“Burnout” is a word that has become part of the common vocabulary of the work force of American culture. According to Barry Farber, “the concept of burnout was born in the early 1970’s, its heritage embedded in the ideas and efforts of Herbert Freudenberger in New York and Christina Maslach and Ayala Pines in California.”1 A general definition of burnout is “a latent process of psychological erosion resulting from prolonged exposure to job stress.”2 If this definition is accurate, then God’s people suffered from stress under the hands of Pharaoh and the institution of slavery (Exod 1:13-14). It is therefore, a mistake to believe that “burnout” is anything new. The results of physical, spiritual, and mental stress upon God’s people and spiritual leaders have been around for centuries.
The stressful experiences of life obviously have an effect upon our lives. Pines, Aronson, and Kafry, in their joint efforts to define “burnout” give insightful information relating to the subject:
Lack of control over one’s environment is a highly stressful experience. Martin Seligman suggested that when animals and people repeatedly undergo negative experiences over which they have no control, the result is “learned helplessness” and depression. The exposure to uncontrollable events leads to motivational and effective debilitation . . ., for example [those] subjects who were given unsolvable anagrams later could not solve solvable anagrams, and subjects who were exposed to inescapable noise did not attempt to escape later when escape was possible. People who develop “learned helplessness” do not believe that success is the result of their performance but attribute failure to themselves. They develop low self- esteem and become passive and sad.3
As stated earlier, burnout is not a new phenomenon. For instance, at various times burnout has been equated with tedium, stress, dissatisfaction, professional depression, alienation, low morale, anxiety, strain, tension, feeling worn out, experiencing flame out, tensions, conflict, pressure, nerves, boredom, chronic or emotional fatigue, poor mental health, crisis, helplessness, vital exhaustion, and hopelessness.4
Regardless of what title one places upon burnout, some things must be admitted. Burnout is a negative state that affects a person physically, emotionally, and mentally. These effects lead to exhaustion as the end result, and exhaustion can and most often leads the person affected into a state of disillusionment. This type of behavior is found most often among highly motivated people who work in emotionally and physically demanding situations.5
Hans Selye identifies three stages in the development of burnout. First is the “alarm” stage, or what is called the “fight or flight” stage. This stage of alarm is the stage that begins when anyone faces a challenge or a conflicting situation. The next stage is what Selye calls the “resistance” stage, which has a longer life span than the “fight or flight” stage. It is also the stage in which a person deals with issues more on a psychological basis. The third and final stage is what Selye refers to as the “exhaustion” stage. During this stage the alarm stage reappears and causes extreme fatigue, disease, disability and even death. 6
Not only are there the personal influences of stress and burnout, but there are also the influences of culture. Burnout and stress can even be brought on by the events that take place outside people’s circle of influence and direct involvement. Clive T. Goodworth lists six modern causes of stress. Those stressors are:
- The pressure of a technological age: Traditionally our forebears spent most of their lives working at means rather than ends . . . modern technology permits us to obtain these ends with minimal effort.
- Living in an era of increasing lawlessness and violence
- Being a clog in the gigantic machine of life
- The waning of religion and tradition
- The stress of political disunity
Although Goodworth published his work in 1986 his list of six stressors is very relevant for today.
- Barry A. Farber, ed., Stress and Burnout in the Human Service Professions (London: Pergamon Press, 1983), ix.
- Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Christina Maslach, and Tadeusz Marek, eds., Professional Burnout: Recent Developments in Theory and Research (Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis, 1993), 10.
- Anayal M. Pines, Elliot Aronson, and Ditsa Kafry, Burnout (New York: The Free Press, 1981), 69-70.
- Schaufeli, Maslach, and Marek, Professional Burnout, 9.
- Schaufeli, Maslach, and Marek, Professional Burnout,, 51.
- Wendell L. French, Fremont E. Kast, and James E. Rosenzweiz, Understanding Human Behavior in Organizations (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), 650-51.
- Clive T. Goodworth, Taking the Strain ( London: Hatchinson Business, 1986), 6-10.