Despite how colloquial the term burnout has become, the concept originated in a strictly clinical setting. Coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, it referred to the consequences of severe stress and “high ideals” within the “helping professions” like medicine and social work. Among the medical community, however, burnout never quite became a serious issue, perhaps because there was no consensus as to how it should be measured, much less diagnosed. The Maslach Burnout Inventory, developed in 1981, was the most commonly used scale, but even then, it became the subject of considerable infighting among academics. In 2003, the researchers Philip Liu and David Van Liew complained that “the term burnout is used so frequently that it has lost much of its original meaning [and] now seems to have become an alternative word for depression but with a less serious significance.”
We all know this intuitively, but ignore the consequences of excess stress.
These effects of stress exist on a bell curve — that is, some is good, but too much becomes bad: As the nervous system secretes more and more stress hormones, performance increases, but up to a point; after that tipping point, performance begins to suffer as the hormones continue to flow. What makes stress “bad” — that is, what makes it render us more pervious to disease — is the disparity between the nervous system and immune system’s respective pace.
These days hearing of burnout is quite common. This needull has been written by a person in academe. Personally, I have always imagined a career in academe to be the most balanced where the chance of burnout is the least. But, I guess we always see the grass on the other side as greener.
I held onto that image right up until the point when — tenured and still in my 30s — I burned out. The job that I had prepared a long time for, that I had succeeded in, and that I was sure I would do for decades to come had become dreadful. It was ruining my life. When a good opportunity for a change came up (not for me, but for my wife, who was offered an academic job halfway across the country), I decided without hesitation to quit and go with her.