Burn Out

Burnout syndrome is considered an important work-related illness in welfare societies. It was through observations by Freudenberger inside a detoxification clinic in the mid 1960s that the first scientific descriptions came to light of staff affected by this disorder. It was only in the 1980s that evaluation criteria for the syndrome became available, through the design of a standard measurement instrument, the Maslach Burnout Inventory or MBI.

Burnout is a psychosocial syndrome. It involves feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and diminished personal accomplishment at work. Emotional exhaustion is a situation where, owing to lack of energy, workers perceive they are no longer able to participate on an emotional level. Depersonalization entails the development of negative attitudes and feelings towards persons for whom work is done, to the point where they are blamed for the subject’s own problems. Diminished personal accomplishment is a tendency in professionals to negatively value their own capacity to carry out tasks and to interact with persons for whom they are performed, and feeling unhappy or dissatisfied with the results obtained.

The MBI questionnaire has been adapted for application not only to human services professions but to all types of occupations in general. An updated definition of burnout, constructed using the latest version of the MBI, is that proposed by Maslach et al. In their description it is “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency.” Exhaustion is the feeling of not being able to offer any more of oneself at an emotional level; cynicism is contemplated as a distant attitude towards work, the people being served by it and among colleagues; ineffectiveness is the feeling of not performing tasks adequately and of being incompetent at work.

Burnout is generally considered a response by a person to chronic work-related stress in an attempt to adapt or protect oneself from it. From a transactional approach, stress is defined as “the result of a relationship with the environment that the person appraises as significant for his or her well-being and in which the demands tax or exceed available coping resources.” This is the case because a life event is not what produces stress; rather, it is caused by the appraisal the affected person makes of it. According to Lazarus and Folkman, coping is “cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific internal and/or external demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person.” A person will be psychologically vulnerable to a determined situation if he or she does not possess sufficient coping resources to handle it adequately, and if at the same time, he or she places considerable importance on the threat implicit in the consequences of this inadequate handling. From this perspective, burnout syndrome may be seen as a progressively-developed process resulting from the use of the relatively ineffective coping strategies with which professionals try to protect themselves from work-related stress.

Burnout has also been described as an experience where the worker is aware of considerable discrepancy between his or her efforts and the results, between the invested efforts and the rewards obtained at work. This phenomenological analysis framework is introduced into the subjective experience of those affected, and the conclusion is reached that the burnout process is triggered when the worker feels that his or her efforts are disproportionate to the gratification achieved, and consequently is no longer able to justify or cope with further investment of effort. Burnout syndrome may be seen as the continuous perception that efforts made to carry out tasks are not effective, because expected gratitude, recognition or success at work are not being achieved.

Learning Activity

Take the Burn Out Self-Test

This tool can help you check yourself for burnout. It helps you look at the way you feel about your job and your experiences at work, so that you can get a feel for whether you are at risk of burnout.