The term burnout was coined a half century ago to describe the exhaustion, cynicism, and feeling of ineffectiveness experienced by those in the caregiving and human-service professions: doctors, police officers, social workers, etc.

Over the decades it has come to be applied to more and more professions and even unpaid work as well: professors are burned out; students are burned out; retail workers are burned out; activists are burned out; parents are burned out. People feel burned out on life, in general.

Yet while the application and discussion of burnout has greatly expanded, what burnout is, exactly, and what causes it has remained stubbornly difficult to pin down.

There is no clinical definition of burnout, no universally agreed upon yardstick for what constitutes it, no official diagnostic checklist as to its symptoms.

In the absence of this consensus, surveys that are administered on the subject each use various kinds of criteria and frame their questions differently, making it hard to accurately assess just how many people are actually experiencing the condition.

As Jonathan Malesic points out in The End of Burnout:

One meta-analysis found that out of 156 studies that used the MBI [Maslach Burnout Inventory — a standard burnout assessment] to examine physician burnout, there were forty-seven different definitions of burnout and at least two dozen definitions each of emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. It’s no wonder these studies produced widely divergent results, from 0 percent of physicians experiencing burnout, up to 80 percent.

An absence of consensus around burnout also makes it difficult to disentangle it from other conditions that manifest in similar ways. Are you burned out or just bored? When is burnout different from simple tiredness or stress? Is someone burned out, or are they actually depressed?

This murkiness doesn’t mean burnout isn’t real. There’s a reason the term has become so popular: it perfectly describes a common, intuitively understood experience — a state that can feel akin to things like straightforward exhaustion, garden-variety boredom, or clinical depression, but also feels qualitatively distinct. Even if it’s a varied, subjective thing, people often simply know it when they have it. Nonetheless, the murkiness around burnout should invite some epistemological humility into the discussion — a willingness to acknowledge that much about the condition remains a mystery.

That is equally true when dealing with what causes burnout. Because if we don’t have a clear definition of what burnout is, we’re equally confused about what drives it.

Burnout is most commonly associated with overwork. And yet there are folks working 80 hours a week who don’t feel burned out, and people working 30 who do.

Another popular theory is that burnout is a peculiar product of our modern world — something to do with its go-go pace, its atomization, its overstimulation. And yet, even if they did not yet have the word burnout to describe it, people have been complaining of burnout-esque conditions throughout history, especially since the dawn of industrialization. In 19th century America, folks called it “neurasthenia,” and thought it was caused by the rise of stultifying office work and the increasing speed of technological change. Add to this the fact that the strictest of monks, who lived a couldn’t-be-more stripped-down lifestyle almost two thousand years ago, experienced something akin to burnout too, and the idea that burnout is driven by our brain-fragmenting devices begins to seem more tenuous still. (More on those monks in a bit.)

Related to the modernity hypothesis, is the idea that burnout has to do with the increasingly blurry line between our work lives and our personal lives. But that line was arguably even blurrier in past centuries; you woke up, milked the cows, chopped firewood, planted and harvested on your property, mended things around the house . . . farmers were WFH-ing long before we were, with essentially no separation between their “work” lives and their “personal” lives (even explicitly dividing the two would have been a strange distinction to make).

Well, we then think, if burnout isn’t caused by the encroaching reach of modern work, then it is a result of the essential meaninglessness of that work. Modern work isn’t as directly connected to our survival as it