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A Brief History of Burnout & the Modern Epidemic of Exhaustion, Cynicism and Self-Doubt

Burnout, once dismissed as a work-related stress, has emerged as a significant societal issue in recent years. The modern world, characterized by high demands, constant connectivity, and intense competitiveness, has given rise to an alarming prevalence of burnout. This article explores the phenomenon of burnout, it’s historical context, relevant statistics, and examines its current manifestation as a profound experience of exhaustion, cynicism, and self-doubt.

A Brief History of Burnout in Ancient Times

While the term “burnout” and its contemporary understanding may not have existed in ancient times, there is evidence to suggest that the phenomenon of burnout or similar experiences could have occurred in different historical periods. It is important to note that our understanding and conceptualization of burnout have evolved over time, influenced by societal changes and advancements in psychology and mental health research.

In ancient times, individuals faced different stressors and challenges in their lives compared to the modern world. However, it is plausible to assume that people in high-pressure roles or demanding circumstances could have experienced symptoms akin to burnout. For example:

Ancient Healthcare Professionals

Healers, physicians, and caregivers in ancient civilizations faced immense pressures and expectations. The demanding nature of their work, coupled with limited resources and exposure to suffering, could have led to exhaustion, emotional fatigue, and a sense of diminished personal accomplishment.

Scholars and Philosophers

Throughout history, scholars, philosophers, and intellectuals dedicated themselves to intense intellectual pursuits. The relentless pursuit of knowledge, coupled with societal pressures and expectations, may have resulted in mental and physical exhaustion, leading to burnout-like symptoms.

Religious and Spiritual Leaders

Leaders in religious or spiritual contexts often carried significant responsibilities and expectations. The emotional and psychological demands of guiding and supporting their communities, coupled with the challenges of their personal spiritual journeys, may have resulted in experiences similar to burnout.

person wearing red and white coat

Shakespeare’s Account on Burnout During the Elizabethan Era

Shakespeare’s plays often explored the complexities of human emotions, including the experiences of exhaustion, disillusionment, and emotional distress that can be associated with burnout. While Shakespeare did not explicitly use the term “burnout,” many of his characters exhibit symptoms and behaviours that align with the modern understanding of burnout. Here are a few examples:


Hamlet is a prime example of a character who experiences emotional exhaustion and cynicism. He is overwhelmed by grief, burdened by his father’s death, and tormented by the weight of his responsibilities. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be, or not to be” reflects his profound existential crisis and the toll it takes on his mental well-being.


Macbeth showcases the consequences of relentless ambition and the pressures of power. As the play progresses, Macbeth becomes increasingly consumed by guilt, paranoia, and a sense of emptiness. His relentless pursuit of power leads to his own psychological and emotional unravelling.

King Lear

King Lear experiences a form of burnout through his journey from a position of authority to a state of despair. The pressures of ruling, combined with personal betrayals, result in Lear’s descent into madness and emotional exhaustion. His famous line, “O, reason not the need,” captures his disillusionment and feelings of powerlessness.

Viola (Twelfth Night)

Viola, disguised as Cesario, takes on multiple roles and responsibilities throughout the play. She faces the challenges of navigating complex romantic entanglements while concealing her true identity. Viola’s experience reflects the strain and emotional exhaustion that can arise from trying to meet societal expectations and the resulting internal conflict.

Shakespeare’s characters often grapple with internal conflicts, societal pressures, and existential dilemmas that parallel the experiences of burnout. While burnout as a specific psychological condition was not yet defined during Shakespeare’s time, his works reflect the universal struggles and emotional turmoil that can be associated with burnout in a broader sense.

While historical records may not explicitly mention burnout, there are accounts of individuals experiencing fatigue, emotional distress, and disillusionment in various roles and contexts. However, it is essential to recognize that historical accounts and cultural contexts differ significantly from our modern understanding and conceptualization of burnout. The term “burnout” and its associated concepts have only gained prominence in recent decades, reflecting our evolving understanding of the psychological and occupational challenges individuals face in contemporary society.

The concept of burnout was first introduced by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. Initially, it was primarily associated with high-stress occupations, such as healthcare professionals and social workers. Freudenberger defined burnout as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.” However, it was not until the 1980s that burnout gained recognition as a medically recognised psychological condition.

man lying on hammock near waterfalls

Recent Statistics on Burnout

Burnout has reached alarming levels, impacting individuals across various professions and age groups. While exact statistics may vary, several studies highlight the extent of this issue:

  1. Occupational Impact:
    • A Gallup study found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work often or always, while an additional 44% experienced burnout sometimes.
    • The World Health Organization (WHO) identified burnout as an occupational phenomenon, stating that it affects an estimated 10-25% of the global workforce.
  2. Healthcare Sector:
    • A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported that 50% of physicians experienced symptoms of burnout.
    • Nurses are also significantly affected, with a survey by the American Nurses Association revealing that 41% of nurses experienced burnout symptoms.
  3. Students and Young Adults:
    • According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 45% of college students reported experiencing burnout.
    • Young adults entering the workforce face burnout as well, with a Deloitte survey revealing that 84% of millennials experienced burnout in their current job.

Modern Burnout: Exhaustion, Cynicism, and Self-Doubt

In the modern context, burnout has evolved beyond the simple notion of work-related stress. It is now recognized as a multi-dimensional phenomenon characterized by three key dimensions:


Burnout often manifests as profound physical and emotional exhaustion, leaving individuals drained and depleted. They experience a lack of energy, decreased motivation, and an overwhelming sense of fatigue that extends beyond the boundaries of work.


A hallmark of modern burnout is the development of cynicism towards your profession. Individuals affected by burnout may become detached, cynical, and disillusioned with their work, colleagues, or the overall value of their profession. This cynicism often stems from chronic stress, unmet expectations, and a perceived lack of control.


Burnout instils a sense of diminished self-worth and self-doubt in individuals. They may question their competence, doubt their ability to meet expectations, and experience a decline in their self-confidence. This self-doubt can further exacerbate the cycle of burnout and hinder individuals from seeking support.

woman sitting on blanket located on shoreline

Burnout’s Causes, Impact and Risk Factors

Employee burnout knows no boundaries, affecting both work and personal aspects of life. In fact, a staggering 91 percent of respondents acknowledge that an overwhelming amount of stress or frustration hampers the quality of their work. Additionally, 83 percent of participants reveal that work-induced burnout negatively impacts their personal relationships.

Dispelling the Myth of Passionate Immunity

Passion for one’s job does not provide immunity against workplace stress. Surprisingly, 87 percent of surveyed professionals express a strong passion for their current roles, yet 64 percent admit to frequently experiencing stress. This dispels the common misconception that passionate employees are impervious to burnout.

Unfortunately, many companies fall short in addressing burnout within their organizations. Nearly 70 percent of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout. Even more concerning, 21 percent of respondents report that their companies do not offer any programs or initiatives aimed at combating burnout.

It is crucial for companies to recognize that workplace culture plays a pivotal role in mitigating burnout, not just relying on well-being programs. Shockingly, a quarter of professionals confess to rarely or never using all of their vacation days. The survey also identifies the lack of support or recognition from leadership as the primary driver of burnout, emphasizing the critical role leaders play in establishing a positive work environment.

The Impact on Millennial Retention

Millennials, in particular, bear the brunt of burnout, with 84 percent reporting burnout in their current jobs compared to 77 percent of all respondents. The consequences are evident as nearly half of millennials have left a job specifically due to burnout, surpassing the 42 percent average across all respondents.

In light of these findings, it is imperative for organizations to prioritize addressing burnout comprehensively, focusing on both workplace culture and tailored programs. By recognizing the far-reaching effects of burnout and implementing effective strategies, employers can foster healthier and more sustainable work environments that benefit employees and the organization as a whole.

The main factors contributing to the development of burnout, include:

  1. Work-related factors:
    • Excessive workload and long working hours
    • High job demands and low control or autonomy
    • Lack of support from colleagues or supervisors
    • Poor work-life balance and blurred boundaries between work and personal life
  2. Personal factors:
    • Perfectionistic tendencies and high self-expectations
    • Limited coping skills and difficulty in managing stress
    • Lack of social support and isolation
    • Personal or family history of mental health issues

Burnout has emerged as a pervasive and debilitating condition affecting individuals across various professions and life stages. Its detrimental effects extend beyond the workplace, impacting personal well-being and overall quality of life. Recognizing the signs of burnout, promoting self-care, and implementing organizational strategies to address its underlying causes are essential steps toward mitigating this modern epidemic. By prioritizing mental health, fostering supportive work environments, and promoting work-life balance, individuals and society can work together to combat burnout and promote well-being in the modern world.

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Wellbeing Editor
Wellbeing Editor
Articles: 18

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