Amanda Lauren Walter & Elizabeth Faue

The Women’s Occupational Health Resource Center, founded in 1978 by Dr. Jeanne Stellman to provide research, technical services, and education on women’s occupational health, produced numerous fact sheets on occupational hazards, ranging from asbestos to working with animals and bus driving. One fact sheet stood out to us, both as it signaled change in the workplace and as it remains relevant to women-dominated occupations. The 1982 fact sheet, Burnout in the Helping Professions, explained the physical and emotional toll jobs can have on workers.[1]

As discussed in the article, “In the Shadow of Tragedy: Jeanne M. Stellman and the Work of the Women’s Occupational Health Resource Center,” Stellman and her colleague, Susan Daum, identified stress as a major health hazard in their 1973 book, Work Is Dangerous to Your Health.[2] As an occupational health expert, Stellman already was aware of the important link between stress and burnout. Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, the inventor of the term, “burnout,” reported it as especially prevalent in the caring professions. He reported, “[A] potential danger for the staff person who will burnout is that individual who has a need to give. A need that is excessive and in time unrealistic.” He also noted that, “Another condition for burnout in us is the boredom, the routinization of the job we perform.”[3] Women dominated helping professions, such as nursing and teaching, and many routinized office jobs.

By 1981, the Resource Center was seriously working to combat burnout and educate the public about the signs for this serious workplace issue. The Women’s Occupational Health Resource Center’s 1981 National Conference included presentations on stress and burnout and women workers, alongside other occupational hazards to reproduction and cancer in the workplace. Freda Paltiel, advisor on the Status of Women, Ottawa Department of Health and Welfare, stated that women earned less than men and had little decision-making power in the workplace. These factors placed them at high risk for burnout. She added that lack of respect also caused burnout. One proposed solution was for women to organize.[4] In 1982, Raymond Connolly, president of the Communication Workers of America Local 1089, noted the importance of the WOHRC in combatting burnout. He reported, “The pioneering concern of the WOHRC in the areas such as video display terminals, the relationship of office (ergonomics) to job stress, job pressure, job ‘burnout’ will make it possible to improve the quality of work life of all the people we represent.”[5]

            By 1984, the two years after the WOHRC factsheet, burnout was the subject of an increasing number of studies.  In “The Risks of Healing: The Hazards of The Nursing Profession,” Linda Coleman and Cindy Dickinson discussed extreme stress among nurses and burnout due to their lack of a voice making decisions and policies that affected their work lives. Patient outcomes also affected worker burnout in ways that they noted was particularly true for women.[6] The WOHRC fact sheet reported,

Women’s issues are intimately connected with burnout, note social work consultant Diane Ryerson and psychologist Dr. Nancy Marks who have conducted innumerable workshops and training sessions on the problem. Although male physicians, psychiatrists and legal aid lawyers also suffer from the syndrome, most line workers in schools and social agencies are women. Constant responsibility for others is a potent source.

It continued by explaining women experience what “dual careers in giving,” combining a stressful job with their responsibilities for child care and household. Beyond that, women workers often felt “powerless and helpless in systems dominated by male hierarchy” and worked in jobs seen as “not important or worthy of much funding, primarily women’s work.”[7]

As in much of WOHRC’s materials, the fact sheet gave concrete suggestions for combatting burnout, including increased administrative support and the creation of career ladders to provide new opportunities and recognition to working women. The fact sheet also suggested workers organize themselves and create peer support groups. Throughout its existence, WOHRC thus fulfilled its mission to make available the latest information on occupational health and on working women’s health needs, an area neglected in the occupational and medical health fields.[8]

For more on Dr. Jeanne Stellman and the WOHRC, see “In the Shadow of Tragedy: Jeanne M. Stellman and the Work of the Women’s Occupational Health Resource Center,” published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Journal of Women’s History.

Some of the WOHRC publications, including “Burnout in the Helping Professions” and other fact sheets, are available from the Columbia Academic Commons at https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/


[1] Burnout in the Helping Professions, Women’s Occupational Health Resource Center (WOHRC)
1, no. 3 (1979).

[2] Amanda Lauren Walter and Elizabeth Faue, “In the Shadow of Tragedy: Jeanne M. Stellman and the Work of the Women’s Occupational Health Resource Center,” Journal of Women’s History 34, no. 1 (Spring 2022): 93-114; Jeanne M. Stellman and Susan M. Daum, Work Is Dangerous to Your Health: A Handbook of
Health Hazards in the Workplace and What You Can Do About Them
(New York: Vintage Books,

[3] Herbert J. Freudenberger, “Staff Burn-Out,” Journal of Social Issues 20, no.1 (1974): 159-165.

[4] Report on the Occupational Health Resource Center’s National Conference, 1981, box 16, folder 6, Stellman Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[5] Raymond Connolly, President, CWA Local 1089, to Stellman, June 17, 1982, box 16, folder 21, Stellman Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

[6] Linda Coleman and Cindy Dickinson, “The Risks of Healing: The Hazards of The Nursing Profession,” in Double Exposure: Women’s Health Hazards on the Job and at Home, ed.Wendy Chavkin, 37-56. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984).

[7] Burnout in the Helping Professions.

[8] Ibid.