This week’s IATE term is “burnout”, a compound word of the past participle “burn” and the word “out”, which in this case functions as an adverb. The word describes the difficult situation – in terms of both mental and physical exhaustion – experienced due to specific reasons closely related and deriving from a person’s everyday work.
“Burnout” can sometimes be confounded with depression or being overworked. However, burnout bears the characteristics and feelings not only of depression or overwork, but is also characterised by physical and mental exhaustion arising from having to perform professional work tasks. In fact, one synonym that has arisen for burnout syndrome is “professional exhaustion syndrome”.
How prevalent is burnout? While it is difficult to find exact numbers, academic studies on burnout syndrome can provide some insight. Honkonen et al. (2006) measured burnout prevalence in Finland’s general population. Their study used data from the year 2000 with the sample of subjects being representative of the Finnish population over the age of 30. They found that 25% of individuals had mild burnout and 2.4% had severe burnout. The researchers also found that subjects with burnout had a higher liker likelihood of suffering from a physical illness than those without.
Etymologically speaking, the verbal phrase “burn out”, which converted into the compound noun “burnout” first appeared as early as the 1590s. The initial meaning of the verbal phrase was “burn until fuel is exhausted”. The first use of this phrase in connection with the burnout syndrome as understood today appears to have been used in reference to electrical circuits.
In the 1970s the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the word “burnout” to refer to the nurses and doctors who sacrificed their own wellbeing in order to help their patients, and as a result ended up feeling “burnt out” themselves.
It is unsurprising that humans are seen metaphorically as electrical circuits, since humans too must spend energy to fulfil specific tasks. The more complex and demanding the tasks are that they need to fulfil, the higher the risk that a human being runs out of energy. The question therefore remains: how can we continue to find energy when our modern lives demand that we accomplish increasingly complex tasks?
Depression: What is Burnout? Informed Health Organization – NCBI-Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov [Accessed 16 July 2020].
Online Cambridge Dictionary. 2020. Meaning of Distance in English by Online Cambridge Dictionary [ONLINE] Available at: https:// dictionary.cambridge.org /dictionary/ english /distance?q= BURNOUT [Accessed 16 July 2020].
Online Etymology Dictionary. 2020. Learn, Origin and meaning of the word Burnout by Online Etymology Dictionary. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.etymonline.com/word/Burnout [Accessed 16 July 2020].
Honkonen, T., Ahola, K., Pertovaara, M., Isometsä, E., Kalimo, R., Nykyri, E., … & Lönnqvist, J. 2006. The association between burnout and physical illness in the general population—results from the Finnish Health 2000 Study. Journal of psychosomatic research, 61(1), 59-66. [Accessed 17 July 2020].
Written by Maria Papamargariti, Greek and English Philologist, writer in the field of children’s literature.