According to Harvard historian Jill Lepore, burnout – that is, feelings of being “worn down, wiped out, threadbare, on edge, battered and battle-scarred” – is pervasive. Though the condition has existed since ancient times, it has become a defining feature of modern life. In this New Yorker article, Lepore traces the origins of the term “burnout” and explores why possible remedies have failed to mitigate its spread.
Burnout is a pervasive problem, and the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated it.
People who experience burnout feel exhausted and blue. They’re frequently forgetful and irritable. They avoid social contact, and they often suffer from physical pain and lingering illnesses. They may also feel like they achieve less, despite working harder. Many major news outlets have reported that burnout has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013, failed to acknowledge burnout as an ailment, likely due to the concept’s vagueness. The symptoms of burnout overlap with depression and may not warrant a separate clinical term. In 2019 the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout syndrome but limited its definition to a “workplace phenomenon” rather than a medical condition. Nevertheless, recognition of the condition is growing. In Sweden, for instance, workers suffering from burnout may take sick leave.
Evidence suggests that burnout...
Jill Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University. She’s also been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2005. Her writing covers American history, law, literature and politics.