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Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Illustration by Patrick Thomas  

Today, in New York City, everyone knows that the ones “screaming and cursing these motherfuckers for calling me with their goddamned problems” are as likely to be hedge-fund managers as any species of do-gooders. Burnout is the illness of just about any averagely driven, obsessive New York professional. Bankers, high-tech workers, advertisers, management consultants, lawyers working in their mustard-lit honeycombed Hades—all of them are as likely to complain about burnout as schoolteachers and social workers. In 21st-century New York, the 60-hour week is considered normal. In some professions, it’s a status symbol. But burnout, for the most part, is considered a sign of weakness, a career killer.

“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. He’s young, about the age of a hungry broker, and he looks like the men he treats—strong features, dark teased hair, Turnbull & Asser striped shirt, nice watch. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”

Cass is the opposite of a rumpled therapist or academic who might have studied burnout in the seventies. He’s today’s version, a $350-an-hour executive coach, someone who accommodates busy schedules by meeting over lunch or at baseball games and speaks in the idiom of Wall Street. His clients, too, are the inside-out version of the burned-out altruists people were examining in the seventies: Unblushingly ambitious, rich, focused as Marines. Yet ask Cass why his clients are burning out, and his answer isn’t any different for a banker than it would be for a public-school teacher; there’s a gulf between what they expected from their jobs and what they got. “I can’t tell you,” he says, “how many people come into my office and ask, ‘How come I have this money and I can’t find happiness?’ ”

So what does he tell them? “That happiness equals reality divided by expectations.”

I look around Cass’s office and realize it’s the perfect hybrid of a shrink’s suite and a bond trader’s bachelor pad: a seascape of black leather, that mysterious favorite fabric of rich young men, on the one hand; a menagerie of curios, totems, and exotica on the other. (Though maybe there’s a slight bias toward the bachelor pad—further inspection reveals a Wall Street movie poster in the corner, a bronze bull on the coffee table, and a squishy stress-ball he encourages his stymied clients to throw.)

Our instinct, of course, is not to feel much pity for the poor bond trader. An epidemic of malaise among bankers and lawyers is far more likely to inspire jokes—Wouldn’t it be nicer if it were terminal?—than concern and rafts of psychological studies. (And the few studies out there are funny, if inadvertently. In a special “burnout” issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychology six years ago, the essay on lawyers was most notable for the “Select References and Recommended Reading” that followed—four of eight were about masochism.) But that doesn’t make the phenomenon any less real. In fact, consider lawyers for a moment: According to the New York Bar Association, turnover rates among mid-level associates in this city’s law firms is 36 percent. The whole system is predicated on burnout. Why even bother treating associates well?

It is possible something is the matter here. Just as there were deep flaws in the work ecosystems of the caring professions, noticed by researchers in the seventies, it’s possible there’s something wrong with our professional environments—and perhaps, more broadly speaking, our culture of work. Isn’t this worthy of examination? Work, after all, is a form of religion in a secular world. Burning out in it amounts to a crisis of faith.

“In the beginning, the caring professions were where the issue was,” says Maslach. “But frankly, it’s also where we could do the research. Not all professions say, ‘Sure, come on in and poke around and see what we’re doing and who we are.’ ”

But today, says Maslach, corporate settings are cautiously, slowly, cracking their doors, letting people like her in, because they recognize that something’s gone awry. “Like in Silicon Valley,” she says. “It used to be the case that people would say, ‘You’re burned out? You don’t like the job? So quit. I don’t run a country club,’ ” says Maslach. “But what was happening was the best and the brightest wanted to opt out. They started saying, ‘I can’t do this; this is not a life.’ They’d go to the Midwest and start a pet-food store.” Maslach adds that when she did interviews at nasa, she noticed similar problems there. “So suddenly, these places were saying, ‘Whoa, what do we need to do to get these people?’ Getting the most out of people didn’t actually mean getting the best. That’s when there was a new wave of interest in burnout.”