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The New Neurasthenia

How burnout became the buzzword of the moment

The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives by Jonathan Malesic. University of California Press, 288 pages.

What do bankers, TikTok influencers, and Prince Harry have in common? This sounds like the run-up to the world’s most boring joke, but the answer, pundits assure us, is no laughing matter. These industrious professionals all suffer from burnout.

Psychologists have been studying burnout for five decades, and certain professions—physicians, social workers—have long warned of burnout within their ranks. In the last two years, the cultural status of burnout has radically changed. No longer is “burnout” a specialized term describing a state of depletion among workers in certain strenuous human-services professions. Burnout is now a conflagration, blazing through the ranks of elite professionals with greater firepower than the most flaming royal red hair. Everyone, from veterinarians to Amazon account managers, complains of burnout; the New York Times seems on the verge of creating a burnout beat, if its churn of coverage is any indication. How did “burnout” become a keyword of our age?

The pandemic, of course, has much to do with the term’s newfound popularity. Covid brought in its train a parallel epidemic of worker exhaustion. The stress and social dislocation resulting from a poorly managed, seemingly interminable public health emergency put limits on what workers could tolerate. Yet burnout’s ubiquity cannot be attributed to Covid alone. While exhaustion among nurses, teachers, and other frontline workers accounts for some of the uptick in burnout talk, the term has been seized most avidly by highly educated remote workers in such fields as technology, finance, and media. Is burnout, then, really a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress, as the World Health Organization has classified it? Is it a form of depression? Or is it a mark of disillusionment with the fictions propping up our world of work?

The New York Times seems on the verge of creating a burnout beat, if its churn of coverage is any indication.

Jonathan Malesic’s intelligent and careful study, The End of Burnout, brings clarity to a muddled discussion. He casts a critical eye on burnout discourse, in which the term is used loosely and self-flatteringly. Journalistic treatments of burnout—such as Anne Helen Petersen’s widely read 2019 essay—tend to emphasize the heroic exertions of the burned-out worker, who presses on and gets her work done, no matter what. Such accounts have significantly raised burnout’s prestige, Malesic argues, by aligning the disorder with “the American ideal of constant work.” But they give, at best, a partial view of what burnout is.

The psychologist Christina Maslach, a foundational figure in burnout research—the Maslach Burnout Inventory is the standard burnout assessment—sees burnout as having three components: exhaustion; cynicism or depersonalization (detectable in doctors, for example, who see their patients as “problems” to be solved, rather than people to be treated); and a sense of ineffectiveness or futility. Exhaustion is easy to brag about, inefficacy less so. Accounts of the desperate worker as labor-hero ignore the important fact that burnout impairs your ability to do your job. A “precise diagnostic checklist” for burnout, Malesic writes, would curtail loose claims of fashionable exhaustion, while helping people who suffer from burnout seek medical treatment.

Malesic, however, is interested in more than tracing burnout’s clinical history. A scholar of religion, he diagnoses burnout as an ailment of the soul. It arises, he contends, from a gap between our ideals about work and our reality of work. Americans have powerful fantasies about what work can provide: happiness, esteem, identity, community. The reality is much shoddier. Across many sectors of the economy, labor conditions have only worsened since the 1970s. As our economy grows steadily more unequal and unforgiving, many of us have doubled down on our fantasies, hoping that in ceaseless toil, we will find whatever it is we are looking for, become whoever we yearn to become. This, Malesic says, is a false promise. While the book rarely veers into polemic, it has a strong moral-religious bent. It is an attack on the cruel idea that work confers dignity and therefore that people who don’t work—the old, the disabled—lack value. On the contrary, dignity is intrinsic to all human beings, and in designing a work regime rigged for the profit of the few and the exhaustion of the many, we have failed to honor one another’s humanity.

Malesic might seem like an improbable mouthpiece for burnout: to all appearances, he had the perfect job. He was a tenured professor teaching in fields he loved: religion, ethics, and theology. His colleagues were intelligent and friendly, and his salary and benefits more than satisfactory. Secretly, he was a shell of his former self. He would barely make it to class in the afternoons. Isolated in a long-distance marriage, he would spend the evenings eating ice cream and drinking malt beer. His sullen and indifferent students, prone to boredom and plagiarism, had broken his spirit.

After quitting his job, Malesic resolved to figure out what happened to him. It wasn’t depression, not quite. Talk therapy and antidepressants didn’t help him. Leaving his job did. His ailment, he decided, was burnout.  

The legendary sociologist C. Wright Mills proposed that the “sociological imagination”—an understanding of how our own experiences reflect broader social and historical forces—could help us link our seemingly private troubles to public issues. Burnout, a personal malady that indexes a broken labor system, is a prime candidate for such reimagining. The emergence of burnout as a psychological concept roughly parallels the development of a distinct phase in American economic history. In the 1970s, the postwar glow faded and inequality began to skyrocket. The rise of the temp industry two decades earlier was a harbinger of things to come. Corporations, advised by consultants, started shedding their direct employees. “[T]he temp,” Malesic notes, “became the ideal worker.” Workers came to be regarded as liabilities, not sources of productive power. Aided by deregulation and the decline of union power, businesses pulled off a massive risk shift from capital to labor. Meanwhile, the growing domination of the service sector put new emotional demands on workers. In service jobs, our personalities and emotions are “the chief means of production”—they are what employers rent and exert control over.

In this context, a new moral code for work took hold: what the sociologist Allison Pugh calls a “one-way honor system” between employers and employees. Employees must devote themselves wholeheartedly to their work if they expect to get (or keep) a job—all while knowing that their employers feel no obligation to reciprocate. These are prime background conditions for an epidemic of burnout. One fact bears repeating: since 1974, labor productivity has kept increasing, but real wages have stayed flat. We are working harder and getting nothing for it.

Meanwhile, as if to compensate for an increasingly precarious economy, our fantasies about work have grown, if anything, more intense. Hard work is likely the most universally cherished American value. One recent Pew survey found that 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as “hardworking”—outstripping all other traits. Work has gotten worse, yet our work ideals remain elevated. If burnout stems, as Malesic says, from the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, then burnout is punishment for idealists.

William Morris, in his famous essay “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil,” dreamed of a political transformation in which all work would be made pleasurable. Malesic thinks, instead, that work should not be the center of our lives at all. Since Max Weber’s study of the Protestant ethic, Christian thought has often been blamed for instilling poisonous work ideals. Malesic suggests, however, that the poison might yield the antidote. Religious worship, the Jewish Sabbath: these are leisure practices that affirm higher goods than work. He recruits religious thought and practice to show us communities in which work is marginal, or contained within strictly observed limits—a Benedictine monastery in the New Mexico desert; a Dallas nonprofit that seems like either a dream workplace or a charismatic cult. Such examples demonstrate how communities that subordinate work to higher ends can survive economically while promoting their members’ flourishing.

Malesic’s fine book has one defect. For all the care with which he recovers burnout’s clinical history, indicts our work ideals, and suggests new ways of organizing our lives, the political valence of his central term remains less than clear. Is burnout a weapon of the weak, a way of pushing back against an unjust work regime? Or is it the latest affectation of a self-absorbed and neurotic elite that traffics in victimhood claims while at a safe remove from the “deaths of despair” ravaging blue-collar America and the “dirty work” of slaughterhouses, prisons, and the like?

Malesic is attentive to the workplace pressures that push women and racial minorities to burn out, and his discussion of how disability can lead us to rethink our governing fictions about work—drawing on the disabled artist Sunny Taylor’s superb essay “The Right Not To Work”—is stimulating. But class hardly enters his analysis, beyond a brief discussion of how blue-collar jobs now demand a “white-collar service ethic” (no longer allowing for disengagement), and an interview with an avid cyclist who lost a finger working at a tire manufacturer. He does not say how prevalent burnout is among working-class people; the burnouts in this book are mostly doctors and college professors.

And the closest historical parallel Malesic finds to burnout is neurasthenia—a state of nervous exhaustion that was an ailment of the well-off, highly educated nineteenth-century American brain worker. Indeed, the language of burnout appears in American Nervousness, the classic statement on neurasthenia, published in 1881 by the physician George M. Beard. Comparing the human nervous system to an electrical circuit, Beard writes:

there comes a period . . . when the amount of force is insufficient to keep all the lamps actively burning; those that are weakest go out.

The clarity of this precedent offers yet another reason for suspecting that burnout, like neurasthenia, is a rarefied malady. One bizarre feature of our present economic order, as Daniel Markovits points out in his recent book The Meritocracy Trap, is how hard the super-rich work. The top 1 percent of the income distribution is composed largely of executives, financiers, consultants, lawyers, and specialist doctors who report extremely long work hours, sometimes more than seventy a week. It seems unlikely that our workaholic elites would score highly on the burnout inventory’s metric of inefficacy (exhaustion and cynicism are another matter). But the strange work ethic the rich have devised seems highly relevant for our understanding of burnout as a cultural phenomenon, especially as it spreads beyond its traditional victims—doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, anti-poverty lawyers—and courses through the ranks of knowledge workers more generally.

The labor ideals Malesic laments as soul-destroying fictions are, to a large extent, middle- and upper-class ones; many working-class people, educated by experience, have long understood the exploitative realities of work. But it seems obvious that working-class people do burn out. One recent British study found that low-paid and less-educated workers were more likely to feel that their jobs were useless.

The term has achieved cultural prominence precisely because it resonates with affluent professionals who fetishize overwork.

Nor is burnout solely an American phenomenon. From the “lying flat” movement in China to outcries against deaths from overwork in Japan and South Korea, there is a growing sense of indignation in wealthy countries about inhumane work ideals that turn prosperity into a curse. Sweden and a few other European countries give burned-out workers paid time off; in Finland, burnout sufferers can qualify for paid rehabilitation workshops.

Burnout, then, holds some limited potential in the fight for more humane working conditions. And in giving an account of how our mass delusions about work prevent us from flourishing, Malesic has done us a service. But “burnout” is, at best, a transitional term. As a topic of cultural fixation, burnout is, at minimum, highly vulnerable to elite capture. At maximum, it is almost entirely an elite phenomenon.

It seems unlikely that the mainstreaming of burnout will lead to a more robust public conversation about the positive goods of idleness, or the pursuit of less alienated forms of work. The term has achieved cultural prominence precisely because it resonates with affluent professionals who fetishize overwork. Burnout isn’t going to create alliances between knowledge workers and the working classes if the latter are consistently excluded from the metric or think about their exploitation in a different way. Malesic hopes to restrict “burnout” to official clinical criteria. But the broadness of the term is the source of its appeal; self-declared burnout cases can congratulate themselves on their diligence while dodging the stigma of depression or another weightier diagnosis.

Burnout is an indicator that something has gone wrong in the way we organize our work. But as a concept it remains lodged in an old paradigm—a work ethic that was already dubious in America’s industrial period, and now, in a period of extreme inequality and increasing precarity across once-stable professions, is even harder to credit. Malesic’s central term seems destined to follow the fate of neurasthenia, and, perhaps, that of all ideas once in the zeitgeist: to flame brightly, and then burn itself out.