Over the past couple of years, I have seen my workload increase – with the added strains of the pandemic thrown in on top. I began to see little changes in my behavior and an increasing sense of cynicism and frustration.
I was tired; I was worried about maintaining the standard of my work; and at times I was uncharacteristically grouchy with my colleagues and students. I feared that these signs pointed to the fact that if I didn’t make some changes soon, I’d find myself on the verge of burnout.
Like a good scientist, I thought I’d check out how I was doing using the Maslach Burnout Inventory - a well-validated test you can take to see how burned out you’re feeling.
When I calculated my score, I learned that - luckily- I wasn’t burned out… yet. Which was a good thing, because full burnout can be pretty brutal.
“I would wake up in the morning and dread having to go to work,” says Jonathan Malesic, author of the recent book The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us, And How To Build Better Lives.
Jonathan was a tenured professor. It was the job of his dreams that he’d spent years working toward – but it was destroying him. He says he’d fallen into the trap of thinking that "if you're working hard you are a meritorious person. Claiming that you're burned out is kind of a status marker, you’re an ideal worker in our work-obsessed culture.”
A key sign of burnout is what’s known as “occupational exhaustion” – being so weary that not even a good night’s sleep makes a dent in your tiredness. Jonathan knew that emotional tiredness well - he’d often fall asleep during the day or collapse on the couch after work.
When Jonathan took the Maslach Burnout Inventory, his results were stark. “I scored in the 98th percentile on exhaustion and I have to admit, I felt kind of proud of myself for that.”
As a society we may praise workers who put in long hours and “give 110%” – but for Jonathan the cost wasn’t just tiredness. “In this period, I put on a lot of weight. I stress ate. I stress drank. It was just utterly miserable in my dream job.”
Jonathan’s students suffered too. “All that stuff that I’d taught myself to do to be an effective teacher was just gone from my brain,” he recalls.
As his performance as a teacher seemed to dip, Jonathan blamed himself… but also his pupils. “I saw the students as the problem, I saw the students as unwilling to learn. And that felt offensive to me, like an attack on my personhood. My temper became very short.”
Jonathan was experiencing the second key sign of burnout - depersonalization.
One of the most pernicious elements of burnout is its ability to turn us against not only ourselves, but those around us. Depersonalization makes us callous, cynical and sometimes even cruel.
Jonathan tried taking a break – stepping back from teaching for a whole semester – but it seemed that resting alone wasn’t the answer.
Jonathan then took a bigger step. Being an academic was central to his sense of self and his sense of worth. He enjoyed the societal status that being a college professor bestowed on him… but the job was the source of his awful burnout. So he quit.
Aside from being an academic, Jonathan had only really had one other job – for a short period in grad school he’d been a parking lot attendant. It’s a low status position that few people aspire to, but Jonathan had fond memories of the job. He began to analyze what he’d enjoyed about it.
So Jonathan tried to recreate these job elements in his post-burnout career. Nowadays, he’s a journalist who thinks and writes about burnout a lot. He tries to balance his identity as an author with other aspects of his sense of self. And he monitors his work levels to make sure he’s not feeling so exhausted.
Jonathan was able to overcome his sense of burnout, but not without some major changes to his career and his identity.
I usually like to end these articles by giving easy-to-follow tips, ones that anyone can put into practice - but in the case of burnout, Jonathan worries that the solution doesn’t fully rest in the hands of individuals.
“One common piece of advice that is given to people who might be suffering burnout is to learn to say: ‘No.’ But me saying no to other people's demands doesn't reduce the number of demands. It just shifts that burden onto the next person.”
Jonathan wants to spark a debate about burnout and how we thinking about people and work. He wants society to better recognize we can all find dignity not only in the jobs we hold or the roles we perform. We're valuable people no matter where we work or what we are paid.
He also argues that we need more acceptance about the fact that we’re all more limited than we like to admit – especially when it comes to time.
“We simply will never be able to do it all. We won't even be able to do a fraction of the things that we might like to do in our lives. Recognizing that we will die is a great discipline to help us overcome burnout culture. Lives are limited. And that is something to carry with you.”
Stay safe and stay happy,
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