Intended for healthcare professionals


Brief history of burnout

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 27 December 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k5268
  1. Rajvinder Samra, lecturer
  1. School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK
  1. Rajvinder.samra{at}

We have much to learn from established countermeasures in aviation

The coining of the term “burnout” in a clinical sense is typically attributed to the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger,1 who in 1974 described it as particularly pertinent to caring professionals.2 More than 40 years later, burnout is still conceptualised as uniquely affecting those in emotionally demanding professional roles.3

However, one of the first documented reports of workplace burnout referred to people without occupational caring responsibilities.4 In 1971, three years before Freudenberger’s description,2 US air traffic controllers were commonly reporting “vocational ‘burn out,’ a form of exhaustion, which is manifested in a decline in quantity and quality of work production.”4 Several important, and overlooked, parallels between burnout in air traffic controllers and in doctors can inform our current approaches to tackling this phenomenon.

During the 1960s and 1970s, air traffic controllers reported poor training environments, inadequate equipment, rapidly changing shift patterns, long shifts without breaks, fatigue, …

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