SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND June/July
Larry is not unique, and many experts believethat experiences like his are occurring more fre-quently in an era of lean stafﬁng. “Perhaps nowmore than ever before, job stress poses a threat tothe health of workers,” according to a publicationof the National Institute for Occupational Safetyand Health, the federal agency responsible forconducting research and making recommenda-tions for the prevention of work-related illnessesand injury. And whereas exhaustion from over-work may happen more commonly in midlife,when energies naturally begin to ebb, it can ariseearlier as well. A November 2005 Harris Interac-tive poll commissioned by Spherion Corporationin Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found that one third of workers ages 25 to 39 already felt burned out bytheir jobs.The term “burnout syndrome” was coined inthe early 1970s by Herbert J. Freudenberger, aNew York psychoanalyst. Freudenberger had no-ticed that his own job, which was once so re-warding, had come to leave him feeling only fa-tigued and frustrated. Then he noticed that manyof the physicians around him had, over time,turned into depressive cynics. As a result, thosedoctors increasingly treated their patients coldlyand dismissively.Freudenberger soon began looking at exam-ples outside of health care
and found similarcases in many professions. Afﬂicted people suf-fered from mood ﬂuctuations, disturbed sleepand difﬁculty concentrating. Accompanying themental distress were physical ailments such asbackaches or digestive disorders. Freudenbergerdeﬁned burnout syndrome as a state of mentaland physical exhaustion caused by one’s profes-sional life.No speciﬁc statistics track the ailment, partlybecause burnout syndrome does not have its ownclassiﬁcation in the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
the bible of theﬁeld. Rather it falls under a category of “undif-ferentiated somatoform disorder.” Even withoutconcrete numbers, however, the experts agree:pressure in all trades is rising, and people arestruggling to cope.It is clear that long-term strain plays a centralrole in burnout. Historically, the body’s stressreaction has been a useful protective response. Ithelps humans
and other animals
survive animmediate threat, such as the appearance of apredator. Before we are consciously aware of it,the brain recognizes a potential danger and setsin motion, in just fractions of a second, a seriesof physical responses that ready us to ﬁght or ﬂee.Epinephrine, or adrenaline, ﬂows to muscles, inpreparation for battle or running. Our sensessharpen. The body shuts down nonessential sys-tems, such as digestion, to conserve energy.The problem? The alarm swings into actioneven when the menace is not a hungry-lookingbear at the entrance to the cave but rather an ir-ritable boss who wants that PowerPoint presenta-tion ﬁnished in 30 minutes. Each time the systemgets tripped
as we crunch to meet an impossibleproduction deadline, dash to a meeting, hurried-ly pack for yet another last-minute businesstrip
the adrenal glands secrete stress hormones,the heartbeat speeds up, and blood pressure rises.If such tensions endure for weeks, months oryears, physical consequences arise inevitably.Chronic stress contributes to hypertension, heartproblems and a weakened immune system, sothat we get infections more often [see “Stressed-Out Memories,” by Robert M. Sapolsky;
Scien-tiﬁc American Mind,
Vol. 14, No. 5; 2004].
For many victims of burnout, the fuel for theﬁre comes from similar sources. It tends to hit thebest employees, those with enthusiasm who ac-cept responsibility readily and whose job is animportant part of their identity. Larry describesit well: “At a certain point my job had so con-sumed me that my other needs no longer counted.My overengagement in work led to a constantlyworsening state of exhaustion and apathy.”In response to mounting task loads, thewretch piles on the hours, pulling late nights atthe ofﬁce, ignoring exercise, skipping meals oreating unhealthful fast foods on the run, cancel-
It tends to hit the
, those withenthusiasm who accept responsibility readily.
ULRICH KRAFT, a regular contributor to
Gehirn & Geist,
is a freelancescience writer in Berlin.
COPYRIGHT 2006 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, INC.