Everyone feels frustrated and frazzled with their jobs from time to time. But burnout goes beyond the occasional bad day — or bad week.

“Burnout is a ‘silent condition’ induced by chronic stress that is characterized by emotional [or] physical exhaustion, cynicism and a lack of professional efficacy,” according to Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World.

Psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in 1974. ((He also coauthored, with Geraldine Richelson, the first book on burnout, called Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement.)) He defined burnout as ”the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

In his book, Freudenberger compared job burnout to a burned-out building.

If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight. What had once been a throbbing, vital structure is now deserted. Where there had once been activity, there are now only crumbling reminders of energy and life. Some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.

Psychologist Christina Maslach, Ph.D, has studied burnout since the early 1980s and created the widely used Maslach Burnout Inventory. She found that burnout occurs when certain areas of our lives are chronically mismatched with our belief systems. These areas are: workload, sense of control (or lack thereof), reward (or lack thereof), community, fairness and values.

For instance, your workload isn’t enough to spark burnout, Hohlbaum said. “You can have a lot to do and still feel fulfilled and satisfied.” But if your boss is treating you unfairly, then your “workload becomes a burden, not a source of joy and fulfillment.”

Warning Signs of Burnout

Hohlbaum described burnout as a “slow-creeping syndrome.” So it’s important to know the warning signs before burnout sets in.

She suggested asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are you starting not to care about work anymore?
  • Is it hard to stay motivated?
  • Do you feel your workplace is a dreaded place to be?
  • Are you snapping at your colleagues?
  • Do you feel disengaged from your work?
  • Have you lost your passion for things?

Preventing Burnout

Hohlbaum offered these tips to prevent full-blown burnout.

1. “Recognize when your passion has turned to poison,” she said. “If you no longer wake up with fire in your belly — but rather with your stomach on fire — you are burned out.” In other words, she said that you might be burned out if: the work you were passionate about now feels like a burden; you avoid your coworkers and isolate yourself; and you can’t enjoy your professional accomplishments.

2. Honestly assess your situation and work toward solutions. According to Hohlbaum, ask yourself the following questions: “What am I passionate about? Am I doing those things? Why am I doing what I am doing? What would I feel if I were to change my situation? What one thing can I change today? What action can I take to alter my position? Can I allow myself to take a break from my current situation? How long would I need?”

3. Make time for yourself daily. “It can be as simple as taking a brisk five-minute walk to the mailbox and back, grabbing your favorite cup of coffee or allowing one entire hour of uninterrupted time to just be.” Another idea is to head to bed 30 minutes earlier and cuddle up with your favorite book, she said.

4. Seek support. Talk to someone you trust about your feelings and work situation.

5. Be receptive to your own feelings and needs. Check in with yourself throughout the day and try to respond to your needs as much as possible. “If afternoons are particularly difficult for you, plan some time to just breathe then,” Hohlbaum said.

Further Reading

Maslach coauthored three books on burnout with Michael Leiter: The Truth About Burnout; Preventing Burnout and Building Engagement: A Complete Program for Organizational Renewal; and Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work.


Learn more about Christine Louise Hohlbaum at her website.