Burnout: 35 years of research and
Wilmar B. Schaufeli
Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Michael P. Leiter
Acadia University, Wolfville, Canada, and
University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to focus on the career of the burnout concept itself, rather
than reviewing research ﬁndings on burnout.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper presents an overview of the concept of burnout.
Findings – The roots of the burnout concept seem to be embedded within broad social, economic, and
cultural developments that took place in the last quarter of the past century and signify the rapid and
profound transformation from an industrial society into a service economy. This social transformation
goes along with psychological pressures that may translate into burnout. After the turn of the century,
burnout is increasingly considered as an erosion of a positive psychological state. Although burnout
seems to be a global phenomenon, the meaning of the concept differs between countries. For instance,
in some countries burnout is used as a medical diagnosis, whereas in other countries it is a
non-medical, socially accepted label that carries a minimum stigma in terms of a psychiatric diagnosis.
Originality/value – The paper documents that the exact meaning of the concept of burnout varies
with its context and the intentions of those using the term.
Keywords Stress, Social change, Medical diagnosis
Paper type General review
Job burnout emerged as an important concept in the 1970s, and it captured something
very critical about people’s experience with work. It continues to do so today, some 35
years since its introduction to psychological literature and to cultural discourse. Both
then and now, burnout has been a concept that seems to ring true to a common
experience among people. It has inspired researchers to study it and try to better
understand what it is and why it happens. It has inspired practitioners to ﬁgure out ways
to cope with it, prevent it, or combat it. Thus, from the beginning, burnout has enjoyed a
joint recognition from both researchers and practitioners as a social problem worthy of
attention and amelioration. As this recognition has spread to many other countries,
beyond its American origins, it has become a phenomenon of notable global signiﬁcance.
Currently, burnout is a well-established academic subject on which thousands of
publications have appeared, and about which numerous congresses and symposia are
held. We estimate that currently over 6,000 books, chapters, dissertations, and journal
articles have been published on burnout (for reviews see: Schaufeli and Enzmann, 1998;
Maslach et al., 2001; Halbesleben and Buckley, 2004). The concept of burnout has
stimulated research on job stress, particularly in areas like the helping professions,
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 26 November 2008
Revised December 2008
Accepted 22 December 2008
Career Development International
Vol. 14 No. 3, 2009
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
which had not been the focus of attention before. It also stimulated theorizing,
particularly in the area of emotional labor, symptom contagion, and social exchange.
In the occupational medical setting of some European countries with elaborated social
security systems – notably Sweden and The Netherlands – burnout is an established
medical diagnosis. This means that it is included in handbooks, and that physicians and
other health professionals are trained in assessing and treating burnout. Furthermore,
psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, counselors, human services ofﬁcers,
organizational consultants offer a wide array of interventions, ranging from individual
treatment programs, via preventive workshops to organizational consultancy. A
concrete example with special relevance for career development is the burnout reducing
effect of employee mentoring (Van Emmerik, 2004). In other words, many professionals
earn a living by treating burnout victims, giving workshops on burnout, or consulting
with organizations on how to prevent burnout and build work engagement. In this sense,
burnout has boosted professional practice.
As we look back over 35 years of research and practice, what have been the critical
themes, insights and conclusions that have emerged? What accounts for the
remarkable longevity of a concept that originally was dismissed as “pop psychology”
(Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993). What are the lessons learned, and what are is the
current challenge to be addressed?
Understanding the nature of burnout
As a metaphor for the draining of energy, burnout refers to the smothering of a ﬁre or
the extinguishing of a candle. It implies that once a ﬁre was burning but the ﬁre cannot
continue burning brightly unless there are sufﬁcient resources that keep being
replenished. Over time, employees experiencing burnout lose the capacity to provide
the intense contributions that make an impact. If they continue working, the result is
more like smoldering – uneventful and inconsequential – than burning. From their
own perspective or that of others, they accomplish less. In summary, the metaphor
describes the exhaustion of employees’ capacity to maintain an intense involvement
that has a meaningful impact at work.
The success of the burnout metaphor reﬂects the concept’s origins in general
discourse. People used the term to describe an experience before scientiﬁc psychology
identiﬁed it as a phenomenon worthy of study. Freudenberger (1974) borrowed the
term from the illicit drug scene where it colloquially referred to the devastating effect of
chronic drug abuse. He used the term to describe the gradual emotional depletion, loss
of motivation, and reduced commitment among volunteers of the St Mark’s Free Clinic
in New York’s East Village that he observed as a consulting psychiatrist. Such free
clinics for drug addicts and homeless people had grown out of the counter-movement
against the establishment. Not unimportantly, Freudenberger himself fell victim to
burnout twice, which increased his credibility in spreading the message of burnout. His
writings on the subject were strongly autobiographical and his impact is illustrated by
the fact that in 1999, he received The Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the
Practice of Psychology at the APA Convention in Boston.
Independently and simultaneously, Maslach and her colleagues came across the term
in California when interviewing a variety of human services workers. As a social
psychological researcher, Maslach was interested in how these workers coped with their
emotional arousal using cognitive strategies such as detached concern. As a result of
these interviews she learned that these workers often felt emotionally exhausted, that
they developed negative perceptions and feelings about their clients or patients, and that
they experienced crises in professional competence as a result of the emotional turmoil
(Maslach, 1976, 1993). These practitioners referred to this syndrome as “burnout”.
In a thorough process of interviews, observation, and psychometric development,
Maslach and her colleagues developed a method for assessing burnout as a
multidimensional construct that went beyond mere exhaustion (Maslach and Jackson,
1981; Maslach et al., 2008). At the outset, burnout was predominantly identiﬁed within
the human services: “Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion,
depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among
individuals who work with people in some capacity” (Maslach et al., 1996, p. 4).
However, by the late 1980s, researchers and practitioners began to recognize that
burnout occurred outside the human services, for instance, among managers,
entrepreneurs, and white- and blue collar workers. Thus, the burnout metaphor was
extended from the intense requirements of client service to other work requiring
creativity, problem solving, or mentoring. In this more general form, burnout was
deﬁned as “...a state of exhaustion in which one is cynical about the value of one’s
occupation and doubtful of one’s capacity to perform” (Maslach et al., 1996, p. 20).The
term burnout, then, was transferred from a literal reference to a depletion of physical
resources supporting combustion to the psychological domain. But why did burnout
suddenly gain momentum in the USA in the mid 1970s in the ﬁrst place, and why does
it continue to remain an important and popular issue?
The social and cultural context of emerging burnout
When burnout began to be described and discussed in the 1970s, it was primarily in
reference to work in the human services, such as health care, social work,
psychotherapy, legal services, and police work. Qualitative interviews and case studies
gave a vivid picture of the experience in which people lost both their energy and their
sense of the value of their job. The loss of meaning was especially poignant within
professions dedicated to lofty goals to help and serve others. Tellingly, burnout
discussions began within the human services, because they were better able to give
“voice” to issues of emotions, values, and relationships with people – concepts that had
not been widely recognized within the research literature on the workplace.
The roots of the burnout concept seem to be embedded within several broad social,
economic, and cultural developments of the 1960s in the USA. Below we summarize
these developments whose impact on burnout is – by their very nature – speculative
rather than empirically demonstrated.
In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy ignited a vision of public service, as
he challenged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what
you can do for your country”. Subsequently, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the
“War on Poverty” that caused a large inﬂux of idealistically motivated young people
into human services professions. However, after struggling to eradicate poverty for a
decade or so, they found themselves increasingly disillusioned. They came to learn that
the systemic factors perpetuating poverty nulliﬁed their efforts to alleviate poverty’s
downstream impact on people and frustrated their efforts to open opportunities for
children of poor families. Frustrated idealism was a deﬁning quality of the burnout
experience, mirroring the intensity of combustion. It was critical to the concept’s
momentum: service providers were appalled at their diminished capacity to perform or
to show compassion towards their recipients. The experience of burnout was not
merely an inconvenience or an occupational hazard, but a devastating attack on their
professional identity. They had chosen a career path of service, forsaking other options
in the vibrant American economy of the era. Exhaustion on its own would not be so
compelling: dedicated people may even derive fulﬁllment from exhausting themselves
through exerting extraordinary effort for a deeply valued cause. The lack of
compassion and diminished effectiveness implicit in the full burnout experience had a
much more devastating impact on their identity (Farber, 1983).
From the 1950s onwards the human services in the USA as well as in Europe
rapidly professionalized and bureaucratized as a result of greater government and
state inﬂuence. Small-scale, traditional agencies where work was considered a calling,
transformed into large-scale modern organizations with formalized job descriptions.
Arguing this point, Cherniss and Kranz (1983) observed that burnout was virtually
absent in monasteries, Montessori schools, and religious care centers where people
consider their work as a calling rather than merely a job. They argued that such
“ideological communities” provide a collective identity that prevents burnout from
occurring because of social commitment, a sense of communion, contact with the
collective whole, and shared strong values. Seen from this perspective, burnout
represents the price paid of professionalizing the helping professions from “callings”
into “modern” occupations. The frustration and disillusionment arising from a
widespread, institutionalized clash of utilitarian organizational values with providers’
personal or professional values contributed further to burnout.
The “cultural revolution” of the 1960s weakened the professional authority of –
among others – doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers and police ofﬁcers. The
traditional prestige of these professionals was no longer evident after the 1960s.
Simultaneously, empowered recipients expected much more than ever before. As a
consequence, recipients’ demands of care, service, empathy, and compassion intensiﬁed.
Together, these two trends increased the technical and emotional demands of
professional work considerably. Even if they relinquished professional ideals, embracing
the values of institutionalized services, service providers were unlikely to experience
fulﬁllment from their work. From the perspective of social exchange, a discrepancy grew
between professionals’ efforts and the rewards they received in recognition and
gratitude. This “lack of reciprocity” is known to foster burnout (Schaufeli, 2006).
The three factors mentioned so far are more or less speciﬁc for the human services,
the occupational group where burnout was observed ﬁrst. However, there were
additional socio-cultural developments that seem to have contributed to the emergence
and proliferation of burnout in the mid-1970s as well. Since the Second World War,
traditional social communities and networks such as the church, the neighborhood, and
the family have gradually eroded. According to Sennett (1998) this is the result of the
emerging “ﬂexible capitalism” that replaces traditional rigid, homogeneous and
predictable social institutions by more ﬂexible, heteronymous and continuously
changing ones. This development encourages social fragmentation and what he calls
“the corrosion of character,” a notion somewhat similar to burnout. Not only has
community support decreased, but increasingly, individualism has prospered. People
have created personal deﬁnitions of their own social and occupational roles because
society no longer has provided shared deﬁnitions. In parallel, a “narcissistic culture”
(Lasch, 1979) developed that is characterized by transient, unrewarding and even
combative social relationships that produce self-absorbed, manipulative individuals,
who demand immediate gratiﬁcation of their desires but remain perpetually unsatisﬁed.
As Farber (1983, p. 11) noted, the combination of the trends toward individualization and
towards narcissism produces “a perfect recipe for burnout”: the former produces stress
and frustration while the latter undermines people’s coping resources.
An overarching development that includes many of the previous issues and that
seem to have fostered burnout is the rapid and profound transformation from an
industrial society into a service economy that took place in the last quarter of the past
century. This social transformation goes along with psychological pressures, which, in
their turn, are subject to public discourse. A striking parallel exists with neurasthenia
– literally, weakness of the nervous system – that was ﬁrst observed at the end of the
nineteenth century when American society transformed from an agricultural into an
industrial society (Loriol, 2002). Tellingly, neurasthenia appeared ﬁrst among the icons
of the new industrial era – the dynamic business men – like burnout appeared
similarly ﬁrst among the icons of the new service era – the human services
professionals. To George Beard, who coined the term in 1869, neurasthenia was the
product of rapid technological change as expressed, for instance, by the telegraph
(Cooper and Dewe, 2004, p. 5), whereas for Freudenberger (1974) and Maslach (1976),
burnout was the product of rapid change in social relationships. Although this
particular constellation of political, social, and cultural developments in the USA seem
to have set the stage for the concept of burnout, what sustains burnout’s momentum in
the twenty-ﬁrst century?
Burnout in the twenty-ﬁrst century
Burnout was originally viewed as a speciﬁc hazard for naı
¨ve, idealistic, young service
professionals who became exhausted, cynical, and discouraged through their
experiences in cold bureaucratic systems serving entitled, unresponsive clients with
intractable problems. But that was long ago. The young idealists entering the workforce
in the 1960s are at the time of this writing heading toward retirement. Young
professionals in the early twenty-ﬁrst century have fewer opportunities for naivety.
Television dramas give thoroughly gritty depictions of work life. A favorite and repeated
theme is the novice’s loss of innocence. Professional training programs for service
professionals, MBAs, and lawyers rarely paint a rosy picture. And the internet provides
an incessant stream of unﬁltered and only occasionally corroborated information on any
topic imaginable (and a few that defy imagination). People have few illusions about the
working world. But they are nevertheless vulnerable to burnout (Cho et al., 2006; Gellert
and Kuipers, 2008). And the boomers who have been working since the 1970s, and who
should know better by now, are vulnerable as well (Leiter et al., 2008). It may be that
¨ve idealism magniﬁes one’s vulnerability to burnout, it is not an essential
prerequisite. The deciding factor may be the nature of work life and the broad cultural
context within which work occurs in the twenty-ﬁrst century.
Two distinct contributors to the experience of work life explain burnout’s
persistence as an experience, a matter of social importance, and a focus of scientiﬁc
inquiry. The ﬁrst contributor is a persistent imbalance of demands over resources
(Aiken et al., 2001; Bakker and Demerouti, 2007). When demands increase –, e.g. more
service recipients with more intense requirements – resources fail to keep pace. There
are insufﬁcient personnel, equipment, supplies, or space to meet the demand (Aiken
et al., 2002). Insufﬁcient opportunities to rest and regenerate depleted energy aggravate
the exhausting impact of demand/resource imbalances.
The second contributor concerns motives rather than energy. Employees in the
twenty-ﬁrst century view organizational missions, visions, and values with skepticism
(Hemingway and Maclagan, 2004). Employees may hold personal values that differ
from the organizations. For example, a retail salesperson may be more interested in the
quality of customer service than meeting sales targets. Another salesperson may only
value maximizing personal sales commissions over developing ongoing relationships
with customers. In some circumstances, more clearly articulated corporate values may
provide a more fertile ground for value conﬂicts.
The potential for value conﬂicts is increased as organizations and employees reduce
their commitment to one another. The major value conﬂict for service professionals in
the 1970s was between the counterculture and an established social order (Martin and
Siehl, 1983). Young people distrusted older generations. They did not trust anyone over
30 and they did not trust their institutions either. The free clinic movement in the USA
sought to establish a new approach to health care. Working for organizations in the
establishment engendered one type of value conﬂict. Working for organizations within
the counterculture engendered another type of value conﬂict as the demands of business
or public sector accountability were generally inconsistent with counterculture ideals.
Professional service providers or managers entering a twenty-ﬁrst century
workforce expect a much more varied career than their counterparts a generation
previously (McDonald et al., 2005). Neither party is ready to make a life-long
commitment. Accordingly, employees are less willing to put aside their personal
inclinations for the good of the company.
Another form of conﬂict occurs between the organization’s stated values and its
values in action (Argyris, 1982). Employees exercise severe judgment when they
witness a gap between organizational intentions and reality. Rather than attributing
the shortfall to market conditions or bad luck, they often attribute the problem to
corporate hypocrisy. This attribution may apply to the entire executive level or it may
pertain to distinct individuals who are abusing positions of authority to exploit the
company for their personal gain. In these scenarios, employees accept the
organizations’ espoused values. They experience conﬂict with the values they
attribute to the organizations’ shortcomings.
Public sector organizations in the twenty-ﬁrst century often state ideals that far
exceed their resources (Potter et al., 2007). Few societies devote sufﬁcient resources to
meet their populations’ needs. The systemic imbalance of demands to resources
promotes exhaustion and reduces professional efﬁcacy while alienation from corporate
values reduces providers’ involvement in their work or their service recipients
(Schaufeli, 2006; Schaufeli and Bakker, 2004). Together, the principles inherent in
globalization promise to perpetuate burnout throughout information/service
Current management within a globalized economy proclaims lofty ideals that they
fail to support while they focus on the ﬁscal, policy, and political issues required to
maintain large organizations or corporations. As individuals struggle to chart a course
through complex, contradictory, and sometimes hostile institutional environments,
they are vulnerable to the exhaustion, cynicism, and inefﬁcacy that deﬁne burnout.
The burnout phenomenon has grown from a specialized occupational hazard to a
pervasive workplace hazard.
Thus, it appears that the same basic factors seem to drive burnout now as before,
albeit with a slightly different quality. Most prominent are the imbalance between
demands and resources at work, and the conﬂict between values (i.e. between personal
values and those of the organization, and between the ofﬁcially stated organizational
values and the values in action).
The globalization of burnout
During the past 35 years, burnout has attracted the attention of researchers,
practitioners and the general public almost anywhere around the globe. Despite
methodological problems, such as sampling bias, quantitative studies suggest that
burnout is not exclusively a North American or Western phenomenon (Golembiewski
et al., 1996; Perrewe
´et al., 2002; Savicki, 2002). For instance, a bi-cultural analysis of
American and Philippine nurses showed that the social work environment as well as
national value systems inﬂuences burnout-levels in both countries (Turnipseed and
Turnipseed, 1997). In a similar vein, Pines (2003) showed that despite different value
systems burnout was prevalent in Jewish and Arab Israelis. After its initial emergence
in the USA in the 1970s, the concept was introduced in the 1980s in Western Europe,
particularly the UK, the Low countries (Holland and Belgium), Germany, and the
Nordic countries (Scandinavia and Finland), as well as in Israel. From the mid 1990s
onwards burnout was also studied in the rest of Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, the
Middle East, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand. Finally, after the turn of the
century, research on burnout spread to Africa, China, and to the Indian subcontinent. It
is interesting to note that, roughly speaking, the order in which the interest in burnout
seems to have spread corresponds with the economic development of the countries
involved. For instance, currently, the economies of India and China are booming, and
burnout now seems to attract attention in these countries as well. It has been suggested
that globalization, privatization, and liberalization cause rapid changes in modern
working life, such as increasing demands of learning new skills, the need to adopt new
types of work, pressure of higher productivity and quality of work, time pressure and
hectic jobs, which, in their turn, may produce burnout – particularly in rapidly
developing countries like India (Kulkarni, 2006).
The fact that burnout occurs globally does not necessarily imply that the meaning
of the term is identical across countries and languages. A non-exhaustive overview
reveals that the term “burnout” is used quite differently in various languages.
Although in some languages equivalents of “burnout” or “to burn out” exist, often the
English term is preferred. In other languages, a more or less free translation of the
English “burnout” is used by the lay public, whereas in these countries professionals
and scholars use the “scientiﬁc” English term. Also, instead of “burnout” the notion of
“exhaustion” is used, sometimes in conjunction with the adjective “professional” to
denote its work relatedness. Quite interestingly, in yet some other languages the
connotation of the English term “burnout” – or its local equivalent – is considered too
strong, implying the impossibility to recover, i.e. a psychological death sentence. For
that reason a somewhat milder term – usually referring to exhaustion – is used.
Moreover, in some languages “exhaustion” denotes the process of burnout that
includes its milder forms as well, whereas “burnout” is used for the end-stage of that
process. This is at odds with the original use of “burnout” which was thought to cover
the entire range running from mild to severe symptoms.
JIn addition to linguistic reasons, the local social context plays a major role in the way
burnout is viewed. Namely, in some countries a formal burnout diagnosis opens the
possibility for the individual to proﬁt from ﬁnancial compensation arrangements,
counseling, psychotherapeutic treatment, and rehabilitation. In other countries, however,
a formal burnout diagnosis is not recognized, and burned-out employees are not eligible
for compensation or treatment of any kind. It is not surprising that, in the former instance,
“burnout” developed into a formal medical diagnosis, the end-stage of a process. Notably
this is the case in Sweden and the Netherlands. In these countries, “burnout” is an issue in
the medical consulting room, as is, for instance, diabetes or hypertension.
Burnout as social problem or medical diagnosis
The “medicalization” of burnout is intertwined with recent debates about whether
burnout should be considered as exhaustion, and no more. This “exhaustion-only”
view has been expressed by both some researchers and some practitioners. Most
scientiﬁc research uses the three-dimensional description of exhaustion, cynicism, and
inefﬁcacy that is implied in the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI – Maslach and
Jackson, 1981). The MBI clearly dominates the ﬁeld: by the end of the 1990s it was used
in 93 per cent of the journal articles and dissertations (Schaufeli and Enzmann, 1998, p.
71). Although meanwhile some alternative burnout instruments appeared the scene,
such as the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (Kristensen et al., 2005) and the Oldenburg
Burnout Inventory (Demerouti et al., 2002), the MBI remains the “gold standard” to
assess burnout. Practically speaking, the concept of burnout concurs with the MBI, and
vice versa. Despite the supremacy of the MBI in scientiﬁc research, a debate among
scholars on the nature of burnout continues (see the special issue of Work & Stress,
Vol. 19 (3), 2005). This debate revolves around two interrelated issues: the
dimensionality of burnout and its scope. Some critics maintain that rather than
being a multi-dimensional phenomenon, burnout is essentially equivalent to
exhaustion (Pines and Aronson, 1981; Kristensen et al., 2005; Shirom and Melamed,
2005). For those in favor of the one-dimensional view, exhaustion is the one and only
hallmark of burnout. Although theoretically speaking various aspects of exhaustion
have been identiﬁed – for instance, physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion (Pines
and Aronson, 1981), or physical and psychological exhaustion (Kristensen et al., 2005),
or physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and cognitive weariness (Shirom and
Melamed, 2005) – self-report measures inevitably produce one single overriding
exhaustion factor. Champions of the exhaustion-only perspective argue that constructs
that emerge inductively from factor-analyses – like the MBI – are conceptually
inferior to constructs derived from theoretical frameworks. This criticism ignores the
iterative process through which Maslach and her colleagues developed the MBI
through extensive, in-depth interviews (Maslach and Schaufeli, 1993). This conceptual
work produced items reﬂecting a three-dimensional construct that was conﬁrmed
statistically. The insistence of contrarily-minded researchers to label exhaustion as
burnout reﬂects the power of the metaphor. Chronic exhaustion – physical or mental –
is a legitimate label for problems encountered by many people within or outside the
working world. However, there is no scientiﬁc reason to use the term, burnout, when
referring to exhaustion only. But burnout is such a catchy metaphor, reﬂecting a broad
cultural experience that it is difﬁcult to relinquish. Hence, our view is that reducing
burnout to mere exhaustion boils down to putting new wine (burnout) in very old
bottles (workplace fatigue).
As for the scope of burnout, some scholars consider burnout as a generic, context-free
phenomenon that may occur outside work. For instance, recently Kristensen et al. (2005, p.
197) proposed to discriminate between work-related burnout, client-related burnout, and
personal burnout. The latter is described as “...the degree of physical and psychological
fatigue and exhaustion experienced by the person”. In their view personal burnout may
also occur among those who do not work such as young people, unemployed, early retired
people, pensioners, and housewives. As a matter of fact, the assumption that burnout is a
context-free phenomenon has a history that goes back to the early days of burnout
research and does accompany it since (e.g. Pines and Aronson, 1981). However, a
multi-dimensional approach as in the MBI is by deﬁnition incompatible with the notion of
context-free burnout. Then in any context – at work or outside work – people may feel
exhausted, but cynicism and reduced professional efﬁcacy refer to a particular object (i.e.
one is cynical about something and feels inefﬁcacious to do something). A retired or
unemployed person may feel exhausted, but it is impossible to identify the “something”
about which unemployed or retired people should feel cynical or inefﬁcacious. Hence,
arguing that burnout is a generic, context-free phenomenon goes necessarily hand in hand
with a limited deﬁnition of burnout as the equivalent to exhaustion. This approach not
only simpliﬁes the concept, but it effectively – as we noted above – puts new wine in old
bottles. To conclude, although in practice the three-dimensional conceptualization of
burnout is used by the overwhelming majority of researchers, not all of them mean the
same thing when they refer to “burnout.”
The MBI deﬁnes burnout as a matter of degree on its three subscales. This quality is
compatible with regression-based statistical methods, and current statistical
developments, such as structural equation modeling, manage the three inter-related
continuous subscales. Professional practice has less patience with complex continuous
measures, though. Practitioners of individual psychological, psychiatric, or medical
treatment want to differentiate among people who are “burned out” and those who are
not. Medical practitioners favor dichotomous diagnoses, especially when informing
decisions on treatment or disability insurance claims. In this way the deﬁnition of
burnout is shaped by practical questions – Who is to be treated? Who is to receive
Both statistical and diagnostic criteria have been used to transform a continuous
burnout inventory – such as the MBI – into a dichotomy that discriminates between
burnout “cases” and “non-cases.” Statistically, cut-off points are determined, for
instance, for “low”, “average”, and “high” scores, based on the lower, medium, and
upper thirds of the score-distribution, as recommended in the test-manual of the MBI
(Maslach et al., 1996). However, such cut-offs are based on frequency distributions and
therefore do not refer to an external criterion. For example, a score at the 70th
percentile on exhaustion is relatively high, but it may not be associated with subjective
distress, health disorders, or poor performance.
The diagnostic strategy uses an independently established burnout diagnosis as an
external criterion to establish cut-off points. For example, Schaufeli et al. (2001) used
neurasthenia, as deﬁned in the International Classiﬁcation of Diseases (ICD-10, 1994) as
the equivalent of severe burnout (see also below). According to the ICD-10, a
neurasthenic diagnosis (code F43.8) requires:
.persistent and increased fatigue or weakness after minimal (mental) effort;
.at least two out of seven distress symptoms such as irritability and inability to
.the absence of other disorders such as mood disorder or anxiety disorder.
According to Schaufeli et al. (2001), in order to be diagnosed as “burnout,” the
neurasthenic symptoms should additionally be work-related, and the individual should
receive professional treatment. Based on this set of diagnostic criteria, clinically
validated cut-off scores for each of the three MBI-sales were established. Additional
research conﬁrmed the validity of the MBI cut-off points and also established a
decision rule for combining the scores of the three burnout dimensions: an individual is
considered to be severely burned-out when he or she has a “highly negative” score on
exhaustion in combination with a “highly negative” score on either of the two
remaining MBI dimensions (Brenninkmeijer and Van Yperen, 2003; Roelofs et al.,
2005). This decision rule allows the transformation of the MBI – a multi-dimensional
continuous burnout inventory – into a dichotomy that can be used by practitioners in
order to diagnose burnout.
Through this process of dichotomization, burnout gradually expanded from a
psychological phenomenon to encompass a medical diagnosis as well, at least in some
European countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden. As a result, when
practitioners with a psychological background use the term “burnout,” they usually
refer to the whole spectrum of burnout complaints running from very mild to severe
burnout, whereas practitioners with a medical background refer to severe burnout
cases that meet these diagnostic criteria. Although medical diagnoses aspire to a clear
categorization, the practice is accustomed to integrating multiple sources of
information to differentiate among a plethora of potential health problems to
produce a diagnosis. As such, rather than simplifying burnout into exhaustion, the
diagnostic protocol for burnout integrates diverse information that may include the
three MBI subscales to arrive at a dichotomous diagnostic standard.
In Sweden the ICD-10 burnout diagnosis was introduced in 1997, soon after which it
became one of the ﬁve most common diagnoses and the one that showed the sharpest
increase, particularly within the public sector (Friberg, 2006, p. 72). “Burnout” was
initially diagnosed according to the ICD-10 – which was translated into Swedish in
1997. The ICD-10 is the ofﬁcially used diagnostic tool in Swedish health care, without a
formal ICD-10 diagnosis the person is not eligible for ﬁnancial compensation in case of
sick-leave or disability. In the ICD-10 diagnostic system burnout (code Z73.0) is placed
in the category “problems related to life management difﬁculty” and loosely described
as “a state of vital exhaustion”, without further elaboration. This, of course, leaves
much room for interpretation for medical professionals. For that reason, in 2005 the
Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has added the “exhaustion disorder”
(utmattningssyndrom) to the national version of the ICD-10 (code F43.8). Its criteria are:
physiological or mental symptoms of exhaustion for at least two weeks, an essential
lack of psychological energy, and symptoms such as difﬁculties to concentrate,
decreased ability to cope with stress, irritability or emotional instability, sleep
disturbances, muscle pain, dizziness or palpitations. These symptoms have to occur
every day during a two-week period and must cause signiﬁcant suffering with
impaired work capacity. Finally the symptoms must not be related to other psychiatric
diagnosis, substance abuse, or medical diagnosis.
In a somewhat similar vein, in The Netherlands in the 1990s, practice guidelines for
assessing and treating stress-related disorders in occupational and primary health care
were issued by the Royal Dutch Medical Association in 2000 (Van der Klink and van
Dijk, 2003). The diagnostic classiﬁcation of these guidelines distinguish between three
levels of stress-related disorders:
(1) distress (i.e. relatively mild symptoms that lead to only partly impaired
(2) nervous breakdown (i.e. serious distress symptoms and temporal loss of
occupational role); and
(3) burnout (i.e. work-related neurasthenia and long-term loss of the occupational
Clearly, “burnout” is deﬁned as an end-stage. For both less severe conditions
traditional Dutch terms are used spanningsklachten and overspannenheid,
respectively). Particularly the connotation of the latter term (literally “overstrain”)
comes very close to the Anglo-Saxon “burnout”. The practice guidelines recommend
the use of the clinically validated cut-off points of the MBI as a diagnostic tool for
assessing stress-related disorders in occupational and primary health care.
Thus, the deﬁnition of “burnout” varies with its context and the intentions of those
using the term. Although the three-dimensional deﬁnition that is implied in the MBI
has achieved almost universal acceptance in research, some apply the term to simple
exhaustion. Furthermore, professionals with a psychological background tend to see
burnout as a continuous phenomenon, whereas those with a medical background tend
to see burnout dichotomously. To the former, burnout is a form of chronic distress that
results from a highly stressful and frustrating work environment, whereas for the
latter it is a medical condition. Although not necessarily at odds, both types of
practitioners refer to slightly different things when referring to burnout.
It has been maintained that the popularity of burnout in North America lies in the
very fact that “burnout” is a non-medical, socially accepted label that carries a
minimum stigma in terms of a psychiatric diagnosis (Shirom, 1989). Paradoxically, the
reverse seems to be true in Europe: burnout is very popular because it is an ofﬁcial
medical diagnosis that opens the gates of the welfare state with its compensation
claims and treatment programs.
Outlook: the positive future of burnout
Originally, burnout was deﬁned as a negative state of mind, albeit that one of its three
constituting elements – reduced professional efﬁcacy – was measured with positively
worded items that were reversed to constitute a negative scale. A broader, more
positive perspective emerged in the mid-1990s when Maslach and Leiter (1997)
rephrased burnout as an erosion of a positive state of mind, which they labeled
engagement. According to Maslach and Leiter (1997, p. 24) the burnout process starts
with the wearing out of engagement, when “...energy turns into exhaustion,
involvement turns into cynicism, and efﬁcacy turns into ineffectiveness”. Accordingly,
engagement is characterized by energy, involvement and efﬁcacy – the direct
opposites of the three burnout dimensions. By implication, engagement is assessed by
the opposite pattern of scores on the three MBI scales: unfavorable scores are indicative
for burnout, whereas favorable scores are indicative for engagement. By rephrasing
burnout as an erosion of engagement with the job the entire range of employee
well-being is covered by the MBI running from the positive pole (engagement) to the
negative pole (burnout).
Schaufeli and his colleagues took a different approach to the concept of engagement
(Schaufeli and Salanova, 2007). They deﬁned and operationalized engagement in its
own right. Although they agreed with positioning engagement as the positive
antithesis of burnout, they did not accept the operationalization of assessing the state
by the opposite proﬁle of MBI scores. Instead, they developed the Utrecht Work
Engagement Scale (UWES) to measure vigor, dedication, and absorption as the three
dimensions that constitute engagement (Schaufeli et al., 2002). Meanwhile, research
showed that the UWES and the MBI are negatively related and that exhausting and
vigor, as well as cynicism and dedication each constitute a continuum that was dubbed
energy and identiﬁcation, respectively (Gonza
´et al., 2006).
This changing focus in burnout research from an exclusively negative approach to
the erosion of a positive psychological state coincides with the emergence of Positive
Psychology. Quite symbolically at the brink of the new millennium, in January 2000, a
special issue of the American Psychologist sparked interest in Positive Psychology. In
that issue, its most prominent advocates, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000, p. 5),
stated that the purpose of Positive Psychology “...is to begin to catalyze a change in the
focus of psychology from pre-occupation only with repairing the worst things in life to
also building positive qualities”. After less than a decade, positive psychology is
thriving, including the ﬁeld of positive occupational behavior, which is deﬁned as “...the
study and application of positively oriented human resource strengths and psychological
capacities that can be measured, developed, and effectively managed for performance
improvement in today’s workplace” (Luthans, 2003; p. 179). Although the notion of
engagement was formulated a couple of years before the “ofﬁcial” commencement of the
positive psychology movement in 2000 and the ﬁrst empirical studies were carried out
before that date, this movement certainly reinforces the interest in work engagement.
Then clearly, the concept of work engagement ﬁts neatly into this emerging positive
trend and illustrates that the deﬁcit-based study of burnout is complemented with a
positive approach that focuses on work engagement. The growing scientiﬁc interest for
work engagement is exempliﬁed by special issues of leading journals such as the Journal
of Organizational Behavior (Bakker and Schaufeli, 2008) and Work & Stress (Bakker et al.,
2008). Moreover, widespread interest in the business community encourages the
scientiﬁc community’s shift towards a positive perspective that rephrases burnout as the
erosion of engagement. Today’s organizations face rapid and continuous changes.
Instead of traditional organizational structures (i.e. control mechanism, chain of
command) and a strong emphasis on economic principles (i.e. cost reduction, efﬁciency,
cash ﬂow), the focus in modern organization is on the management of human capital.
Currently, organizations expect their employees to be proactive and show initiative,
collaborate smoothly with others, take responsibility for their own professional
development, and commit to high quality performance. This increased psychologization
is illustrated by Ulrich (1997, p. 125), who writes in his seminal book Human Resources
Champions, “Employee contribution becomes a critical business issue because in trying
to produce more output with less employee input, companies have no choice but to try to
engage not only the body but the mind and soul of every employee”. Evidently, this
objective is not achieved with a work force that is “healthy” in the traditional sense,
meaning that employees are symptom-free and do not suffer from physical illness or
burnout. In order to thrive, organizations need engaged employees who are motivated,
proactive, responsible, and involved. Instead of just “doing one’s job,” employees are
expected “to go the extra mile”. So for today’s organizations burnout prevention is
replaced by the promotion of work engagement. Preventing burnout is not enough, it is
necessary to go further to foster work engagement. The practical implications were
evident in a recent meta-analysis that convincingly showed the economic beneﬁts of
business-units with high average levels of engagement compared to those with lower
levels of engagement (Harter et al.,2002).
In sum: it can be concluded that developments in science (the recent emergence of
positive psychology) and organizations (increased attention for positive organizational
behavior of employees) strengthen the positive turn in burnout research that is the
rephrasing of burnout as an erosion of engagement. Seen from this perspective, the future
of burnout lies in the realization that it constitutes the negative pole of a continuum of
employee well-being, of which work engagement constitutes the opposite positive pole.
The scientiﬁc challenge for the future will be to uncover in how far different psychological
processes are responsible for producing burnout and work engagement. A recent example
is the Job Demands Resources model that posits that burnout plays a key role in a health
impairment process that is mainly driven by high job demands, whereas engagement
plays a key-role in a motivational process that is driven by job resources (Bakker and
Demerouti, 2008; Schaufeli et al., in press). As for the practice of burnout, it remains to be
seen if corporations and public sector organizations are willing to provide the necessary
resources to maintain extraordinary efforts from their employees, or whether efforts to
inspire extraordinary efforts become a new source of burnout.
1. For instance, in Afrikaans (uitgebrand ), Chinese ( juandai ), Danish (udbrændthed ), Dutch
(opgebrand ), Finnish (loppuunpalanut), German (ausgebrannt), Italian (bruciare), Japanese
(), Norwegian (utbrenthet), Polish (wypalenie zawodowe), Spanish
(quemarse), and Swedish (utbra
2. For instance in Hungarian (kie
´s) and Greek (
3. For instance in as in French (E
´puissement professional), Hebrew (shechika ()), Italian,
(esaurito), and Portuguese (exausta
4. For instance, in Finnish (tyo
¨uupumus), Hungarian (kimeru
´s), Norwegian (utmattethet), and
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About the authors
Wilmar B. Schaufeli is Professor for Work and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University,
The Netherlands. He received his PhD from Groningen University and he is currently visiting
professor at Loughborough Business School, UK, and Jaume I Universitat, Castellon, Spain. For
almost three decades he has been an active and productive researcher in the ﬁeld of occupational
health psychology, publishing over 300 articles, chapters and books. Initially, his research
interest was particularly on job stress and burnout, but in recent years this shifted towards
positive occupational health issues such as work engagement. Dr Schaufeli is a licensed
occupational health psychologist who has been actively involved in psychotherapeutic treatment
of burned-out employees and is now engaged in organizational consultancy (www.c40b.nl). In
addition, he held various managerial positions in (inter)national professional organizations. He is
the corresponding author and can be contacted at: W.Schaufeli@uu.nl
Michael P. Leiter is Professor of Psychology at Acadia University in Canada and Director of
the Center for Organizational Research & Development that applies high quality research
methods to human resource issues confronting organizations. He holds the Canada Research
Chair in Occupational Health and Wellbeing at Acadia University. He is a registered
psychologist in Nova Scotia, Canada. He received degrees in Psychology from Duke University
(BA), Vanderbilt University (MA), and the University of Oregon (PhD). Dr Leiter has conducted
research and written on job burnout throughout his career. Currently his research focuses on
enhancing the quality of collegial relationships to enhance work engagement and to prevent
burnout. He maintains international collaborations while maintaining an active involvement in
applied research in his local region of Eastern Canada.
Christina Maslach is Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, and Professor of Psychology at
the University of California at Berkeley. She received her AB in Social Relations from
Harvard-Radcliffe College in 1967, and her PhD in Psychology from Stanford University in 1971.
She has conducted research in a number of areas within social and health psychology. However,
she is best known as one of the pioneering researchers on job burnout, and has authored
numerous books and articles, as well as the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most widely
used research measure in the burnout ﬁeld. She has received several awards for her teaching,
including national recognition as “Professor of the Year” in 1997, and was selected as a Fellow of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which cited her “For groundbreaking
work on the applications of social psychology to contemporary problems”).
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