Burnout

Burned matches in a row on a blue background.

by Randall S. Frederick

I.

Growing up, I was very aware that my parents taught. My mother was an Early Elementary Education student for the first years of my life and had a good bit of success facilitating workshops in the South for preschools, Montessori schools, and elementary educators. When she finished school, she oversaw a preschool at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. If there was ever a day off from school, I was with her – even over holidays – decorating, cleaning, or playing as she wrote plans and directives for the preschool. Students would randomly sleep over at my house and, even there, playtime often involved reading or making crafts. My father was at the other end of the educational line. He had started as an accountant for a community college in New Orleans before I was born and began teaching classes for their Business department on Finance, Bookkeeping, Principles of Management, and Investments. Snapshots of my childhood center around schools, starting with sitting quietly beside my mom in one of her classes, later as she taught, and even later reading in the back row in a “big kids” desk too large for me as my father conjured numbers on the chalkboard at night. It came as a surprise to no one in the family when I began teaching Writing and Literature courses in my thirties, having already taught Adult Education courses, written curriculum, guest lectured, and presented at conferences in my twenties in addition to teaching for a private school in the afternoons. Teaching has always been a part of who I am and how I am oriented to the world. Even those periods where I have been an editor or ghostwritten, I have insisted on raising the level of my clients, coworkers, and staff by adopting my “teacher voice” and coaching them through their narratives.

A year ago, I noticed I wasn’t enjoying teaching. For the previous two years, I had been teaching in two cities with an hour commute between them and another hour home. The commute, I kept saying, was draining me “but not the teaching.” To locate the problem with the teaching would have felt like a flaw at my core. That wasn’t the case, I insisted to myself. Still, there it was, a creeping feeling that the fault was not in the stars, dear reader, but with myse- you see, I just caught myself saying “myself” again, because it is a challenge to separate the teacher from the teaching. Let me clear my throat and say it again: The fault was with the teaching.

Teaching requires one to continually pour out of their abundance. Working in education and with educators for the last twenty years (my first adult job was working as an administrative assistant for an English Department), of course, I had noticed what made for a good educator. Educators, not visitors to the field but those who gave their lives to it, attended conferences and took in as much as they poured out. They were able to keep challenging their students, to be innovative, and to stay at the frontier (or pretty close to it) because they never stopped learning. Other teachers, the ones who caused the most friction, had settled and stopped caring. That’s not a terrible thing, you understand. Some stopped with what they had learned during their doctorates. Others continued on, picking up bits over the years, before finally settling elsewhere with the last training or group project of field research they participated in. These were good people with kind hearts who simply stopped trying for a myriad of generous reasons. Age and fixed thinking had begun to set in and they began to resist change through the HR trainings, the demands of tenure, and the newly bestowed equality of new hires in their departments who looked a lot like the students they just got through advising the previous year. Even now, I see this same dichotomy in departmental meetings. New hires are enthusiastic, they read the latest studies on effective teaching methods and instructional methods, their students perform well and report that their teacher actually cares about their performance but those instructors who have had their hand to the metaphorical plow for a while tend to grumble, to resist innovation, and express pessimism more frequently. They are not bad people. They have just had their fill of being dismissed because the demands of adulthood and maturity pull them away from being conduits to students. Their energies have now been directed towards children and grandchildren, to their own research and work, so why are they being asked to waste time watching the same HR training they watched last year? More and more, the edge dulls but not from lack of use but its continued and repetitive exercise.

The best example of this would be one particular teacher on my hall whose students kept knocking on my door for tutorials or advice on improving their essays. I had been teaching a year at this point and had never seen much more met this instructor. I thought it odd that her students kept knocking on my door for tutorials and kept telling myself she must be busy or that she must be on an academic committee to never hold office hours. One afternoon at the end of that first year, she banged on my door to tell me that a textbook company was on campus and that there was “FREE FOOD IN THE BREAKROOM!!!” This was our first meeting. Another instructor passing by ducked her head in to say, “No one ever sees her unless there’s food.” 

It turned out she had been in her office that entire year, refusing to see students. 

This, of course, presented me with an opportunity to understand. Instead of demanding to know why she wasn’t doing her job and why I had to take on the additional load of working with her students, I tried to understand. I went to the breakroom that time and the time after that. I slid into hallway conversations. Dear Reader, I was devilish enough to befriend her, seeking to understand and in this way became a sympathetic ear. “I’m just so burnt out,” she kept saying, almost to tears. “It’s time to retire. I can’t keep doing this.”

Around that same time, I noticed I wasn’t enjoying teaching as much. I kept telling myself that it was long hours or the commute between two universities. I found myself cutting conversations with students short, trying to rush them and get them to the point of their question. “I’m just on the road all the time,” I explained to myself in the mirror. It became my jeremiad. The commute. The hours. The responsibilities of changes within the department. 

But not the teaching. 

That became my hollow excuseplanation. 

“The truth takes time,” I tell my students. And it did that year.

It wasn’t just the commute. It wasn’t just the conferences. Or the promotion to Faculty Senate. Or the additional tutorials with students who weren’t even in my classes. It wasn’t even the undocumented emotional labor of sitting with teenagers on the cusp of adulthood wanting life advice or the ones already at the bevelled edge, prematurely dealing with serious issues that required a higher form of care than shared tears in my office. Like many educators, I would point to anything except the obvious deficit within. I blamed cost of living inflation and stagnated wages. I blamed “the system” – whether I meant the government, educational gaps, or the appalling state of education in the South, I’m not sure. I blamed the roadways. I blamed construction workers. I blamed poor health, food quality, and the weather. I probably complained more that year than anyone who knew me could endure because I didn’t want to acknowledge what I was feeling and my creeping list of professional failures. 

I was burnt out. 

One problem begat another as I increasingly hit the snooze bar and dragged myself to the classroom every morning. I drank and refrained from drinking. I went to the gym. I took sleeping pills outside of the recommendations of the label, anything to medicate the unnamed fears and prop up the exhausted frame. But make no mistake, I was already burnt out and doing everything in my power to deny it not because of pride, but because I was valued and respected and those are addictive drugs – more than anything I have found in the bottom of a glass or mineralized into a pill.

II.

Whether related to work, school, or long-term commitments, people often express a feeling beyond exhaustion, or being “burned out” originating from other phrases like “burning the midnight oil” or “burning the candle at both ends” until the object is literally burned out. By the mid-1900s, the expression had extended to mean burning oneself out, or exhausting one’s energy, ideas, or emotional capacity through overwork, an experience especially common among working people and those who feel a constant pressure to perform or succeed. Most of us, however, neglect to acknowledge the emotional exhaustion that comes with burnout and how it is also found in toxic and abusive relationships or wherever we have a high investment of self.

Many people start off at a new job or business venture feeling positive, happy, and a measure of fulfillment in what they do. They invest a great deal of energy and dedication, trying to give the best of their abilities to the tasks at hand. In subtle ways, unique to each individual, we take pride in this – as least I do – as we live into the ideals of capitalism and the Protestant Work Ethic outlined by Max Weber. We begin to experience success, which compels us to work harder so that we might reap a larger harvest next time. Even if we are not markedly successful, we want to be a “good” worker, a “hard” worker, to be seen as valuable even if that means damaging ourselves physically and mentally, negatively impacting our relationships in the process. There is, I would offer, a larger toll to collateral damage than we allow ourselves to acknowledge. We feel everything is on the line, but haven’t quantified the measure of “everything.” A decade ago, right before a mental breakdown, I certainly invested my time and energy in building a career instead of relationships. I neglected to return phonecalls to friends. I started fights with my girlfriend, failing to admit when I was wrong and failing to do the hard work of working through my issues, apologizing, and making amends. When the relationship ended, it felt inevitable. It was the natural consequence of how I had been living. It took years to understand that though, and even more to rightly put it into perspective. Joan Didion writes in her essay, “Goodbye to All That” of such experiences, the ways that we functionally move through life while dimly aware that something is amiss.

I could not tell you when I began to understand that. All I know is that it was very bad when I was twenty-eight. Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen. listen. I could no longer sit in little bars near Grand Central and listen to someone complaining of his wife’s inability to cope with the help while he missed another train to Connecticut. I no longer had any interest in hearing about the advances other people had received from their publishers, about plays which were having second-act trouble in Philadelphia, or about people I would like very much if only I would come out and meet them. I had already met them, always. There were certain parts of the city which I had to avoid. I could not bear upper Madison Avenue on weekday mornings (this was a particularly inconvenient aversion, since I then lived just fifty or sixty feet east of Madison), because I would see women walking Yorkshire terriers and shopping at Gristede’s, and some Veblenesque gorge would rise in my throat. I could not go to Times Square in the afternoon, or to the New York Public Library for any reason whatsoever. One day I could not go into a Schrafft’s; the next it would be the Bonwit Teller. I hurt the people I cared about, and insulted those I did not. I cut myself off from the one person who was closer to me than any other. I cried until I was not even aware when I was crying and when I was not, I cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries, and when I went to the doctor, he said only that I seemed to be depressed, and that I should see a “specialist.” He wrote down a psychiatrist’s name and address for me, but I did not go.

We work long hours and double-down on overtime, in performances, or relationships in the hope that we will be seen as valuable. Humans are uniquely insecure in the animal kingdom and some subliminal, unregistered part of our consciousness knows this even as it compels us to seek validation below the measure of our investment, to make it well so that all will be well. One day, we know, we will die and when that time comes, we’re not sure where our value will be located in the world or if the measure of our lives will be enough to be remembered. We are fragile and want to make something of the pieces of who we are, want to know that we mattered. It’s not enough to be a good person, we have to produce something. When we can’t produce something, whether through art or labor or having children or double our investment portfolio, we bury ourselves in our work and use the only resource we feel we have – ourselves, our bodies, our minds and hearts. Ironic that this often leads to people becoming chronically overwhelmed by their work, finding it difficult to disconnect from their jobs, the one place they feel they have meaning, purpose, worth, or value because it is the only thing that seems to reward us, if only incrementally. More and more, we become aware that none of it matters. The test is over and, like rats in the experiment, no matter how many times we press the lever, we will not receive more pellets.

Like any addict, we chase the high long after we have begun to fall. Too often, after the crash and wreckage, we are the last to know we are truly and terribly gone. Others have cleaned up the mess of decomposition and they are home eating potato salad.

Long before I had my own breakdown, I witnessed the breakdown of my parents’ relationship as my father’s overwork in turn produced my mother’s relational exhaustion. It was a descending spiral, them chasing one another to the finish line of divorce. She wanted to feel a connection, he wanted to prove they were connected by providing. She chased. He fled into his work. She stopped chasing. He sought to redeem himself by working even more. Eventually, she resigned herself to husband in absentia and began to prepare another life for herself and me, their child. But by the time he recognized what he had done and promised to change, she had moved on, tired of trying. For all his hope of resurrecting the marriage, he began the adventure too tired to even make it worthwhile. He failed. And so did she, in her way. They was burnt out, all of his emotion still sitting there at his desk while at the same moment he helped unpacked a sofa five hours away. Holding the other end of the sofa, she was too tired to talk to the emotions of the man at the desk. They divorced finally and in time became better friends than they ever were partners, but it took a lot of water under the metaphorical bridge, a lot of medications, and a lot of counseling before they were ever able to unpack the final box – the explanation of how it had come to that point two decades prior.

You see, it is not just the physical sensation of emptiness. Emotionally, we can come to the place where we have nothing left to give. There is nothing that can repair this. Not therapy, not medicine, not exercise, though it feels very much like depression and sleepiness. Salt – whether the ocean or our tears – is the only remedy I know of, and even then the scar remains of All That Happened. In my own experience, the promise that time heals all has not proven true. Though I am stronger and older and thus supposedly wiser, I still clench when I am touched a certain way. I still look for the stranger in the mirror. And I have to hold memory on a leash, lest it attack someone I love. The scars of the fire remain.

III.

The term “burnout” dates back to 1974, when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used the term in an article appropriately titled “Staff Burnout” to describe his observations of his colleagues at a free health clinic in New York City. Over time, Freudenberger noticed many of the physicians, nurses, and social workers, who were caring for and assisting patients on a volunteer basis, become less motivated. This caused a decline in their work performance. Although Freudenberger noted that all of his colleagues undoubtedly cared about the mission of their work, they were still physically and mentally exhausted. All continued to exhibit symptoms of physical and mental exhaustion in their private lives such as headaches, sleep deprivation, and other stress-related problems. Cataloging the symptoms, Freudenberger came to recognize that even he was exhibiting symptoms which, until he had seen them in others, he had been dismissing. 

His work has been referenced and duplicated in medical and psychological studies as well as labor, economics, profit maximization, and organizational management productivity research. His studies and subsequent publications remain particularly relevant to business and production studies because they are immediately relevant for individuals who work; burnout – the abiding feeling of exhaustion as a result of demands on energy, strength, and resources – has become the accepted standard of what it means to work. Burnout has become so ingrained in the experience of work that all areas of work now take it on as a constant concern. For those who do not work, we might speak of anxiety (a unique phenomenon itself) as a precursor to burnout, an “early indicator” only acknowledged as a contributing factor after the fact, after burnout has been acknowledged. While the two are different, it of course comes back to the same issue of diagnosis. Doctors cannot specify a difference or distinction in the phenomenon because it subjectively manifests in unique ways. For the married, it may appear as disinterest in intimacy or aggressive tendencies. For the single individual, it may manifest as depression, overeating, or digestive distress. It is a moving target, an adaptive symbiotic malady seen in retrospect.

Meanwhile, politicians like Bernie Sanders have clout because, whatever one’s political persuasion, so many of us relate to the things he denounces – companies and corporations that make demands of us with the threat of job loss and poverty rather than incentivizing us with rest and care. Think of how jobs during the Coronavirus have been discussed in terms of “responsibility” instead of “hazard.” This is a pandemic – it has literally spread around the world and caused thousands to die, millions to get sick, and the injection rate is incredibly high which – by its very nature – ensures a high rate of infection. Workers are asked to jeopardize their lives and the health of their loved one because “we need to be responsible” and increase the Gross Domestic Product. Who, I ask, is causing a run on the market for cars? Who, I ask, needs an oil surplus when interstate travel has been limited to mandatory and emergency services? If most states in America have a stay-at-home order, mandating that citizens do not attend public gatherings like sporting events or movies, why is there an expectation to threaten our own health and safety? The answer is simple. Because to be employable, you must be willing to “sacrifice” yourself for the good of someone else’s profit. If we needed proof of how our economy works, preferring the rich and seeing all other economic classes as expendable “fuel” for consumption, Coronavirus has proven it. 

Our economy is the cause and burnout is the effect. Think of the rise of “self-care” in popular discourse in the last five years. We are all exhausted. All of us want to be known and heard and understood, if not at least unpacked of the stuffing we have jammed in like so much bloody batting.

Many dismiss the experience, though. Look at how easy it was for me to fool myself, to deny my reality. It’s hard to get someone to admit they are exhausted, unfulfilled, and empty when they keep getting promotions, invitations to conferences, raises, and special privileges. We dismiss it because it is easier to say we’re just complaining about work or griping about the most recent development, rather than admit a longstanding problem with working conditions that we continue to participate in, facilitate, even sometimes orchestrate. There are, we reason, expectations from our parents and responsibilities to our children. We entertain ourselves to death with the hope of working hard and playing hard, but let’s face it. How many of us are playing hard? 

“Playing hard,” if we were perfectly honest, has come to mean self-medicating, vegging out, zoning out, exploding on our partner when they do not meet our immediate demands, talking around our issues in therapy, overeating, overdrinking, or – if we are fortunate – avoiding the existential dread that comes with overthinking. Such play, hard as it may be, is ever enjoyable or fulfilling.

Proponents, those who believe burnout is the cause of a constellation of symptoms rather than the effect of larger issues, agree that burnout has three main characteristics: exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of efficacy. These are entirely subjective and, as a result, easier to dismiss or, helpfully, treat through pharmaceuticals. It is not a secret that fluoxetine and bupropion are beneficial to many, including myself. I’m not anti-medication, you understand. What I am suggesting is that burnout is a result of external factors, not internal, and that doctors and care providers cannot target systems as well as they can treat specific maladies.

I think back to 2010 and recall telling people I was mentally exhausted, physically tired all the time, and emotionally sullen in public and fragile in private. If I told anyone about this, they would tell me to get a good night’s sleep and that it was “probably no big deal.” To be dramatically affected by such a small thing only made the confusion worse. If it was not a big deal, why did it affect me so profoundly? Eventually, I spoke with a therapist who affirmed the opinion of non-experts. It wasn’t depression, he said, “It doesn’t sound that simple,” but I still walked out with a script for the local pharmacy. While he couldn’t explain or treat what was wrong with me, I don’t blame him. He was simply parroting the consensus of work culture at that time. Put a band-aid on it and get back out there or get fired. 

Despite research and studies across all fields where humans are relevant, burnout continues to be discussed by clinicians as a “phenomenon” without recognition of the genuine experience of burnout as a mental, emotional, physical, and medical diagnosis. Casually, it is a shared reality, anecdotal shorthand for the miasma of demands placed upon us. Everyone knows burnout when they see it or feel it. The most common scenario begins with exhaustion, a result of a high workload or added stress from other life factors. Due to overwhelming exhaustion, an individual naturally begins to detach from their job, causing them to care less about his or her performance, in turn creating a sense of incompetence which causes workers to feel as if they cannot efficiently manage their workload. Burned out individuals tend to be less productive and are more likely to quit their jobs. In some instances, this is a good thing because their lack of clarity could have consequences for others as well as themselves.

Think of how many excuses we have made for ourselves. It is easier to ask for a prescription of Viagra than to admit sexual dysfunction as a result of burnout. Ill temper, hopelessness, and the constellation of relational issues that come with sexual dysfunction can be cured by a pill so we can return to our lives as happy workers rather than question or, god forbid, challenge the advancement of capitalistic titans. Similarly, it is easier to feign sickness or a headache and take a half-day than to take off an entire week and truly rest, even more, to repair the damage that has been done. Only in retrospect are we able to name these are indicators of a problem. Might we delay acknowledgment because burnout is so much a part of the experience of working adults that we are no longer able to see the signs for what they are, warning lights? And (one last question, I promise), how many of those lights need to be flashing, blinking, or intensely glowing before we recognize the problem? It seems we have learned nothing from events like Chernobyl or the chemical factories, fertilizer plants, and oil platforms that routinely burn throughout the American South: ignore the signs too long and the entire thing will explode and burn itself down.

IV.

The World Health Organization (as of May 2019) recognizes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” but adds that it “is not classified as a medical condition.” In their 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the WHO defined burnout as

a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Dalvin Brown, a reporter for USA Today, adds that the term has been “unofficially embedded in the cultural zeitgeist for years” because

Americans are working longer and harder than ever before, according to the American Institute of Stress. Several studies show that work stress is the major source of anxiety for American adults and that the mental ailment has escalated progressively over the past few decades. A recent survey from the Korn Ferry research organization indicated that overall employee stress levels “have risen nearly 20 percent in three decades.” A 2018 study by the work management platform Wrike found that 94 percent of workers feel stress in the office and almost a third say their stress level is high to unsustainably high.

But according to the World Health Organization, burnout is not simply stress-related fatigue. It is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” As it was a decade ago, the remedy is “management” not treatment. That is an important distinction because management and treatment are two very different experiences. One can manage the pain of cancer through pain relieving medication, but that does not mean that the cancer has been treated or removed. 

Much of our current understanding of burnout comes from a social psychologist at UC Berkely, Christina Maslach. Shortly after Freudenberger started describing burnout, Maslach began attempts at measuring the phenomenon. With colleagues, she created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a fifteen-minute survey used to assess whether or not a participant is experiencing burnout. When taking the survey, participants will rate how meaningful they feel like their work is and how often they feel “used up” at the end of the workday. 

The data from this questionnaire has revealed a lot of information. For example, psychologists had assumed that burnout only occurred in occupations in which workers interact with other people, especially those that carry a lot of emotional baggage. However, studies conducted over the last three decades using the Maslach Burnout Inventory found that office and factory workers, managers, entrepreneurs, and even athletes have symptoms of burnout. One does not even necessarily have to be employed to experience burnout; students can suffer from it, and those in unhealthy, toxic, or violent relationships also indicate burnout.

This is not to say that the type of work does not matter. Burnout appears to be especially common in high intensity, helping professions like teaching and healthcare. For example, neurotherapist Charles Ethan Paccione documents in his 2016 article for Brain World magazine, “Bone Tired”, that burnout in the medical field is a threat to the health of patients. Burnout is common among physicians and other healthcare providers, and Paccione suggests that those in the medical profession routinely put their patients at risk simply because they are no longer active and alert. They misdiagnose, they leave surgical tools inside of bodies, they are inattentive, and they stop caring, making quick decisions that have not been thought through fully and produce effects lasting long after the visit, surgery, or session. 

As we further our understanding of burnout, we are learning how workers can prevent experiencing this mental health condition. Maslach and other psychologists have come to agree that the most important component to consider is how well-matched a person is to a job. There are various metrics for this, including job characteristics such as workload, reward, and mission. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also studied the effects of workplace stress and offers scientific guidance for managing stress derived from a work setting. How meaningful one believes his or her work is can make a significant difference in one’s job satisfaction. Another factor is how much control someone feels like they have. Feeling micromanaged or underestimated can definitely push someone closer to burnout. On the other hand, having some independence and feeling trusted by management can boost confidence and enhance performance. Another component to consider is how much social support a worker in his or her environment. Having reliable and trustworthy co-workers can help people manage their workload and job-related stress. Some things that workers should do to avoid burnout include working with a purpose by remembering the deeper impact one’s job makes, analyze the job and have a clear understanding of the job expectations, and taking more control and maintaining some independence in the specific job role. It is also very important for workers to disconnect from work when they are not on the clock, keeping work and personal life separate. Managers should also do their part to prevent burnout in their employees by assigning realistic goals and expectations, communicating regularly with employees, limiting overtime, and showing employees appreciation for everything they do.

Burnout is a real mental health condition that is affecting many workers. Psychologists like Freudenberger and Maslach have helped us tremendously in understanding this condition. We now understand enough about it to be able to identify it and know what adjustments need to be made in order to overcome it or prevent it altogether. Over the past two decades, workers and employers both have become more aware of the importance of job satisfaction and the reality of job burnout. They are starting to make changes and improvements in order to make a difference in the workplace. It is important to find and maintain a balance between work and personal life and not let work or other long-term commitments become too overwhelming or unmanageable. If one starts to experience the symptoms of burnout, he or she should consider making the appropriate adjustments or seeking support from coworkers or management to help get a better handle of the workflow. For many working people, work consumes a large part of their lives, and people should not allow their work to pose any threats to their mental or physical health. 

Further Reading

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