"We live in a burnout culture": Author Jonathan Malesic on the death spiral of the American worker

The "Great Resignation" may merely be a symptom of a larger, longer-term burnout crisis in the United States

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 9, 2022 7:30PM (EST)

Worried businessman in dark suit sitting at office desk with laptop and notepad being overloaded with work. (Getty Images/Iuliia Bondar)
Worried businessman in dark suit sitting at office desk with laptop and notepad being overloaded with work. (Getty Images/Iuliia Bondar)

You just can't push through it any more. Your Sunday night dread has become a week-long state of being. You're not just tired or restless — you're burned out.

You've got loads of company. More than 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November, the highest number in over two decades and an indicator that "the great resignation" isn't going away.

Author Jonathan Malesic has been there. As a tenured professor, he had job security and a career in a field he cared out. But the actual job was making him miserable. Now, in "The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives," the self-described "former academic" explores the lengthy human history of burnout, why it happens, what it does to our psyches — and what we can learn from the communities that have managed to stave it off.

Salon spoke to Malesic recently via Zoom about his new book, our centuries-long relationship with burnout, and why we "suffer from and perpetuate" toxic work cultures.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You start the book with the first two thousand years of burnout. We have had burnout with us as long as we have had people. I can imagine early humans sitting around the fire thinking, "If I make one more fire, I'm going to lose my mind. If I have to gather any more berries, I'm going to scream." Tell me about what burnout has meant historically, and how we first began to articulate it in the seventies.

The key distinction is exhaustion has been with us forever. Throughout history, there have been different exhaustion disorders corresponding to different cultural moments and different cultural concerns. I look in the book at more than two thousand years, but two thousand is a nice round number. It echoes David Graeber's book, "Debt: The First Five Thousand Years."

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Throughout those two thousand years or so, the characteristic exhaustion disorder has shifted. In the early medieval era, Christian monks were very concerned about acedia. It was considered one of the eight bad thoughts of monastic life and characterized as the Noonday Demon. It was a disorder peculiar to spiritual life, so it's spiritual dryness. I think acedia is still with us, but it emerged at this time when the culture needed a term to describe a specific experience.

In the 19th century, the analog to burnout was neurasthenia. Its history really parallels burnout in interesting ways. Like burnout, it was a simultaneous discovery of two scientists working independently, publishing papers at almost the exact same time on the same topic. It very quickly became this cultural phenomenon to the point where William James described it as Americanitis — this characteristic disorder of being an American and living the supposedly fast-paced American life.

In the seventies, something very similar happens with burnout. Two psychologists working independently on opposite coasts with different methods — one a clinical psychologist, the other a researcher — identified the same disorder in similar, complementary terms, and published almost simultaneously in 1973 and 1974.

I had a really key moment in this historical argument when I was listening to the radio in the car and Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm" came on, and I'm grateful to my local radio station for playing extremely long songs sometimes. There's this one line, "I was burned out from exhaustion." And it clicked. This album was was recorded in 1974. It was a top-selling album. So Dylan noticed something from the culture that's already going on and then giving it back to the culture. These psychologists are doing the same, all at the same time.

RELATED: The pandemic-era "flexible" workplace has become oppressive. Workers should demand more

Something was happening in American culture in the early-to-mid-seventies that meant "burnout" was the term to describe the problem with work. As historians argue, 1973 and 1974 was this watershed moment when work in America changed decisively. We're still living in the wake of that. It was a moment of the beginning of de-industrialization. The power of the labor movement had peaked in the early seventies and was beginning its decline. Wage growth detached from productivity growth. You have the shift to a more service-oriented economy. Women are entering the workforce in huge numbers, this huge upheaval in the way we work. Burnout caught on as the term to describe it. We're still in that burnout culture that dawned in 1974, because the economics, and our outlook at work has not really changed in fifty years.

You reference David Graeber's "Bullshit Jobs" in the book. I'm really intrigued at the overlap of bullshit and burnout. Burnout to me seems something that happens to something that you loved. When something you loved is transformed into something detestable, part of that is bullshit, but that's not the only thing. How do you describe burnout?

In the broadest terms, I describe it as the experience of being stretched between your ideals for work and the reality of your job. You have to have some investment in the work in order to burn out. It doesn't necessarily have to be passion, but some kind of high ideal or expectation. Even if it's not passion or love, it might be a desire that goes beyond the material.

You look for dignity. You look for status from your work. You look for fulfillment. The ideals can be many. That motivates you to get into the work, and then you get there and it doesn't deliver on those goods. That's the broad definition.

The more nitty-gritty definition I borrow from the leading researchers is that burnout is this syndrome with three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism or deep personalization, and a sense of ineffectiveness at work. Exhaustion is something we're all really familiar with, but the exhaustion that's characteristic of burnout is not the same as the exhaustion that you feel at the end of a difficult project. Yesterday, I was working on an article, and my brain was totally spent. But I wasn't burned out. I knew that this is a kind of tiredness that would pass. A good night's sleep, a couple days, and I'll be fine.

The exhaustion of burnout doesn't disappear with rest. When I was burning out at my job as a college professor, I took a very long rest, a semester of unpaid leave. I was away from the college for five months, and I thought, "I'm going to feel better at the end of this." When I got back to work, that feeling lasted for a week or two. Very quickly, I was back to the same exhaustion and misery and despair, because nothing about my job had actually changed. The exhaustion of burnout is not only exertion.

It reminds me of when they talk about childbirth, and it's described as pain with purpose. If you have pain with purpose in your work, then the exhaustion from it is very different than the pain of just pain. When pain is just pain, it's burnout.

I think that's a good description.

Your book is coming along at an interesting time of tension. There's high stakes competitive burnout of "Oh, you think you hate your job? You think you hate your life? You think you're exhausted?" You talk about it in the book too, that sense that things can't be easy or enjoyable. But then we have this anti-work movement starting to crop up now. We see people saying, "I don't want to do this. Where's the payoff for me, then?" Tell me about what you're seeing in response to burnout.

Some of the phenomena you mentioned like the anti-work movement, it's unclear what that will mean concretely. But it runs parallel with what we're calling the great resignation, where — and I don't want to make a clear pronouncement because I'm not reporting on it — I think that these are encouraging signs coming out of the pandemic. I'd love to talk a little bit about why the pandemic was perhaps so transformative.

We're not fully out, but after the experience of this great disruption in our work due to the pandemic, workers are realizing that they have a little bit more power than they did at the beginning two years ago. We developed this new category of essential workers. We see that there's in some sectors a labor shortage at the moment. And millions of people just had the experience of g being paid in some cases as much or more than they were prior to the shutdown, to stay at home.

I think we're seeing evidence that those concrete realities really did have a positive effect on workers' understanding of their human value and then their market value as workers. An argument that I'm trying to make in the book is that we need to lead with that human value that each one of us has an inherent dignity.The market value of the worker needs to follow from that. My hope is that if we lead with that human value, then the labor value will rise accordingly.

You talk about how things are changing and who seems to have figured it out. What are some of the things that you're seeing in populations that have been able to successfully stave off burnout, and what can we learn from them?

There's a whole chapter on Benedictine religious, three different communities in two different locations. The one community I wanted to go to, I wanted to get as far away from burnout culture as I could without leaving the country. I found the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Northern New Mexico. This is a community of about sixty monks who live not entirely off the grid. They generate their own electricity. They have internet service through satellites. but they're aiming to be as self-sustaining as possible and live the life that St. Benedict prescribes in his rule from the early sixth century. They're kind of unusual among Benedictine communities in the United States, because they are to adhere to this 1,500-year-old rule as closely as they can while living in the 21st century.

They are as modern as you and I are. The abbot at the time kept an email newsletter. They brew beer. They spent a couple years in the 1990's building websites as a money-maker for them. They're fully modern individuals who, in many cases, have had secular careers and are now living according to a 1,500-year-old rule. To do that faithfully, they spend a lot of time in communal prayer.

I guess the takeaway for the secular workers would be that one thing the monks do is that they put something other than work first. Their working lives exist to serve a different end. The top priority is the five or six hours a day that they spend in communal prayer, very slowly and methodically chanting these prayers and psalms that monks and sisters have been chanting in the same order for fifteen centuries.

The other big thing that they do is they honor each other's dignity. Benedict says this about guests, but I think it's true of the monks as well, that you should greet guests as you would Christ. The monks recognize the dignity of each other. They put a great emphasis on upholding and preserving the community and trying to live together. That, too, means that you can't say, "Hey, Brother, you've really got to put in another ten hours on whatever project."

They put something else first. Second, they really emphasize each other's inherent dignity, and that sets limits on work. Also, they live in community in order to make this life possible. It wouldn't be possible as individuals. We can't fix our burnouts on our own. You need a community to help you do that. If you decide,"I'm not going to check email after 5:00 PM," or something like that, and you're the only one in your company who does that, you become a problem. But if everyone in the company decides that, well, it's a different story.

Another side of it that gets sticky and confusing is the the front-facing aspect of it, where the people who are burned out are dealing with the public in one way or another, whether as a nurse or as a delivery person or as an academic. And then we're all bringing that sense of defensiveness to our interactions with each other.

When I was teaching full time, I was very concerned about these students or that colleague making life difficult for me. It took years after I quit before I realized, I'm probably making life difficult for them, too. hope it's not only because of my personality and my normal tendencies, but because I was burned-out, because I was frustrated, because I felt like I wasn't having my dignity and accomplishments properly respected. I behaved badly to others, potentially increasing their risk of burnout, and other complications.

This isn't a life coaching book, this is an examination of how we have always had this with us but don't always continue to. What do you want people reading this to come away with it from?

Ultimately, that we live in a burnout culture. There is a competitive side of it, where I try to show, "No, my burnout is way worse than yours" When I do that, I'm trying to show that I am a good and competitive worker, I am an ideal American worker, and that confers a lot of status in our society.

We live in this burnout culture that we both suffer from and perpetuate. And we're not going to end it if we don't see it for what it is and recognize our implication in it and recognize that we can both heal and harm other, and we should decide to heal. The way to do that is going to have to start with recognizing those connections and talking about them, talking about our ideals for work, talking about the reality of our jobs and how that reality doesn't live up to those ideals, and then collectively trying to change it.

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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