Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Illustration by Patrick Thomas  

She pauses for a second, searching for the right metaphor. “It’s kind of like ergonomics,” she finally says. “It used to be, ‘You sit for work? Here’s a chair.’ But now we design furniture to fit and support the body. And we’re doing the same here. The environments themselves have to say, ‘We want people to thrive and grow.’ There was a shift, finally, in how people understood the question.”

Like the science of all emotion, attempts to quantify, analyze, and define burnout have a slightly stilted, unnatural quality. It’s a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy agglomeration of external symptoms and private frustrations—how could such stuff be plotted on a graph? (I keep thinking of Bill Murray and those golf balls—or Bill Murray and his Suntory whiskeys in Lost in Translation, for that matter. Does a culture even need a definition of burnout when it has Bill Murray?) But researchers have nevertheless made valiant efforts to try. In 1981, Maslach, now vice-provost at the University of California, Berkeley, famously co-developed a detailed survey, known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, to measure the syndrome. Her theory is that any one of the following six problems can fry us to a crisp: working too much; working in an unjust environment; working with little social support; working with little agency or control; working in the service of values we loathe; working for insufficient reward (whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback). “I once talked to a pediatric dentist,” she says, “and he said, ‘A good day is when there are no screamers.’ And I’m sure half the people he was talking about were the parents.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Maslach’s research is that burnout isn’t necessarily a result of overwork. It can be, certainly. Michael Leiter, a lovely Canadian fellow and frequent collaborator of Maslach’s, has elegantly called burnout a “crisis in self-efficacy,” which to me suggests that head-banging feeling of struggling mightily for too little or (worse) nothing in return. Ayala Pines, a researcher in Israel who’s looked at burnout in all sorts of inspired contexts (including marriage), rather heartbreakingly sums up the problem as “the failure of the existential quest”—that moment when we wake up one morning and realize that what we’re doing has appallingly little value. She studied the insurance business, for example, a profession often associated with the ultimate cubicle tedium. Yet she noticed something very interesting. “The ones who had some traumatic experience related to insurance when they were children—their house burned down or whatever—they can work for a long time without burning out,” she says. “Because they came to the profession with a calling. They feel their work is significant.”

And Farber often calls burnout “the gap between expectation and reward,” which may have the most relevance to New Yorkers. This has always been a city of inflated expectations. People with more modest aims for themselves seem less prone to disillusionment.

Longitudinal, comprehensive data on burnout is hard to come by, in part because the United States is not especially renowned for its sensitivity to workers. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an admirable organization with lots of dedicated economists, does not track worker satisfaction, for example.) One of the few countries that does keep comprehensive data on burnout is, not surprisingly, the Netherlands, where the government is sensitive to the workplace needs of its citizenry. Even there, longitudinal surveys show that roughly 10 percent of the workforce is burned out at any given time, with high-school teachers and primary-care health personnel ranking highest. (I asked Wilmar Schaufeli, perhaps the most prominent researcher of burnout in the Netherlands today, whether he had any data on bankers. “In Holland,” he says, “these groups are not big enough to study. But I do know there have been some reports in the press about stockbrokers who use cocaine and other illicit drugs just to keep up. But this is another story.”) Still, enough research has been done in the United States and elsewhere to reveal interesting patterns of burnout. Though loath to say that any one profession burns us out more than others—to her, it’s more a question of how well we fit in our jobs—Maslach found in her early work that the critical burnout period for most social-service agencies was between one and five years on the job. (Interestingly, Stuart Marques, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, notes that 45 percent of New York City public-school teachers have left their jobs by year five.) Of all her studies both in Israel and abroad, Pines found that the most-burned-out people were nurses working in children’s burn units—“It was too painful”—and the least were serial entrepreneurs, those metabolic wonders creating companies as if they were baking cakes.