If you said you were suffering from ‘burnout’ in the early 1970s, you might have raised some eyebrows.
At the time, the term was used informally to describe the side effects that heavy drug users experienced: the general dimming of the mental faculties, for example, as was the case with many a party animal. However, when German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first recognised the problem of burnout in New York City in 1974, at a clinic for addicts and homeless people, Freudenberger wasn’t thinking of drug users.
The clinic’s volunteers were actually struggling, too: their work was intense, and many were beginning to feel demotivated and emotionally drained. Though they had once found their jobs rewarding, they had become cynical and depressed; they weren’t giving their patients the attention they deserved. Freudenberger defined this alarming new condition as a state of exhaustion caused by prolonged overwork – and borrowed the term ‘burnout’ to describe it.