Burnout was originally described in the 1970s by American psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson. They developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (1981), which assesses three dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and inefficacy (a reduced sense of personal accomplishment).

Burnout is a psychological syndrome involving a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors. It is a state of exhaustion and diminished interest, usually in one’s occupation, but it can also apply to other emotionally involving work such as caretaking (e.g., caring for a person with a severe disability or illness).

  • Especially prevalent among workers who do “people-work” (e.g., caregivers and helping professionals), emotional exhaustion refers to the depletion of one’s emotional resources, the feeling that one has nothing left to give to others at a psychological level.
  • Depersonalization is the development of negative and callous attitudes about the people with whom one works; this can lead workers to view that clients as somehow deserving of their troubles.

There is a relationship between the three dimensions, with exhaustion predicting cynicism, which can lead to inefficacy (Leiter & Maslach, 2009b).

Conditions that can contribute to employee burnout include unrealistic personal expectations about the job as well as lack of positive feedback, control, role clarity (job expectations), and social support. Burnout has been linked to employee turnover, absenteeism, poor work performance, and difficulties with health and personal relationships (Maslach & Jackson, 1985).

A 10-year study of hospital admissions among forest workers in Finland found links between burnout and higher levels of hospitalization for cardiovascular and mental health disorders (Toppinen-Tanner, Ahola, Koskinen, & Väänänen, 2009).

Studies in Greece and the Netherlands found that burnout can spill over from an employee experiencing work-related burnout to the employee’s partner. Employee burnout is associated with higher levels of poor health and depression in the employee’s partner (Bakker, 2009).

A two-year-long study by Maslach and Michael Leiter looking at the implications of burnout on workplace safety found that workload and level of exhaustion predicted the incidence of workplace injuries.

They posited that workplace stress can impair job performance by impairing cognitive functioning and reducing a worker’s capacity for complex physical skills. The study concluded that workplace accidents undermine the quality of work life by defining the workplace as unsafe and introducing doubts about an organization’s concern for its employees (Leiter & Maslach, 2009a).

Leiter and Maslach (2009b) identify a continuum, with burnout at one end and engagemet with one’s job on the other. The quality of an individual’s work experience can be captured by identifying an individual’s location on this continuum. They have found that individual functioning in six areas of work life can serve as predictors of burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. A study of emergency room nurses in Ankara, Turkey, found that nurses working in the private (as opposed to public) sector found it more difficult to express their anger; higher levels of unexpressed anger were associated with a greater degree of burnout (Ersoy-Kart, 2009).

A Turkish study of mothers caring for children with intellectual disabilities found that an intervention in which nurses provided psychoeducation to mothers reduced the incidence of burnout.

The psychoeducational intervention included providing information about the specific health care and educational needs of children with intellectual disabilities, resources (e.g., nonprofit organizations that provide assistance to families), and ways in which parents could cope with stress.

Mothers in the intervention group reported fewer episodes of burnout and emotional stress than a control group that received no intervention (Bilgin & Gozum, 2009). A study of workers who underwent interventions for burnout found that recovery from burnout was likelier to occur when there were decreased job demands and increased job resources. Recovery from burnout was associated with increased job satisfaction and decreased levels of depression (Hätinen et al., 2009).

An online survey found that physicians who specialize in hospice and palliative medicine utilize multiple strategies to prevent burnout. Strategies included maintaining physical well-being, professional relationships, talking with others, hobbies, clinical variety, personal relationships, personal boundaries, time away from work, and passion for one’s work. The study concluded that a diverse portfolio of coping strategies is necessary to prevent burnout (Swetz, Harrington, Matsuyama, Shanafelt, & Lyckholm, 2009).

See also:
  1. Bakker, A.B. (2009). The crossover of burnout and its relation to partner health. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 25, 343 – 353.
  2. Bilgin, S., & Gozum, S. (2009). Reducing burnout in mothers with an intellectually disabled child: An education programme. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 65, 2552 – 2561.
  3. Ersoy-Kart, M. (2009). Relations among social support, burnout, and experiences of anger: An investigation among emergency nurses. Nursing Forum, 44, 165 – 174.
  4. Hätinen, M., Kinnunen, U., Mäkikangas, A., Kalimo, R., Tolvanen, A., & Pekkonen, M. (2009). Burnout during a long-term rehabilitation: Comparing low burnout, high burnout-benefited, and high burnout-not benefited trajectories. Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 22, 341 – 360.
  5. Leiter, M.P. & Maslach, C. (2009a). Burnout and workplace injuries: A longitudinal analysis. In A. M. Rossi, J. C. Quick, & P. L. Quick, & P. L. Perrewe (Eds.), Stress and quality of working life: The positive and the negative (pp. 3 -18). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
  6. Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The Maslach Burnout Inventory (Res. ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
  7. Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1985). The role of sex and family variables in burnout. Sex Roles, 12, 837 – 851.
  8. Swetz, K. M. Harrington, S. E., Matsuyama, R.K., Shanafelt, T.D., & Lyckholm, L.J. (2009). Strategies for avoiding burnout in hospice and palliative medicine: Peer advice for physicans on achieving longevity and fulfillment. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 12, 773 – 777.
  9. Toppinen-Tanner, S., Ahola, K., Koskinen, A., & Väänänen, A. (2009). Burnout predicts hospitalization for mental and cardiovascular disorders: 10-year prospective results from industrial sector. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 25, 287 – 296.