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BBC Radio 4 Exhaustion: A History

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

BBC Radio 4 Documentary

Anna Katharina Schaffner


Are we really more exhausted today than we have ever been before? Writer and broadcaster Philip Ball sets out on a journey to discover a forgotten history of listlessness, burn-out and fatigue.

The story he uncovers reveals modern concerns with being tired out, that can feel unique to our time, have in fact been shared by many previous generations that also claimed to be ages of exhaustion.

From Ancient Greek bodily concerns with imbalances in the four humours, to spiritual failings of desert dwelling monks of early Christianity. From celestial bodies of Renaissance thinking, to the moralistic sexual messages of the 18th and 19th century Vampires. What does exhaustion show us about our preoccupations of the past?

As we arrive at the industrial revolution and the rhythms of contemporary life start to change, it’s the exhaustion of the outside world that comes into play. Yet the age old prejudices of class, sex and race continue in its interpretations.

Today, listlessness and burnout still serve as a bridge to our wider anxieties. But are brand new stakes in the history of exhaustion entering the fray? Our depleted world, sapped of its resources, desperately seeks new sources of energy. Is civilisation and our planet now jeopardised by exhaustion too?

Presented by Philip Ball Producer: David Waters

Based on research by Dr Anna Katharina Schaffner

A TBI Media production for BBC Radio 4

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