Many authors tell people who already feel worn out and ineffectual that they can change their situation if they just try hard enough. What’s more, by making it individuals’ responsibility to deal with their own burnout, the advice leaves untouched the inhumane ethical and economic system that causes burnout in the first place. Our thinking is stuck because we don’t recognize how deeply burnout is embedded in our cultural values. Or else we’re afraid to admit it. Insofar as the system that works people to the point of burnout is profitable, the people who profit from it have little incentive to alter it. In an individualistic culture where work is a moral duty, it’s up to you to ensure you’re in good working order. And many workers who boast of their hustle embrace that duty, no matter the damage it does. In a perverse way, many of us love burnout culture. Deep down, we want to burn out.
I resemble this statement, and I don’t like it.
By the definitions established in Jonathan Malesic’s recent book The End of Burnout, I have never burned out—at least not completely. I have never reached a point of absolute despair that rendered me incapable of going on, which, along utter exhaustion and reduced performance, marks burnout. The other two, however…
I wouldn’t say that I worked hard in high school, at least on the whole. There were projects that I worked at and if something interested me I would work hard, but not so much overall. Midway through my undergraduate career something snapped. Seemingly overnight I became a dedicated, if not efficient student. I divided everything in my world into “productive” activities and unproductive ones and aspired to spend my waking time being as productive as possible. School work obviously counted as productive, but so too did exercise and investing time in my relationships. Spending time not doing things was deemed unproductive.
At first this was innocuous enough. I was young and productive time included fun things, right? My numerous and varied interests led to me to do all sorts of things and I was determined to do them all. By the time the second semester of senior year rolled around this was almost a mania: I was working, running a club, taking a full course load, working on two research projects, and auditing extra classes that just looked interesting to me, as well as exercising and generally spending time on the aforementioned relationships.
At a time when the stereotypical college student develops a case of senioritis, going through the motions while looking forward what was next, I somehow managed to define sleep as “not productive.”
I cringe thinking about it now, but I went through most of a semester averaging about three hours of sleep a night. I don’t think I ever pulled an all-nighter, but most nights I only got one or two hours, going to bed around midnight, getting up at 1:30 so I could grab coffee and food before the late night place closed, work until the gym opened, exercise, shower, go to class, and then either go do homework or go to my shift at work. I would get eight hours or so on Fridays after work and whatever recreational activities I had planned. Several people that I know of had conversations about when I was going to collapse, though not within earshot. It was bad. Trust me when I say that you shouldn’t do this.
According to the journal I kept at the time, under an April entry titled: “I guess I did need to sleep,” I slept for 13 hours straight.
I have never done something this self-destructive since, but there have been numerous times that I have edged in that direction.
- The year after college I ended up working up to 90 hours a week, often for weeks at a time without a day off until I just couldn’t physically keep it up, at one point sleeping for more than 12 hours and forcing myself to take days off, even if the nature of the job made that difficult.
- I worked almost 30 hours a week on top of my school responsibilities (a “full” course load and grading for a class) while completing my MA.
- I nearly lost snapped while completing the work for one of the toughest seminars I took in grad school the week that I was also taking my comprehensive exams.
- Another semester, while cobbling together jobs as an adjunct, I took on so much work (six classes, one of which was nearly twice as much work as I thought when I accepted it) that I had to stop writing entirely just to stay on top of the teaching.
- The semester after that I developed (probably anxiety-induced) GERD and broke out in hives.
- I frequently have to remind myself that taking one day off a week is okay, leave alone two. At least I usually sleep 7–8 hours a night these days.
Lest it sound like I’m bragging, these are not badges of honor. They are symptoms of the perverse relationship with work that Malesic describes, wedded with ambition and an anxiety oscillates between imposter syndrome and a deep-seated fear that I’ll once again become someone who does nothing if I let up even a little. The worst part: my behavior place within systems that celebrate discipline, but it was almost entirely self-inflicted.
However, I have never burned out like Jonathan Malesic.
Malesic had achieved his dream of becoming a tenured professor of religion and living the life filled with inspirational conversations with young people that he imagined his own college professors had lived. But that life wasn’t as great as he imagined. His students were apathetic, the papers uninspired and, at times, plagiarized. There were meetings and committees, and his wife lived in a different state. In short, the job didn’t live up to his expectations, which, in turn, caused his life to fall apart. His job performance lagged. He snapped at students. He drank too much and found himself incapable of getting out of bed. And so, eventually, he quit.
The End of Burnout is an exploration of the forces that caused his disillusion with his job and possible solutions to escape it. Put simply, Malesic’s thesis is that two features of the modern workplace cause “burnout.”
- People derive personal meaning and worth from their jobs.
- There is a gulf between the expectations and reality of those jobs.
That is, there is a broad expectation in the United States that your job determines your worth to society. This is obviously not true, but it is signaled in any number of ways, from making health insurances a benefit of employment, to looking down on “low status” jobs like food service, to the constant expectation that you ought to be seeking promotion or treating yourself like an entrepreneur. But if your worth is wrapped up in your job, then you might enter with a certain set of expectations that are out of sync with the conditions—doctors who want to heal people and end up typing at a computer all day, or a professor who got into teaching because of Dead Poet’s Society and ends up teaching bored, hungover students in general education classes. On top of it all, the responsibility for “solving” the issue is then passed on to the worker: you’re just not hustling hard enough. Have you tried self-care?
The End of Burnout is a thought-provoking book. Malesic examines the deep historical roots of phenomena that might today be called burnout, discusses the pathology of an ambiguous phenomenon that is likely overused, often pointing to acute exhaustion rather than true burnout, and explores how social pressures (e.g. the moral discourse that equates work with worth) exacerbate the phenomenon before turning to alternate models of work and human dignity.
I picked up the end of Burnout for a few reasons.
Most obvious, perhaps, is my toxic relationship with work, as outlined above, to the point where I thought that I had burned out on multiple occasions. Based on the descriptions Malesic provides, I was usually acutely exhausted rather than truly burned out, with the result that, at least so far, I have always been able to bounce back with a few weeks or months of rest.
(The one exception might be the restaurant work straight out of college, but even that did not stop me from working in another franchise in the same chain for two more years while attending school.)
Cumulative exhaustion can lead to burnout, but I came away unconvinced that I have even really been walking down that path. I have been frustrated, of course, and can tell that I am creeping toward exhaustion when I start excessively doom-scrolling on Twitter, but I did not relate to the sheer disillusionment Malesic described. When I have considered other employment options over the past few years, it has always been because of a dearth of jobs.
The main difference, at least to this point, is that I have never viewed this job through rose-colored glasses. Writing about history is something I see as a vocation, but I have approached the teaching and associated work as a job, albeit one that aligns with those other aspects of my life and thus is more enjoyable than some of the others I have had.
At the same time, I have noticed a shift in my relationship to hustle culture now that I am in my mid-30s. I still work hard and have certain ambitions, but increasingly, they are around finding ways to spend my time reading, writing about things I find interesting and important—and having employment with enough security, money, and free-time to do that.
Likewise, the idea of treating oneself as an entrepreneur, which Malesic identifies as an element connecting worth to employment, has always left a sour taste in my mouth. When people tell me that I could (or should) open a bakery, I usually shrug and make some polite noises. I have managed a restaurant in my life and have very little interest in doing so again. I bake because I like the process and enjoy cooking for people I like, not because I want to turn it into a business with all of the marketing, bookkeeping, and regulations that would entail.
(I have also considered trying to turn my writing into a subscription business, but I find that incompatible with the writing I do here. If I made a change, it would involve some sort of additional writing with a regular and established schedule—say, a monthly academic book review for a general readership with a small subscription fee designed to cover the cost of the book and hosting. A thought for another day.)
However, I also picked up The End of Burnout because I am worried about the effect that this culture has on my students. Nearly every semester I have one or more students who report losing motivation to do their work. This past semester one student explained it as a matter of existential dread about what he was going to do with his degree, but it could just as easily be anxiety or concern over climate change or the contemporary political culture or school shootings.
I have long suspected what Malesic argues, that burnout is systemic. In a college context, this is why I get frustrated every time a conversation about mental health on campus takes place without addressing those systemic factors. Focusing on the best practices and workload for an individual class is (relatively) easy, but it is much harder to account for how the courses the professor is teaching or the students are taking interact with each other. I am absolutely complicit in this problem. One of my goals for next academic year is to reexamine my courses because the reality is that the most perfect slate of learning assessments is meaningless if the students end up burned out. I can’t fix these issues on my own, but Malesic’s book brought into greater focus why I need to be part of the solution for my own sake and my students’. I don’t ever want to let one of my students make the mistakes I did when I was their age, which probably explains why the most common piece of advice I give is “get some sleep,” and I can’t help them if I am also in crisis.
The back part of The End of Burnout turns to possible solutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his background as a professor of religion, this discussion frequently focused on groups with a Christian bent. He spends a chapter, for instance, talking about how various Benedictine communities apply the Rule of St. Benedict to tame the “demon” of work. Some groups strictly follow the Rule, limiting work to three hours so that they can dedicate the rest of their lives to what really matters, prayer. Other groups, like several in Minnesota, were less rigid, but nevertheless used similar principles to divorce work and worth, and allowing one’s service to the larger community change with time.
The other chapter in this section was more varied, and included useful discussion from disability activists, but it also featured a prominent profile of Citysquare, a religious-based Dallas non-profit that uniquely humane policies around work expectations and support for its staff. These examples sat awkwardly with my agnostic world view, as someone who believes that we should be able to create a better society without religion, and particularly without Christianity. However, Malesic’s underlying point is not that we ought to all follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Rather, he makes a case that each profile in its own way can help imagine a culture where the value of a person is not derived from their paycheck (or grade).
To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of the [destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom] and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.
Malesic’s vision here is decidedly utopian and hardly new, and his warnings about the consequences of the automating workplace are a modern echo of 19th century choruses. But the ideals he presents are worth aspiring to nonetheless. As long as we work within a depersonalizing, extractive system that treats people as interchangeable expenses against the company’s bottom line, then that system will not only continue to grind people down and spit them out, but also contribute to nasty practices elsewhere in society like treating food service workers with contempt. Severing the connection between personal worth and paid work won’t solve every problems, but it is a good place to start.