The term ‘burnout’ has, in recent years, become much overused. It has become the helping professions’ equivalent to what the British army called ‘shell shock’ or the Americans ‘battle fatigue’: what our parents’ generation called ‘nerves’ and the present generation calls ‘depression’. They become catchall phrases that signify ‘not coping’. Burnout is not an illness that you catch, neither is it a recognizable event or state, for it is a process that often begins very early in one’s career as a helper. Indeed its seeds may be inherent in the belief systems of many of the helping professions and in the personalities of those that are attracted to them.

Edelwich and Brodsky (1980) explore how unrealistically high expectations of what can be achieved can create the background for the later development of disillusionment and apathy. Many professions also encourage their trainees to develop the image of themselves as heroic helpers who can continually provide for others, solving their problems, feeling their pain, and meeting their needs, while remaining themselves strong and happy. This can be coupled with the personality of those attracted to such work who may have been the people who contained the pain and were always helpful in their own families.

Pines et at. (1981) define burnout as:

the result of constant or repeated emotional pressure associated with an intense involvement with people over long periods of time. Such intense involvement is particularly prevalent in health, education and social service occupations, where professionals have a ‘calling’ to take care of other people’s psychological, social and physical problems. Burnout is the painful realization that they no longer can help people in need, that they have nothing left in them to give.

Fineman (1985: 38) follows Maslach (1982) in saying that burnout represents:

(a) a state of emotional and physical exhaustion with a lack of concern for the job, and a low trust of others,
(b) a depersonalization of clients; a loss of caring and cynicism towards them, and
(c) self-deprecation and low morale and a deep sense of failure.

We would contend that the best time to attend to burnout is before it happens. This involves: looking at your shadow motivation for being in the helping professions; monitoring your own stress symptoms and creating a healthy support system; and ensuring that you have a meaningful, enjoyable and physically active life outside the role of being a helper.
In an earlier work (Hawkins 1986) we explored another aspect of burnout that is ignored in most of the literature, which is the apathy and loss of interest which develop in helpers who stop learning and developing in mid-career. They begin to rely on set patterns of relating to clients and patients they met earlier in their career. A preventative approach to burnout needs to include creating a learning environment that continues right through one’s career as a helper.


Hawkins, P. and Shohet, R. (2000) Supervision in helping professions, An individual, group and organizational approach 2nd eds,  Philadelphia: Open University Press. pp. 21-22










































Edelwich, J. and Brodsky, A. (1980) Burn-out. New York: Human Sciences.

Pines, A. M. , Arson, E.  and Kafry, D. (1981) Burnout: From Tedium to Growth, New York:The Free Press.

Fineman, S. (1985) Social Work Stress and Intervention. Aldershot: Gower

Maslach, C. (1982) Understanding burnout: definitional issues in analysing a complex phenomenon, in W. S. Poine (ed.) Job stress and Burnout. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Hawkins, P. (1986) ‘Living the Learning’, PhD thesis. University of Bath.