Several years ago, instead of getting up to go to my well-paid, secure job as a tenured college professor, I would lie in bed for hours, repeatedly watching the video to “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush. “I am a man whose dreams have all deserted,” Gabriel sings, echoing my inner monologue. I tried to believe Bush’s compassionate refrain, “Don’t give up, ’cause you have friends,” but I just couldn’t. My first class was at 2 p.m.; I’d make it there barely on time and barely prepared, then go right back home. At night, I ate ice cream and drank malty, high-alcohol beer—often together, as a float. I gained 30 pounds.
The antidepressants my doctor prescribed didn’t help. My psychotherapist told me I didn’t have clinical depression. Eventually, I realized something different had happened, something that lacks an official diagnosis. I had burned out.
In a recent BuzzFeed essay, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” Anne Helen Petersen gives a thorough account of how our society, especially in the past few decades, has ensured mass burnout by demanding more education, more debt, and more willingness to put work ahead of everything else. Petersen—who, full disclosure, is a friend who has cited my writing on burnout—coins the term “errand paralysis” to describe her inability to perform the small, ordinary tasks we associate with functional adulthood. She makes a convincing case that, despite our society’s moralistic view of work, burnout is not the worker’s fault.
Petersen’s essay, which went viral, clearly resonated with young Americans. But by focusing on millennial burnout, Petersen understates the scope of the problem. About a quarter of all U.S. workers, of all ages, exhibit key symptoms of burnout—and it’s likely that many more workers have experienced burnout at some point in their lives. This isn’t a generational epidemic; it’s a societal one.
According to research psychologists, burnout has three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (or cynicism), and the feeling of personal inefficacy. To measure it, they administer a questionnaire called the Maslach Burnout Inventory, named for Christina Maslach, a leading burnout researcher for four decades. Maslach and her coauthor, Michael Leiter, identify six main causes of burnout that arise within organizations: too much work, lack of control, too little reward, unfairness, conflicting values, and the breakdown of community. If you experience these in your job for long enough, you’re likely to go home every day feeling empty, bitter, and useless.
If Petersen was exhausted, it’s no wonder. “I was publishing stories, writing two books, making meals, executing a move across the country, planning trips, paying my student loans, exercising on a regular basis,” she explains. “But when it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it.”
I know the feeling. Once I got tenure, securing a lifetime of job security, I had it made. The feeling lasted a year. After a post-tenure sabbatical, I returned to a college facing budget and accreditation crises. There was suddenly much more work to do and after a round of layoffs, fewer people to do it. I did good work, but didn’t feel that it was recognized by higher-ups. It was also dispiriting to teach students a subject—theology—that the college required them to study, but which they didn’t really want to learn about. My wife, also an academic, was working in another state. When I took the Maslach Burnout Inventory three years ago, at age 40, I landed in the 98th percentile for exhaustion.
Millennials face a characteristic set of pressures, but older generations experience widespread burnout too. I was relatively young when burnout struck, but I’m squarely in Generation X. I hear constantly from people my age and older about how their work has used them up, but they feel they must keep going. Maslach’s original research, in which she recognized a growing burnout crisis in fields like nursing, social work, and law enforcement, involved workers born prior to 1960. The conditions she and Leiter say foster burnout have been characteristics of American workplaces for a long time. They affect workers of all ages.
In medicine, the field where burnout has been studied most thoroughly, burnout rates are actually lowest for the under-35 cohort of doctors but increase through middle age and decrease again for physicians over 55. Given the pay and prestige of a medical career, as well as the tremendous debt most people take on to enter the profession, it’s not surprising that doctors would be reluctant to quit even when they’re past the point of exhaustion. By doing so, however, they may jeopardize their quality of care. When one worker burns out, their patients, coworkers, and customers suffer, too.
In the end, even Kate Bush’s counsel wasn’t enough to cure my burnout. I resigned my position, sunk costs be damned. My wife and I live under the same roof now, and I’m lucky to be married to someone with stable work and good benefits, since I took a 75 percent pay cut in becoming a freelance writer and adjunct instructor at a nearby university.
Quitting worked for me, but this solution doesn’t scale up very well. So what can we do about mass burnout? Petersen is right that individual solutions—meditation, saying “no” to excessive work demands—may be appealing, but won’t solve the deeper problem.
Because the causes are systemic, the solution to burnout will need to be too. Peterson noted why “many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix.” But overthrowing capitalism isn’t a complete solution, either. The things that cause burnout – from overwork and shoddy management to a lack of recognition – would likely persist in socialist systems. Workers burn out in social democracies like Sweden, too.
We can’t just throw cash at the burnout problem, either, like Don Draper does on “Mad Men” when his younger business partner Peggy Olson complains that her tireless work goes unrecognized. “That’s what the money is for!” he bellows. Of course, workers would benefit from higher wages, but a bigger paycheck won’t keep you from burning out if you’re treated unfairly, or your employer’s values differ from yours, or your boss is a tyrant. Besides, burnout isn’t just a reaction to bad jobs. I had a great job, but there were still problems with my workload and rewards I couldn’t bear over the long term.
And this is where the problem lies: There’s no obvious solution. “Change might come from legislation, or collective action, or continued feminist advocacy, but it’s folly to imagine it will come from companies themselves,” Peterson writes. “Our capacity to burn out and keep working is our greatest value.” But it’s hard to see how Congress could legislate the problem away, especially given that Washington is also keenly interested, for economic reasons, in having as many Americans working as possible—and doing so as efficiently as possible. As for collective action and feminist advocacy, they may help improve employment at the edges, but it’s worth noting that even 9-to-5 workers with generous vacation time can burn out.
It may be impossible to eliminate burnout altogether. As long as we toil, there will be pain. But we can surely ease it. Burnout arises in our organizations, but it’s a product of the unhealthy interpersonal relations we have there. That means it’s not fundamentally an economic or political problem. It’s an ethical one. It stems from the demands we place on others, the recognition we fail to give, the discord between our words and actions. The question can’t just be how I can prevent my burnout; it has to be how I can prevent yours. The answer will entail not just creating better workplaces, but also becoming better people.