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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Defining Burnout: What is Burnout for ABA Providers?

One of the most common psychological symptoms modern people increasingly experience is burnout, i.e., the outcome of chronic work-related stress (Melamed et al., 2006, as cited in Koutsimani et al., 2019).”

Defining Burnout

Herbert Freudenberger, a psychiatrist, was the first to define staff burnout. This happened in 1974. His definition included the idea that a person, within the context of their employment, experienced one or multiple of the following:

  • lack of success
  • feelings of being worn out
  • becoming exhausted
  • excessive demands on energy, strength or resources

Another definition of burnout is the following (Maslach et al., 1996):

  • “the experience of exhaustion, where the individuals who suffer from it become cynical toward the value of their occupation and doubt their ability to perform” (as cited in Koutsimani et al., 2019)

Burnout: Exhaustion, Cynicism, and Lack of Professional Efficacy

In Maslach’s definition of burnout, there are three primary aspects to burnout which include:

  • exhaustion
  • cynicism
  • lack of professional efficacy


When you’re exhausted, you may feel excessive amounts of stress and experience stress in a more negative manner. You may be chronically fatigued. This could be due to having too many demands placed on you at work or your interpretation of the amount of demands placed on you. Also, chronic stress or exhaustion can lead to handling work demands in a less efficient manner. This can become an unpleasant cycle: more work demands can lead to more stress which can lead to more exhaustion which can lead to more work demands (particularly if work demands aren’t being addressed efficiently) and so on.

For an ABA provider, you may experience exhaustion when you have multiple reports due and then the experience of burnout begins to build leading to being more stressed. This may then lead to being more fatigued by your work experiences. You may then also have more treatment plans to write and behavior plans to create which could then lead to greater feelings of stress and so on.


To experience cynicism means to have an attitude or perspective that is apathetic or detached from your work tasks as well as potentially being detached from coworkers. This could lead to less interest in your work or feeling like you have lost your connection with the work you do.

For ABA providers, cynicism may look different for everyone but for some people it may look like feeling emotionally disconnected from coworkers, not feeling passion for your work, overlooking small tasks or details in your work, or not feeling as excited about helping people as you used to.

Lack of Professional Efficacy

Efficacy means the “capacity for producing a desired result or effect; effectiveness.” Behavior analysts are to do their best to give their client’s effective treatment.

For practitioners of applied behavior analysis, it is very important and even an ethical obligation, that services are effective. Clients have the right to effective treatment according to Ethics Code 2.09(a) of the BACB Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts.

Therefore, having a lack of professional efficacy due to burnout can compromise one’s services as well as their compliance with the ethical guidelines.

Lack of professional efficacy means that you tend to feel like you are not as efficient or effective at your job compared to how you used to feel about your competence. You don’t tend to be as accomplished.

For ABA providers, having a lack of professional efficacy may mean that you are less effective at influencing positive outcomes for your clients. You may put less effort into finding the most effective treatment protocols. You may be less efficient, less organized, and put less energy into appropriate planning for your clients.


We’ve covered the definition of burnout and related it to work as an ABA provider. However, this is just the beginning of understanding burnout.

If you resonate with the definition of burnout and feel you may have or are experiencing something related to what we have discussed, consider evaluating your work life, your values, your behaviors, and taking steps to address stress.

Be sure to find more resources to help you manage burnout if you feel it would be helpful.


BACB (2014). BACB Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. Retrieved 6/11/2020 from

Efficacy (2020). Retrieved 6/11/2020 from

Freudenberger H. J. (1974). Staff burn-out. J. Soc. Issues 30, 159–165. 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]

Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., & Georganta, K. (2019). The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 284.

Maslach C., Jackson S. E., Leiter M. P. (1996). MBI: Maslach Burnout Inventory. Sunnyvale, CA: CPP, Incorporated. [Google Scholar] [Ref list]

Melamed, S., Shirom, A., Toker, S., Berliner, S., and Shapira, I. (2006). Burnout andrisk of cardiovascular disease: evidence, possible causal paths,and promisingresearch directions.Psychol. Bull.132:327. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.3.327

Defining Burnout: What is Burnout for ABA Providers?

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2020). Defining Burnout: What is Burnout for ABA Providers?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from