What Is Burnout?

Burnout, in the broadest sense of the definition, refers to the emotions a person or organization experiences that are associated with mental or psychological exhaustion and/or cynicism over an extended period of time. While Maslach is often credited as first identifying the construct of burnout in the 1970s, Freudenberger (1974) coined the actual term burnout as a manifestation of the construct.  Freudenberger (1974) notes that burnout manifests itself in a variety of ways, and hypothesizes that the phenomena could affect a wide variety of individuals and occupations.  Regardless of discrepencies in any timing, Maslach and Freudenberger are among the pioneers that identified and advanced the research to the state the research is at today.

Burnout is reaching “epidemic proportions among North American workers today” (Maslach & Leiter, 1997, p. 1).  It is both an individual and organizational problem that is experienced when there are discrepencies or dissonance between six identified areas:

  • Work overload
  • Lack of control
  • Insufficient reward
  • Breakdown in community
  • Absence of fairness
  • Conflicting values

Maslach, Jackson, and Leiter (1996) created the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) , the leading standardized instrument for over a decade for measuring burnout across three scales (Mindgarden):

  • Emotional exhaustion measure the feelings of being overextended or overutilized by one’s work
  • Depersonalization measures the impersonal response towards one’s service, treatment, or instruction.
  • Personal accomplishment measures the feelings of competence and achievement in one’s work.


Farber, B. A. (1990). Burnout in psychotherapists: Incidence, types, and trends. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 8(1), 35-44.

Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff Burn-out. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159-165.

Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. (1997). The truth about burnout: How organizations cause personal stress and what to do about it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Maslach, C., Jackson, S., & Leiter, M. (1996). The Maslach Burnout Inventory (3rd Edition). Palo Alto: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Mindgarden. (n.d.). Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). Retrieved February 19, 2012, from Mindgarden: http://www.mindgarden.com/products/mbi.htm