Mental Health

Where does burnout actually come from? A former professor has answers

A Q&A with the author of ‘The End of Burnout’ Jonathan Malesic
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Sarah Wall

· 6 min read

Theologian Jonathan Malesic thought he had reached the professional promised land when he landed a tenure-track teaching position at King’s College in Pennsylvania in 2005. But within eight years, the job became so tangled with his personal identity that Malesic began to suffer from debilitating exhaustion. Big, existential questions pervaded his every move, as he tried coaxing blasé college kids to open their books with anything approaching mild enthusiasm.

And so in 2016, he quit all that noise and decided to write a book about the cultural norms we’ve erected around work and how they’ve given rise to a nationwide epidemic of burnout. His forthcoming book, The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, explores how work has become an all-encompassing exercise in achieving personal contentment in our day and age, and why that’s a noxious and unnecessary outlook that’s got to change.

HR Brew talked to Malesic about his own experiences with burnout, why it’s so entrenched in society, and how we might begin to overcome it.

We have a cultural commitment and a valorization of work in American society. Where does that commitment and valorization come from?

That idea has persisted through 400 years. Today, one way that it manifests is in work requirements for food stamps. Or, you go to a political demonstration and there’s always some critic driving in their car shouting “Get a job” at the protesters, as if they’re all out-of-work hippies. The idea is that even your First Amendment rights don’t really count unless you work for pay.

In the Industrial Age, we started adopting this idea that work builds character. Factory owners were worried that the working poor were going to spend all their time drinking whiskey, so there was this belief that if you instill in people good work habits, their moral character will improve. The most recent edition is this idea that work is all-fulfilling, it gives your life purpose. That’s an idea that really took hold beginning in the 1960s and 70s and is pretty pervasive now. It’s a huge idea in the tech world, but also beyond.

How have you experienced burnout, and why did it convince you to leave your career as a college professor behind?

Being a college professor was my dream job for years. I was fortunate enough that I got my dream. I got a tenure-track job in 2005. I got to teach the stuff I wanted. I got to do the research I wanted. I had intelligent colleagues.

I came back from sabbatical, and the small frustrations I had with the job became bigger and bigger. It started to become difficult to get out of bed in the morning. I would wake up and start my day, but two hours later, I’d have to go back to sleep. I had this pervasive exhaustion. My temper got shorter. I became more and more miserable.

What were some of the frustrations with the job?

My inability to deal with students’ baseline indifference got worse and worse. I taught a required theology course, and not many people go to college excited to take theology. I started to take their disinterest more and more personally. It started to feel like a personal attack. It completely wasn’t, but it felt that way.

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Was that because you identified so personally with your job?

Exactly. I identified so strongly with my job that anything that went wrong on the job was a judgment on me and profoundly affected my mental and physical health. I kind of lost the sense that my work was valuable.

You talk about the disconnect between the ideals we have about work and the reality of what we do. Can you elaborate on that?

That gap is pervasive in our work culture because we’ve got those really high cultural deals that are hundreds of years old, and we have a reality of work that has probably often not lived up to those ideals. Plus, [our idea of work has] eroded over the last several decades to create this pervasive experience of burnout that workers are going through.

Do you think of burnout as a condition that we as a society can collectively suffer from?

What psychologists say about the topic makes a lot of sense. We use the term “burnout” colloquially all the time, but it’s become almost a cultural buzzword for describing a whole range of experiences with work and life.

When we use it in everyday speech, it doesn’t map on perfectly well to what psychologists mean when they’re studying burnout. Our vague understanding of the concept leads us to see everything as burnout. I want to corral the term “burnout” and apply it more narrowly to our jobs and insist more on the definition that is most prevalent in the psychological literature, which is that it’s this syndrome with three feelings: of exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of ineffectiveness.

You kind of reject the mainstream antidotes for burnout, like unplugging from work and practicing mindfulness. Why is that not the way to go, and what should people do instead?

Things like learning to say no or putting your phone down may not be bad ideas, but they’re not going to fix the problem of burnout, because they’re just individual fixes to a problem that is located in the workplace and the culture at large. Burnout is not caused by an individual’s bad habits. It’s caused by these massive cultural beliefs about work and organization-wide traditions. We all have similar ideals for work, and in any workplace, the conditions of work are largely shared.

So if I learn to say no at my workplace, it’s just the next person down the line who’s going to get asked, and they’re going to shoulder the burden. That’s not actually a fix. The way to address burnout is to change the way the organization assigns tasks. It’s possible that a lot of the work that gets assigned doesn’t need to be done at all.

The End of Burnout is out on January 4, 2022.

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

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