According to Wikipedia “burnout” is a psychological term for the experience of long term exhaustion and diminished interest. It is not included in the DSM IV (the psychiatric Bible), but it is included in the ICD-10 which is a coding of diseases and symptoms, complaints and social circumstances etc.
“Burnout” was first coined in the 1970’s and is now used more often than the older terminology “nervous breakdown” which was commonly used for some of the same kinds of symptoms. The big difference as far as I can tell is that “Burnout Syndrome” applies mostly to work related exhaustion, while “nervous breakdown” applies to symptoms caused by an abnormal amount of stress.As a teenager in the 70’s I remember hearing the term “nervous breakdown” frequently. A few friends over those years told me they had someone in their family that had a nervous breakdown and needed time to rest. I don’t know if they ever recovered or if their nervous breakdown required more intensive treatment. Many psychiatrists today think that a nervous breakdown is sometimes a code for something more serious like an episode of severe depression or psychosis.
“Burnout syndrome” seems to be less of a psychiatric illness and more of a general feeling of being drained physically and emotionally. I know of people who have worked themselves to exhaustion. Different situations can lead to burnout including overwhelming workload, hard work and no clear goals, powerlessness to change something important to you, conflict between your personal values and the values of the company you work for, and hitting the “invisible ceiling.”
In both cases, it’s important to try and be aware that you are headed into a burnout situation so that you can make the appropriate changes before it happens. Psychiatric care may or may not be needed, but chances are that drastic changes in life style and attitude will be.