What is burnout? Finding a definition of burnout isn’t hard. But there appears to be no one definition that is broadly and commonly accepted.

This only serves to highlight the fact that each person is unique. Burnout can show up differently across a spectrum of individuals.

Over the years we have worked with many executives and leaders experiencing burnout.

In general they share these common characteristics:

  • Key decision makers

  • Heavily involved
  • Highly committed
  • People intensive
  • Major responsibilities
  • High expectations
  • Demanding workload
A Definition of Burnout

This may describe you. In light of this, consider the following definitions of burnout, some from respected researchers and others from those making keen observations. What they have to say may strike a chord for you, only confirming and helping to put a name to what you are experiencing.

Our first contemporary burnout definition came from a 1974 book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger,. He defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

The current environment doesn’t meet my internal expectations. I’ve poured myself into it for so long now and the return isn’t there. I’m exhausted. And I don’t see any reason to be there when it is so futile.

“A maladaptive coping mechanism to working conditions that are stressful, demanding, or lacking sufficient challenge and recognition.”

Sarros and Densten

“Emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind.”

Maslach and Leiter

People intensive work is often present. Not always, but often. Seems where you have people you will have challenges and stress.

“A progressive loss of idealism, energy, and purpose.”

Edelwich and Brodsky

So, what is job burnout? Some clients have said they just feel beaten down with no support, no encouragement and a big question about whether it has been worth the effort at all.

“A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.”

Pines and Aronson

It’s not just physical and external. It’s internal and emotionally and mentally exhausting. Some have described ‘having a tired soul’.

“Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will — an erosion of the human soul.”

Maslach and Leiter

There it is again, the ‘tired soul’. When who you are and what you have to do don’t line up, it produces stress. Stay there long enough and it can contribute to burnout.

Another definition of burnout …

“A three dimensional syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that occurs among individuals who work with people in some helping capacity.”

Griffith University, Australia

I’m exhausted in every way. Nobody cares so why should I?

“The experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest (depersonalization or cynicism), usually in the work context.”


“Burnout is a symptom of a person not being currently able to clearly discern their current primary needs and personal rights, set and stick to realistic local and long-term personal priorities, and assert and enforce appropriate personal boundaries (limits) with (a) themselves and/or (b) other people.”

Peter K. Gerlach MSW

This is pretty insightful. Peter goes on to propose that the most accurate definition of burnout be:

“Burnout is a normal symptom (sign) of dominant personality subselves…

distrusting and disabling the person’s resident true Self, and…

feeling too confused, weary, hopeless, conflicted, guilty, scared, shamed, hurt, angry, frustrated, and bored to (a) acknowledge this and (b) correct it without help.”

All to say that I haven’t paid attention to who I am, my values, my sense of what’s right, my expectations, hopes, dreams and knowledge of the contribution I feel called to make. And now I’m too confused to see it or acknowledge it and do something about it on my own.

“Burnout is being physically and emotionally exhausted as a result of long term stress.”

Charles Figley, Ph.D.

We Invite You to Contact Us

Over a number of years we have coached many leaders and executives experiencing overload and burnout. An initial conversation will determine if and how we might assist you.

Call our office at 705.687.2711 or use the contact form.