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The Burnout Bandwagon

Neurasthenia: Victorian burnout

Neurasthenia: Victorian burnout

Everywhere I turn just now it seems that burnout is the topic of discussion. Several articles have appeared on LinkedIn recently, aimed at coaches who work with Chief Executives, and at care givers. Responses to my own recent musings on the importance of good boundaries, and the need to let our souls catch up with our busy and over-stretched selves have struck a chord with many of you.

I wonder did our ancestors suffer from burnout? What symptoms would our Victorian or Renaissance predecessors have experienced? They too had 24 hour days that filled up with time constraints, employment issues, and family challenges.

Curiously, some very brief research has produced the marvellous term neurasthenia Рbelieve it or not, the Victorian term for what we now classify as burnout:

emotional and mental weariness, anxiety, aches and pains,

sluggishness and sleeplessness, and general malaise.

The diagnosis, as cited by David Schuster, originated with 19th century neurologist George Beard, whose view was that the body ran on nervous energy, and when this energy was expended, many physical and physical health problems manifested themselves.

What prompted this diagnosis of symptoms that were common enough in the day to coin their own term? The late 19th century was a time of rapid change, industrialisation, increased transportation and movement of people to the cities, and the advent of – wait for it – the telephone.

Classic.

Nothing wrong with the telephone you understand – well done to the genius Alexander Graham Bell. (And he was Scottish!)

But observe with me the irony of it all Рwe invent new and faster communication methods to improve our lives and narrow our world, and eventually our bodies and minds rebel. Typical me-statement that: very black and white. Clearly, it is not as simple as that, but I am only seeking to stir your thoughts.

Neurasthenia becomes the trendy 19th century ailment even as people are stretching themselves to learn more, invent more, move further, create more. As humans, we are truly astonishing – capable of incredible creativity, inventiveness, depths of emotion and resilience. That is who we are, and each of us is unique and amazing with the most powerful computer at work inside our heads.

But – and there is always a but – we also require rest and restoration to allow us to function at our best.

What did the Victorians do about neurasthenia? What were some of the recommended treatments? And what are the symptoms we would recognise as burnout? What can we learn from past generations? Explore with me over the coming weeks.

2 Thoughts on “The Burnout Bandwagon

  1. Shameen Prashantham on May 24, 2016 at 1:25 am said:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this piece, Catriona. Just last week I was listening to a research presentation on the positive effective of taking time out to reflect on (lessening) burnout among factory workers in China. Clearly, burnout is an issue across cultures and professions. Look forward to your future thoughts on this topic.

    • Catriona Futter on May 24, 2016 at 12:21 pm said:

      Thank you for your encouragement and kind words. Burnout is a huge issue, not a new one, but we do seem to be slowly sitting up and paying attention to the cost, and starting to make changes. It is a complex issue, and in part about knowing and understanding our worth, and that we do not have to be busy all the time to prove anything, and having the ability and resources to say no. But if we all learn together, and take individual and corporate responsibility, there will slowly be a culture change I hope!

Inspired? Encouraged? Get in touch!

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