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Can’t Get No Satisfaction

In a culture where work can be a religion, burnout is its crisis of faith.

Illustration by Patrick Thomas  

People who are suffering from burnout tend to describe the sensation in metaphors of emptiness—they’re a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge. Thirteen years, three books, and dozens of papers into his profession, Barry Farber, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and trained psychotherapist, realized he was feeling this way. Unfortunately, he was well acquainted with the symptoms. He was a burnout researcher himself.

Being burned out on burnout—now that was rich. Madame Curie died of radiation poisoning; Joseph Mitchell famously developed a 32-year-long case of writer’s block after writing a two-part New Yorker series about a blocked writer; now Farber was suffering the same self-referential fate. He jokes about it today (who wouldn’t?) but hardly felt sanguine as it was happening (who would?). Colleagues tried to persuade him to stick it out. “But for the most part, I’ve resisted coming back,” says Farber. “I’ve never been able to find that same sense of satisfaction.”

Farber had burned out once before. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, he taught public school in East Harlem. He’d wanted to help people, do the world some good. Yet for four years he’d struggled to stop his students from fighting with one another, and in spite of his best efforts he couldn’t even teach all of them to read. His classroom became a perverse experiment in physics, with energy never conserved (input always exceeded output), and he, a teacher in perpetual motion, always craving rest. Eventually, he began to pull away from his students—depersonalization, as the literature now calls it—justifying his seeming insensitivity by telling himself he wasn’t making a difference anyway. It was only when Farber went to graduate school at Yale that he learned that this syndrome had a name: Burnout. “The concept offered a perfect understanding of what teachers were feeling,” he recalls. “It wasn’t in fact that they were racist and mercenary and noncaring but that their level of caring couldn’t be sustained in the absence of results.”

Farber was so captivated by the notion of burnout he made it the subject of his dissertation. And he stayed with it for another thirteen years. Until the day he couldn’t anymore. He still remembers the breaking point. He’d just completed a book about burnout among teachers, a subject he’d once considered exceptionally urgent. “Yet even as I was writing,” he says, “I had this sense that I really wanted to finish it so that I could go on to something else. I felt somewhat bored, and somewhat depleted. I’d said all I wanted to say.” He ponders this point. “I guess,” he says, “I lost the sense that it was important.”

I can’t quite say that I’ve ever had the full-on Farber experience. But I’ve certainly had mini-versions of it. Whenever I’ve finished a big project, for instance, or whenever I’ve found myself listening to the 10 p.m. whir of the vacuum cleaners in our office start up for the tenth night in a row, there’s no one I identify with more than the Bill Murray character in Rushmore, particularly as he’s blankly tossing golf balls from a wire basket into his swimming pool. It’s not that I don’t love my work. But hold a stethoscope to my brain, eavesdrop on my innermost thoughts, and at those moments, all you’ll hear is the sound of a whistling conch shell.

Burnout is not its own category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s not something that can be treated pharmacologically; it is not considered the same thing as depression or a midlife crisis, though sometimes they coincide. The term was first coined by a psychotherapist named Herbert Freudenberger, who himself probably took it from Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-Out Case. (“I haven’t enough feeling left for human beings,” the book’s numb protagonist, Querry, wrote in his journal, “to do anything for them out of pity.”) While working at a free clinic for drug addicts in Haight-Ashbury, Freudenberger noticed that the volunteers, when discouraged, would often push harder and harder at their jobs, only to feel as if they were achieving less and less. The result, in 1974, was the book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. Others soon followed. A subspecialty of psychology was born.

Back in the seventies, when people marched into the world with convictions about changing it, burnout was considered a noble affliction. It meant that you’d depleted yourself while helping others. Almost all the research that’d been done on the subject, and there’d been quite a lot, was on the people in the “caring professions”—nurses, public-school teachers, legal-aid workers, social workers, clergy. Because many of these people were idealists, and because they worked with the hardest-luck cases, they were highly susceptible to disillusionment. Those who burned out were not only physically and mentally exhausted; they were cynical, detached, convinced their efforts were worthless. They held themselves in contempt. Worse, they held their clients in contempt. They began to loathe the same people they originally sought to help. In her seminal book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, Christina Maslach, perhaps the best-known burnout researcher working in the United States today, collected plenty of vivid, unvarnished testimony. As one Florida social worker told her, “I recently received a call at night, and while I was getting dressed, I was screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems.”