Occupational burnout is thought to result from long-term, unresolvable job stress. In 1974, Herbert Freudenberger became the first researcher to publish in a psychology-related journal a paper that used the term burnout. The paper was based on his observations of the volunteer staff (including himself) at a free clinic for drug addicts. He characterized burnout by a set of symptoms that includes exhaustion resulting from work’s excessive demands as well as physical symptoms such as headaches and sleeplessness, “quickness to anger,” and closed thinking. He observed that the burned out worker “looks, acts, and seems depressed”. After the publication of Freudenberger’s original paper, interest in occupational burnout grew. Because the phrase “burnt-out” was part of the title of a 1961 Graham Greene novel, A Burnt-Out Case, which dealt with a doctor working in the Belgian Congo with patients who had leprosy, the phrase may have been in use outside the psychology literature before Freudenberger employed it.
In order to study burnout, a number of researchers developed more focused conceptualizations of burnout. In one conceptualization, job-related burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (treating clients/students and colleagues in a cynical way), and reduced feelings of work-related personal accomplishment. In another conceptualization, burnout is thought to comprise emotional exhaustion, physical exhaustion, and cognitive weariness. A third conceptualization holds that burnout consists of exhaustion and disengagement. The core of the three conceptualizations, as well as Freudenberger’s, is exhaustion. Long limited to these dimensions, burnout is also now known to involve the full array of depressive symptoms (e.g., low mood, cognitive alterations, sleep disturbance).
Originally, Maslach and her colleagues focused on burnout within human service professions (e.g., teachers, social workers). She later expanded the application of burnout to include individuals in many other occupations.