When A Psychologist Succumbed To Stress, He Coined The Term 'Burnout'

Dec 8, 2016
Originally published on December 8, 2016 6:14 pm
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If you're the type of person who checks your work email right before bed and just as you wake up the next day, you might know the word burnout, but you may not know the story behind it. Noel King from NPR's Planet Money podcast tells us about the man who coined the term burnout and then found a sort of solution.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: In the early '70s, Herbert Freudenberger had a successful psychology practice on New York's Upper East Side. He was a serious, driven man. He'd survived the Holocaust and moved to the U.S. as a kid. Here's his daughter Lisa Freudenberger. Her dad died in 1999.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: His childhood kind of stopped at 7 or 8 because he had then had to grow up pretty quickly and survive in a new country.

KING: In the States, he was taken in by an aunt who was cruel to him. She made him sleep in an attic. In his teens, he ran away and lived on the street for a while.

Herbert grew up to become someone who was always pushing himself to help more people. That's why in addition to his practice on the Upper East Side, he opened a clinic on the Bowery - New York's Skid Row. He worked with drug addicts.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: These young people were really struggling.

KING: A lot of his clients - kids - were just fried.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: He would see them literally holding cigarettes and watch the cigarettes burn out.

KING: He'd pull 12 hours on the Upper East Side, then he'd go down to the Bowery and work until 2 a.m.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: He began to get more and more fatigued, and he began to get stressed. And he was not that pleasant to live with. He was...

KING: What was that like? Was he a yeller?

LISA FREUDENBERGER: Yeah, yeah. He had - he didn't use his inside voice, shall we say, so...

KING: So his kids tried to stay out of his way. When Lisa was about 5, her mom booked a family vacation to California. On the day they were set to leave...

LISA FREUDENBERGER: He couldn't move. He couldn't get out of bed.

KING: Herbert realized something was wrong. But he was a therapist, so he started self-analysis.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: He would speak into a tape recorder for an hour or two, and then he'd take a little break. And he'd then analyze himself as if he was his own doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERBERT FREUDENBERGER: I don't know how to have fun. I don't know how to be readily joyful.

KING: That was Herbert in an interview he did with the Shoah Foundation. It wasn't just exhaustion. It wasn't exactly depression. It was something new. His mind went to the drug addicts down on the Bowery with their blank looks and their cigarettes burning out.

He called his illness burnout. He wrote a book - "Burnout: The High Cost Of High Achievement." It was a hit. Stressed out social workers and doctors and housewives were like, I have that. Herbert went on "Oprah" and "Phil Donahue," and here he is on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

H. FREUDENBERGER: Burnout really is a response to stress. It's a response to frustration. It's a response to a demand that an individual may make upon themself in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.

KING: But burnout isn't in the DSM - the official listing of mental disorders from the American Psychiatric Association. And to this day, companies struggle with workplace burnout. Is it overwork? Is the problem individuals or the environments they work in?

Herbert Freudenberger found a solution of his own. After burnout became part of the cultural conversation, he didn't work any less. But when he wasn't working, he was able to enjoy life. The family even managed to get him to take a vacation at a lake in upstate New York, and Lisa says he seemed happy.

LISA FREUDENBERGER: He says come; let me show you how I swim; let me show you how I swim. He then got into the lake, and he proceeded to do a dead man's float. And I'm, like, waiting to see any flapping of the arms or flapping of the legs or something - stayed there, got up with the biggest grin. And I could see, like, this inner child in him just flourished. And he was so proud. He goes, did you see me swimming? I'm like, yes, Dad - fabulous.

KING: The recognition of his work, she says, had made him a different person. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.