Let’s say you watch a movie in a theater where the protagonist is caught in what we would consider an abusive situation. Specifically, the hero is required to work through two situations: one bad, the other worse. Neither situation is a choice that will make the hero better, however there doesn’t seem to be any immediate relief aside from choosing between the two options. Because neither situation is optimal, our hero chooses the the lesser evil and proceeds to believe it’s the only option. The constant exposure to an abusive situation leads to his resignation of his fate, an uncaring despot, until the climax of the movie saves the day.
Ultimately our lives are far less condensed in drama, however the phenomenon of burnout is more common in our modern lives than we recognize or give it credit for.
The term ‘burnout’ was initiated in the United States about 35 years ago. The psychoanalyst Freudenberger, for example, published one of the first scientific descriptions of the burnout syndrome as psychiatric and physical breakdown. According to one of the first more extensive characterizations by Susan E. Jackson and Christina Maslach, burnout is the result of chronic stress (at the workplace) which has not been successfully dealt with. It is characterized by exhaustion and depersonalization (negativism/cynicism) and is found predominantly in caring and social professions (e.g. social workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists). A later definition based on the MBI and which is in widespread use today, describes exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced satisfaction in performance as the decisive elements of burnout syndrome.
Contrary to earlier observations regarding the epidemiology of burnout, it has been noted that the syndrome is not associated with certain workplaces, circumstances, sex or age. The occurrence of burnout syndrome has been described in diverse occupations, e.g. in social workers, advisors, teachers, nurses, laboratory workers, speech therapists, ergo therapists, doctors and dentists, police and prison officers, stewardesses, managers, and even in housewives, students and unemployed people. Psychological explanations assume that in most of these occupations the combination of caring, advising, healing or protecting, coupled with the demands of showing that one cares, is of central importance.
In the 10th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD 10) the term ‘burnout’ was described in Problems related to life management difficulty under Z.73.0 as ‘Burnout-state of total exhaustion‘. In addition to the question of a uniform, generally accepted definition, etiological and pathogenetic aspects are the subjects of much controversy. It is generally believed today that ‘negative stress’ (distress) probably represents a key phenomenon in the etiopathogenesis of burnout. Other important pathogenetic factors are thought to be ‘being swamped by daily routine’ and ‘disappointed expectations’. Most of the theories and models for the development of burnout syndrome are published in the psychological, psychosomatic and psychiatric literature.
A. Weber and A. Jaekel-Reinhard discuss in their paper on burnout that depending on the duration and severity of the burnout, there are often further negative social consequences. These include, from the point of view of the individual, withdrawal at the workplace (so called ‘inner resignation’) or effects on private life (partner/ sexual problems, social isolation). From the perspective of society, there is an increased risk of repeated or long periods of absence from work and early invalidity.
The Burnout Phenomenon is so prevalent that it has warranted its own branch of research. This research is being carried out in many countries around the world, so it is clear that burnout has global significance. Recently, there has been a growing interest in developing interventions to reduce burnout, from government agencies and organizations in both the public and private sectors. Without a doubt, burnout poses a major challenge for society. Given the ongoing importance of the burnout phenomenon, and the rising interest in making real progress in alleviating it, there is a need for a primary venue for the many research contributions being made.
To highlight further importance on the alarming rates of burnout, the scientific community came together in April 2015 and created the Burnout Research Journal. This is a peer-reviewed international journal aimed at presenting basic, translational and clinical high-quality research related to the phenomenon of burnout. As the first journal dedicated to understanding the causes of burnout and potential solutions to the problem, Burnout Research welcomes original research articles, review articles, case reports, and opinion pieces. The goal of the journal is to publish the top research in three major areas: Cutting-edge research that lays out new directions for the burnout field, including new research paradigms and measures, new theoretical models, and new collaborations between researchers and practitioners. Critical reviews that provide comprehensive and integrative analyses of key themes (such as cultural or occupational differences in burnout), or meta-analyses of major datasets. Translational research studies that assess promising interventions for preventing burnout and building engagement.
From an educational perspective, the days when academia was a low-stress working environment are over, with “burnout” levels now comparable with those in other service sectors, according to a 2011 study, “Burnout in university teaching staff: a systematic literature review.” This study was published in the journal Educational Research and was led by Noelle Robertson, senior lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Leicester, and a master’s student there, Jenny Watts. The researchers, who describe their work as the first survey of the extent of burnout among full-time, non-medical university teaching staff, report that younger staff appeared more vulnerable, suffering from greater “emotional exhaustion.”
The analysis is based on 12 peer-reviewed studies in the United States, Britain, Canada, South Africa, Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands, and likens levels of burnout among those who teach in higher education to those of schoolteachers and health professionals. The authors also attempt to pinpoint the key factors that push some academics into a state characterized by “the depletion of emotional reserves (emotional exhaustion), an increasingly cynical and negative approach towards others (depersonalization) and a growing feeling of work-related dissatisfaction.”
These results could also be because younger staff have more contact with students, but also because more experienced colleagues have developed better coping strategies.Gender seemed to have most impact on the way burnout revealed itself, the study suggests. Male lecturers typically had higher depersonalization scores, for example, while their female peers tended to suffer more emotional exhaustion.This probably reflected, the authors suggest, the draining effect on women who were having to “juggle multiple roles at work and at home,” on the one hand, and their reluctance to adopt “a distant, indifferent professional persona” on the other.
The research indicated that “staff exposure to high numbers of students, especially tuition of postgraduates, strongly predicts the experience of burnout.” However, they suggest that lecturers with qualities that might make them particularly suited to the job suffered more than their less engaged colleagues. The quality of “openness” may “make appealing tutors, encouraging greater interaction with students,” but it also appeared to “predispose teachers to burnout,” the paper says.
In a separate analysis of professional burnout among professors in the United States, a Texas Woman’s University Ph.D. candidate found tenure track professors had more significant symptoms of workplace frustration than their tenured and non-tenure track faculty counterparts.
Janie Crosmer, who conducted the survey of more than 400 full-time faculty across the U.S. in December 2008, said she was unsurprised that the high stresses of pursuing academia’s most coveted status led to burnout. She utilized the Maslach Burnout Inventory in her survey, which measures burnout in three categories. A faculty survey found professors, on average, fell within the average burnout range. See the Inventory Table Results Below:
Emotional Exhaustion (Range 0-54)
• < 13: Low Degree of Burnout
• 14-23: Average Degree of Burnout
• > 24: High Degree of Burnout
• Full Faculty Survey Sample: 20.1
Depersonalization (Range 0-30)
• < 2: Low Degree of Burnout
• 3-8: Average degree of burnout
• > 9: High Degree of Burnout
• Full Faculty Survey Sample: 6.3
Personal Accomplishment (Range 0-48)
• > 43: Low Degree of Burnout
• 36-42: Average Degree of Burnout
• < 35: High Degree of Burnout
• Full Faculty Survey: 35.99
Crosmer said she was struck by the candor and, at times, negativity manifested in faculty comments. Professors complained about massive red tape, inflexible mandates for holding office hours, low morale, health concerns and insufficient travel funds. And while Crosmer would still like to land a faculty position in the future, she was disheartened by what she heard.
“By reading that, you were [thinking] do I really want to teach ever? Some of the comments were, oh my goodness.”
As with just about any industry, professors also said they felt they should earn more money. One respondent opined, “We are the most highly educated people in the country and among the worst paid.”