A brief history of burnout


Reference to burn’d out  love first appeared in one of the poems in the anthology, the Passionate Pilgram in 1599.


Before WWI and the 1918 influenza flu pandemic, Breay (1913) wrote a paper, titled, “The overstrain of nurses,”  which essentially describes burnout experienced in the health care system today.


In 1955, Neel described “nervous stress, tension, and worries,” in a study of industrial mental health.


Henderson (1957) used the terms emotional exhaustion, physical weakness, and the need to be alone to describe civilizations in disarray.


A Burnt-Out Case, a novel published in 1960 by Graham Greene, describes the experiences of living and working in a Congo leper colony in the 1950s.


In 1969, Bradley made a fleeting reference to burnout in his study of a community-based, treatment program for young offenders.


Kennedy in her 1964 note, Lest We Burn Out, argued that the conversations around counseling burnout should be extended to the field of education and teachers.


A few years later, Herbert Freudenberger (1974) presented a descriptive account of “burn-out,” in which he observed that certain individuals within the human services professions came to be inoperative as a result of exhausting their physical and mental resources.


In 1977, Neil Young’s song, “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) included the lyrics, “ It’s better to burn out than to fade away…It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”


In addition to these exemplars from music, literature, and research, it is clear that numerous, other concepts have been used earlier to describe similar life and work experiences (e.g., shell-shock & battle fatigue experienced in war). And no doubt, individuals showed signs of burnout long before it first appeared in print and song.


In 1996, we wrote Global burnout: A worldwide pandemic explored by the Phase Model (Golembiewski, Boudreau, Munzenrider, & Luo, 1996) and estimated that 4 out of 10 workers were in an advanced phase or state of burnout.


The significance of all these descriptions along with their timings, serves as a poignant reminder, a kind of foreshadowing, for both present realities and future promises.


In today’s post-COVID-19 world, burnout is more widespread, of longer duration, and more virulent than most people believe or fear. It is a kind of workplace plague affecting occupations, cultures, and countries alike that will not disappear anytime soon, but rather promises to get even worse. A pandemic that is not going away.


A burnout gallimaufry


Definitions of burnout range from the simple to the complex. Consider the following examples:


“Demands at the workplace that tax or exceed an individual’s resource.”

“A type of job stress in which a pattern of strain results from a variety of work demands, especially those of an interpersonal nature.”

“A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding.”


In the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2013, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) burnout is not listed as a diagnosis.


Burn-out is included in the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition (cf. to medical health concern).


Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.


A myriad of of burnout measures exists (e.g., Maslach Burnout Inventory [MBI]; Burnout Assessment Tool [BAT]; Burnout Measure [BM]; Copenhagen Burnout Inventory [CBI]; Utrecht Work Engagement Scale [UWES]; Shirom-Melamed Burnout Measure[SMBM]).


The most popular is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) and its derivatives (e.g., over 80% of published research articles measuring burnout report using the MBI).


While there has been considerable debate about what exactly burnout is, agreed upon definitions and metrics  remain elusive and incomplete. As we have transitioned through the COVID-19 pandemic period, there is little doubt that the need for clarity and agreement to help identify, manage, and treat burnout is gaining even greater urgency.


What we know is that any reliable and valid definition and instrument measuring burnout includes some acknowledgement and reference to at least the following: the depersonalization of others, the lack of personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, cognitive impairment, depressed mood, psychological distress, and psychosomatic complaints (e.g., Moss, 2021; Schaufeli, Desart, & De Witte, 2020). And burnout at home is as real as burnout at work.


What we know today


  • Estimates of the global financial costs of burnout and mental illness are in the trillions, not billions of dollars (e.g., $6 to $30 trillion USD by 2030).
  • Each of us knows more about our own wellness and illness and our own personal experience of burnout, than ever before. This increased self awareness also tells us that we are more at risk regardless of our generation (i.e., Boomers, X, Millennials, Z).
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has added to the chronicity of burnout.
  • Burnout is contagious like other diseases and there is no vaccination for burnout.
  • We are more vulnerable than we have ever been.
  • There is a decreased stigma of being burned-out.
  • Recent variants or strains include COVID burnout and boreout.
  • Bottom-up/top-down, individual, organizational, and societal coping strategies, supports, solutions, interventions, and resources remain wanting and woefully inadequate as an equal and measured response to our current global burnout condition.
Value added


All of the aforementioned underscores the importance of a resource like the Boudreau Burnout Bibliography. As authors, we hope that our Bibliography can accelerate the process that leads to increased education, research, and awareness of the burnout contagion so that it can be better understood and treated. Open and public access to the complete Bibliography guarantees a best practice approach to effectively match our current knowledge base with individual, community, and/or organizational needs.



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The Boudreau Burnout Bibliography: 1957 to 2023 Copyright © 2024 by Bob Boudreau, Rumi Graham, Wyatt Boudreau, and Rylan Boudreau is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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