Letters to the Editors, October/November 2006


Regarding Ulrich Kraft's “Burned Out”: Herbert J. Freudenberger may have coined the term “burnout syndrome” in the 1970s, but he was not the first to notice the phenomenon. In The Wealth of Nations in 1776, Adam Smith observed that many people could only work at full output for a small number of years and that it was the bosses' job “rather to moderate, than to animate” their workers. George Combe in 1827 wrote that work must be enjoyable, which it could not be if it was too hard or too long: otherwise the only happiness is retirement.

Early in the 20th century the Yerkes-Dodson Law related increasing stress and motivation to an inverted U-shaped curve for work output; at the highest level of stress, output dropped to zero. Behavioral researcher B. F. Skinner discussed how a bricklayer could “burn himself out” in 1953. He called it “abulia,” or absence of behavior, and described it as the consequence of too much work being expected.

An old Scottish proverb puts it in a nutshell: “The hired horse never tires.” This expression implies that the hirer's attitude can cause work woes. Competition and the profit motive seem to be at the root of the problem in an industrial society.

Bill Taylor
Nairn, Scotland

“Burned Out” was right on target with the observation by Juergen Staedt that recognizing effort motivates high performers by rewarding them for their extra stress. One need only look at the cycle of outsourcing to see how employees at all levels feel compelled to increase their productivity, further contributing to their stress. When the organizational ax falls in spite of their efforts, as Staedt notes, they take an even harder hit.

The remedies mentioned do work well, and a stable relationship and supportive spouse are essential. I identify with their subjects: at age 50, I switched careers from graphic production to teaching. It was stressful, but friends and family were supportive, and that made the difference.

Frank Tingle
Etobicoke, Ontario

An enlightening book on this subject is Professional Suicide: A Survival Kit for You and Your Job, by Donald W. Cole (McGraw-Hill, 1981). Cole, a consultant, investigated why promising employees with symptoms resembling burnout would commit “professional suicide” by leaving for lesser jobs or remaining on staff but “retiring.” He blamed a corporate culture with vague goals, which penalized the best employees and allowed the less able to work it to their advantage. Upper managers would usually terminate his services when he reported that the problem was not with the employees but with them.

Peter Vaculik
Ann Arbor, Mich.


“Beyond the Neuron Doctrine,” by R. Douglas Fields, sheds new light on the old debate on how neurons communicate. We agree with him that more scientific work needs to be done before answering the question: How are waves so well coordinated in the human brain? One interesting research area focuses on the question: How are physics and human information processing linked? Perhaps in future research, we can look at quantum physics to come to a more basic understanding of the mechanisms behind neuron communication, and as a result we might come to a better understanding of the human brain.

Maurits van den Noort
Peggy Bosch
University of Bergen, Norway

FIELDS REPLIES: Whether quantum physics may help unlock this secret I do not know, but I have no doubt that uniting forces of biology, mathematics and physics will be required to pry open this mystery.

A collision between biology and physics sparked the science of electrophysiology the day Luigi Galvani touched bare metal forceps to a skinned frog leg and it twitched with life. Alessandro Volta dismissed Galvani's 1791 startling discovery of “animal electricity” as an electrochemical reaction between metal and salty body fluids, an argument that led him to discover the chemical battery. Human brain waves were not seen until 1929, by an obscure German psychiatrist, Hans Berger, who was searching for a physical basis for mental function.

This article was originally published with the title "June/July Issue."

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