What causes burnout?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

A very interesting article:

We commonly use the term “burnout” to describe the state of exhaustion suffered by the likes of Steve. It occurs when we find ourselves taken over by this internal protest against all the demands assailing us from within and without, when the momentary resistance to picking up a glass becomes an ongoing state of mind.

Burnout didn’t become a recognised diagnosis until 1974, when the German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger applied the term to the increasing number of cases he encountered of “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. The relationship to stress and anxiety is crucial, for it distinguishes burnout from simple exhaustion. Run a marathon, paint your living room, catalogue your collection of tea caddies, and the tiredness you experience will be infused with a deep satisfaction and faintly haloed in smugness – feelings that confirm you’ve discharged your duty to the world for at least the remainder of the day.

The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced. In his 1960 novel “A Burnt-Out Case” (the title may have helped bring the term into general circulation), Graham Greene parallels the mental and spiritual burnout of Querry, the protagonist, with the “burnt-out cases” of leprosy he witnesses in the Congo. Querry believes he’s “come to the end of desire”, his emotions amputated like the limbs of the lepers he encounters, and the rest of his life will be endured in a state of weary indifference.


You feel burnout when you’ve exhausted all your internal resources, yet cannot free yourself of the nervous compulsion to go on regardless. Life becomes something that won’t stop bothering you. Among its most frequent and oppressive symptoms is chronic indecision, as though all the possibilities and choices life confronts you with cancel each other out, leaving only an irritable stasis.

…In previous generations, depression was likely to result from internal conflicts between what we want to do and what authority figures – parents, teachers, institutions – wish to prevent us from doing. But in our high-performance society, it’s feelings of inadequacy, not conflict, that bring on depression. The pressure to be the best workers, lovers, parents and consumers possible leaves us vulnerable to feeling empty and exhausted when we fail to live up to these ideals. In “The Weariness of the Self” (1998), an influential study of modern depression, the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg argues that in the liberated society which emerged during the 1960s, guilt and obedience play less of a role in the formation of the self than the drive to achieve. The slogan of the “attainment society” is “I can” rather than “I must”.


For all their differences, Steve’s and Susan’s parents were alike in protecting the child from awareness of the limits imposed by both themselves and the world. Susan would complain that the present, the life she was living moment to moment, felt unreal to her. Only the future really mattered, for that was where her ideal life resided. “If I just wait a little longer”, she would remark in a tone of wry despondency, “there’ll be this magically transformative event and everything will come right.”

….This belief, she had come to realise, had taken a suffocating hold on her life: “the longer I live in wait for this magical event, the more I’m not living this life, which is sad, given it’s the only one I’ve got.” Forever anticipating the arrival of the day that would change her life for ever, Susan had come to view her current existence with a certain contempt, a travesty of the perfect one she might have. Her house, her job, the man she was seeing – all of these were thin shadows of the ideal she was pursuing. But the problem with an ideal is that nothing in reality can ever be remotely comparable to it; it tantalises with a future that can never be attained.

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