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Even if you like your job, it’s not unusual to feel "burnout." But the idea of what that means has evolved over time.

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[♩INTRO ].

People talk about feeling ‘burned out’ all the time, whether it’s related to school or work, or overcommiting yourself to things. It’s a colorful phrase, but you might not realize where it comes from.

In fact, psychologists have been studying and debating about it for more than 40 years. ***The term ‘burnout’ goes back to 1974, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it in a paper to describe his colleagues at a free health clinic in New York City. He noticed that over time, many of the doctors, nurses, and social workers tending to patients became less motivated, and weren’t doing as good of work, even though they cared a lot. After all, they were volunteering their time to help others.

They were exhausted, physically and mentally, and sometimes developed headaches, insomnia, and other stress-related symptoms. Freudenberger realized that he had these problems too. Borrowing language from his patients, who were mostly people struggling with drug addictions, he called it “staff burn-out.” And the name stuck.

Freudenberger ended up writing books about burnout, including his personal experiences, and the concept spread. We’re still talking about it, maybe now more than ever. But the thing is, even after lots of investigation, scientists can’t totally agree on a definition.

Broadly speaking, burnout, or burnout syndrome, is job-related stress. But exactly how it manifests — and why — is less clear. Some experts aren’t convinced burnout is really its own thing, since it shares a lot of symptoms with things like depression, anxiety disorder, or chronic fatigue syndrome.

But most agree that it has three main parts. The first is exhaustion, being super tired and emotionally drained. Essentially, after giving your all for a while, you don’t have much left to give.

Second is what psychologists call depersonalization or cynicism. You detach from your work and your co-workers or clients, and have a negative attitude. And capping off the trio is a lack of accomplishment, or efficacy.

Mostly, this means you begin to doubt that you’re doing your job well. How these three components come together to create burnout varies a lot, and it’s still being studied. But a common scenario starts out with exhaustion, maybe because of a high workload or extra stress from other parts of your life.

Then, because you’re so tired, you naturally detach from the job. And these things lead to a sense of incompetence — which sucks, and could even be real. Burned out people are less productive and are more likely to quit their jobs.

In the United States, burnout isn’t in the DSM, so it’s not something a clinical psychologist or other expert can diagnose you with. But a few countries, like Sweden and the Netherlands, do classify it as a medical condition. And there, it’s relatively common, like in an estimated 13% of all workers.

Much of our understanding of the core parts of burnout come from a social psychologist at UC Berkeley named Christina Maslach. Shortly after Freudenberger started describing burnout, she decided that, to learn more, she needed to be able to measure it. So, with colleagues, she created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a survey people could answer in about 15 minutes to see whether they might be experiencing burnout.

When taking it, people rate how often they feel ‘used up’ at the end of the workday, for instance, or how often they feel very energetic. And data from this questionnaire have revealed a lot of things. For one, psychologists had assumed that burnout only happened in jobs where you interacted with other people — especially ones that came with a lot of emotional baggage, like what Freudenberger saw at the health clinic.

But studies over the last three decades using the Maslach Burnout Inventory found that office and factory workers, managers, entrepreneurs, and even soccer players have symptoms of burnout. You don’t even need to have a job. Students also get burned out.

That doesn’t mean the type of work doesn’t matter, though. Burnout appears to be more common in high-intensity, helping professions like teaching and medicine. In some surveys, as many as half of doctors say they’re burned out.

But the point is: it’s not limited to them. Maslach and other psychologists have found that what seems to be most important is how well-matched a person is to their job. There are a lot of different metrics for this, including things like workload, reward, and mission.

How important or helpful you think your work is matters. One huge factor is how much control someone feels like they have. Feeling not autonomous can push someone closer to burnout, while a longer leash can protect against it.

Another is how much social support they have. People with co-workers they can trust and ask for help do much better with job stress. Now, you might expect burnout to build up over time, so that older people who’ve been working longer, and maybe have a family or other things to worry about, would be more prone to it.

But usually, it’s the exact opposite: burnout is more common in young people, who aren’t married, and don’t have kids. The idea here is that people who don’t have partners and children don’t have those loved ones to lean on when they have other stresses, which might make things harder. They may be so laser-focused on their careers, that if something goes south in their job, it can really damage how they think about their self-worth.

So burnout sucks, but knowing these patterns gives some hints as to what we can do about it. In the last decade or two, more companies have started to think about how to help, by reducing hours, making employees feel more appreciated, and getting them more engaged with their work. There’s no cure-all, but spending more time with your family and friends isn’t going to hurt, either.

So maybe start considering your latest movie night or board game marathon with friends as a good thing for your job, too. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! For more videos about relatable brain things, like impostor syndrome or why we talk to ourselves, you can go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe! [♩OUTRO ].