Meet the man who ‘discovered’ burnout

This week I learned that the word “burnout” was coined in the 1970’s by a psychologist named Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, a German-born Jew who escaped Nazi-controlled Germany and moved to New York City in the 1930s.
This guy was unbelievably resilient and resourceful. First of all, he came to this country as a child, all by himself, and lived with a relative who was not kind to him. He managed to learn English, did well in school junior high, and when his parents arrived to NYC years after he did, he went to work in a tool and die shop to help support them. He eventually got back to school, completed his PhD and established a thriving therapy practice.
This is a person who knew suffering and sadness, and who knew what it meant to work VERY hard.
Yet it wasn’t until later on in his career that things began to fall apart at the seams. In the ’70s, Dr. Freudenberger became invested in the free mental health clinic movement, devoting lots of time and energy to patients addicted to substances. Much of this work was unpaid. He continued to work in his therapy practice as well, putting in 12 hours a day in his practice and then working late into the night with addicts on the street.
He was steeped in other people’s pain, and he was working a ridiculous number of hours.
He became irritable, hollow, exhausted. His daughter later described him as “difficult to live with.” Dr. Freudenberger became curious about what was happening to him. He did self-analysis, talking into a tape recorder and listening to the tapes, trying to understand his own thoughts and emotions better. He did research and published a book called BURNOUT: THE HIGH COST OF HIGH ACHIEVEMENT.
In the book, he made this analogy:
“If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.”
Dr. Freudenberger said that, like a burned-out house, someone who’s burned out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.” (I first came across this excerpt from his book here).
It seems that the recognition Dr. Freudenberger received for his work helped him get into a different mindset and mental space. He apparently never really cut down on his work hours but did become happier and more relaxed as his career progressed — after he named the phenomenon of burnout.
My theory: In looking inward and ultimately speaking up, Dr. Freudenberger connected with hundreds of thousands of people experiencing the same thing. They said, “Yes, this is me, too. You’re describing me.” Perhaps he realized there was meaning and purpose not only to his work, but to his suffering. He had contributed, and he wasn’t alone.
There’s a way that burnout creates loneliness, and connecting with others with a shared experience is one way of breaking free 💜
If this resonates with you, consider downloading my free burnout survival guide here.
And if you’re a therapist working in a high-stress setting in the Rochester NY area, and burnout is knocking at your door…there’s still room for you in my Clinician Process Group