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Essay: The Burnout of Almost Everyone

6 minute read
Lance Morrow

Graham Greene’s architect Querry had to trek to an African leprosarium to find a metaphor adequate to express his mood; nothing less would be sufficiently wasted, blighted, defunct. Querry was, Greene meant, A Burnt-Out Case, like the leper Deo Gratias, his soul far gone. He was a masterpiece of acedia, a skull full of ashes, a rhapsodist of his own desolation.

Once, hardly anyone except a Graham Greene character could manage such Gethsemanes of exhaustion. Today, burnout is a syndrome verging on a trend. The smell of psychological wiring on fire is everywhere. The air-traffic controllers left their jobs in part, they said, because the daily tension tended to scorch out their circuits (the primitive “flee-or-fight” reaction to danger squirted charges of adrenaline into bodies that had to remain relatively immobile, tethered by duty to scope and computer).

Burnout runs through the teaching profession like Asian flu—possibly because it depresses people to be physically assaulted by those they are trying to civilize. Two years ago, Willard McGuire, president of the National Education Association, said that burnout among teachers “threatens to reach hurricane force if it isn’t checked soon.” Social workers and nurses burn out from too much association with hopelessness. Police officers burn out. Professional athletes burn out. Students burn out. Executives burn out. Housewives burn out. And, as every parent knows, there usually comes a moment in late afternoon when baby burnout occurs—all of his little circuits overloaded, the child feels too wrought up to fall asleep.

One of the biggest difficulties with the concept of burnout is that it has become faddish and indiscriminate, an item of psychobabble, the psychic equivalent, in its ubiquitousness, of jogging. Burnout has no formal psychiatric status. Many psychoanalysts regard the malady as simply that old familiar ache, depression. Even so, plenty of professionals take burnout seriously. Psychological journals are heavy with analyses of burnout.

Burnout is progressive, occurring over a period of time. Authors Robert Veninga and James Spradley define five stages that lead from a stressful job to a burnt-out case: 1) The Honeymoon—intense enthusiasm and job satisfaction that, for all but a few dynamos, eventually give way to a time when valuable energy reserves begin to drain off. 2) Fuel Shortage—fatigue, sleep disturbances, possibly some escapist drinking or shopping binges and other early-warning signals. 3) Chronic Symptoms—exhaustion, physical illness, acute anger and depression. 4) Crisis—illness that may become incapacitating, deep pessimism, self-doubt, obsession with one’s own problems. 5) Hitting the Wall—career and even life threatened.

Burnout may be the late 20th century descendant of neurasthenia and the nervous breakdown—the wonderfully matter-of-fact all-purpose periodic collapse that our parents were fond of. Burnout is preeminently the disease of the thwarted; it is a frustration so profound that it exhausts body and morale. Burnout, in advanced states, imposes a fatigue that seems—at the time—a close relative of death. It is the entropy of the other-directed. Even the best worker—especially the best worker—will often, when thwarted, swallow his rage; it then turns into a small private conflagration, the fire in the engine room. A race of urban nomads who have wandered far from family roots tends to turn work into the spiritual hearth, a chief source of warmth and support. When the supervisor proves to be an idiot, when the pay is bad or the job insecure or unrewarding, then the worker experiences a strangely intimate and fundamental sense of betrayal, a wound very close to the core. Or perhaps the wound is his discovery that the core is empty. And with that discovery, he may resort to a pistol, a length of rope or a fistful of pills, leaving behind a note: “Burned out.”

Despite the psychologists’ exertions, the malady is utterly subjective and therefore unpredictable. One policeman will thrive in an assignment that may turn another into an alcoholic. In 1971 a Wall Street Journal survey found that the most physically draining and mentally numbing jobs were working at a foundry furnace, selling subway tokens, lifting lids on a steel-mill oven, and removing hair and fat from hog carcasses. Yet one worker took both pride and pleasure in the fact that he could clean a hog carcass in 45 seconds. Incidentally, it is also worth mentioning that being unemployed is a lot more stressful than an unsatisfying job, a fact that some ex-controllers are discovering.

Why is burnout, for all its serious implications, somewhat irritating to contemplate? Part of the problem resides in the term itself. It is too apocalyptic (in its private, individual way). Burnout implies a violent process ending in a devastation. The term perfectly captures an American habit of hyperbole and narcissism working in tandem: a hypochondria of the spirit. The idea contains a sneaking self-aggrandizement tied to an elusive self-exoneration. In the concept of burnout, there is no sense of human process, of the ups and downs—even the really awful downs—to which all men and women, in all history, have been subject. It also suggests that too many people become a little too easily thwarted. Most of the world’s work, it has often been noted, is done by people who do not feel well.

Burnout has a way of turning the sovereign self (as we thought of it once, long ago) into a victim, submissive, but passive-aggressive, as psychologists say; it is like a declaration of bankruptcy—necessary sometimes, but also somewhat irresponsible and undignified. It is a million-dollar wound, an excuse, a ticket out. The era of “grace under pressure” vanished in the early ’60s. Burnout is the perfect disorder for an age that lives to some extent under the Doctrine of Discontinuous Selves. It simply declares one’s self to be defunct, out of business; from that pile of ash a new self will arise. In the democracy of neurosis, everyone is entitled to his own apocalypse. Burnout becomes the mechanism by which people can enact their serial selves, in somewhat the way that divorce permits serial marriages. In some cases, the serial selves of burnout are like the marshmallows that Cub Scouts thrust into the campfire flame. They hold them there until they are charred, peel away the blackened outer skin and eat it, then thrust the soft white marshmallow into the flame again, repeating the process until there is nothing left.— By Lance Morrow

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