What is the Best Way to Define Burnout?

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Clearly Define Burnout What is the best way to define burnout?

How does burnout take place?

What causes burnout ?

Burnout is a word that has become part of the standard vocabulary of the workforce of America.

Why Does Burnout Take Place?

According to Barry Farber, “the concept of burnout was born in the early 1970’s. The burnout concept is embedded in the ideas 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 description is accurate, then God’s people suffered from stress under the hands of Pharaoh and the institution of slavery (Exod 1:10-14).  It is a mistake to believe that burnout is anything new.  The results of  physical, spiritual, and mental stress upon God’s people have been around for centuries.

The stressful experiences of life have an effect on us.  Pines, Aronson, and Kafry define burnout as:

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

A Simple List to Help Define Burnout

Burnout is not a new phenomenon.

The definition of burnout includes various words.  Burnout has been equated with words and phrases like –

  • 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

Burnout is a negative state that affects a person physically.  This state also affects one emotionally, and mentally.  These effects create exhaustion and 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’s Three Steps to Define Burnout

Hans Selye identifies three stages in the development of burnout.

First, the “alarm” stage is the “fight or flight” stage.  This stage begins when anyone faces a challenge or an adverse situation.

The second stage is 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 the “exhaustion” stage.  During this stage, the alarm stage reappears and causes extreme fatigue, disease, disability and even death. 6

Other Reasons That Help Define Burnout and Why It Takes Place

Burnout and stress can even be brought on by the events that take place outside a person’s circle of influence. Clive T. Goodworth lists six modern causes of stress. Those stressors are:

  1. The pressure of a technological age: Traditionally our forebears spent most of their lives working on means rather than ends.  Modern technology permits us to obtain these ends with minimal effort.
  2. Living in an era of increasing lawlessness and violence
  3. Being a clog in the gigantic machine of life
  4. The waning of religion and tradition
  5. The stress of political disunity
  6. Terrorism7

Although Goodworth published his work in 1986, his list of six show events that are showing stressors that are happening today.

Dale Roach

  1. Barry A.  Farber, ed., Stress and Burnout in the Human Service Professions (London: Pergamon Press, 1983), ix.
  2. Wilmar B. Schaufeli, Christina Maslach, and Tadeusz Marek, eds., Professional Burnout: Recent Developments in Theory and Research (Washington, DC: Taylor and Francis, 1993), 10.
  3. Anayal M. Pines, Elliot Aronson, and Ditsa Kafry, Burnout (New York: The Free Press, 1981), 69-70.
  4. Schaufeli, Maslach, and Marek, Professional Burnout, 9.
  5. Schaufeli, Maslach, and Marek, Professional Burnout,, 51.
  6. Wendell L. French, Fremont E. Kast, and James E. Rosenzweiz, Understanding Human Behavior in Organizations (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), 650-51.
  7. Clive T. Goodworth, Taking the Strain ( London: Hatchinson Business, 1986), 6-10.
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