and can be experienced within a work environment, however, it is not advisable for burnout to be used to describe other experiences in other aspects of life.

Burn-out was also recognized in ICD-10, categorised similarly to ICD-11, but the definition now provides more detailed information.

The WHO’s definition of burnout has played a significant role in increasing awareness about the widespread use of burnout. It has sparked a global conversation about prevention and management. By offering a clear understanding of burnout and its dimensions, the WHO has empowered individuals and organisations to identify signs and symptoms of burnout and take necessary measures to address it.

Current State of Burnout

Burnout is a prevalent occurrence affecting many individuals, particularly those operating in high-pressure environments. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated burnout rates among healthcare professionals and essential workers. Nevertheless, there is a growing recognition of burnout and its repercussions on both individuals and organisations. This awareness has resulted in heightened efforts to prevent and address burnout within the workplace.


Burnout poses a significant issue with potentially severe consequences. Nevertheless, there are approaches to comprehend, conquer, and prevent burnout. By acknowledging the signs of burnout, seeking assistance, and prioritising self-care, individuals can take strides toward overcoming burnout and enhancing their overall well-being.

In light of preventing the severe consequences of burnout in organisations and executives, it is strongly advised that organisations utilise burnout workshops, engage burnout keynote speakers, and enlist burnout coaches to effectively implement burnout support and intervention measures. By taking these steps organisations and executives can create and enjoy a healthy,  safe and resilient work environment.

Are you tired of underperforming and feeling exhausted even before you start your daily task? If yes, discover how personalised coaching can be your tool to conquer burnout and transform your well-being and performance by booking a FREE strategy call with either Charlene or Simon today!

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