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Can’t Get No Satisfaction


In 2001, the Department of Surgery at the University of Michigan used the Maslach inventory to conduct a comprehensive study of burnout among its graduates from various residencies. It showed a striking rate of high emotional exhaustion among practicing surgeons (32 percent) and a rather low rate of depersonalization (13 percent), all of which seemed to utterly belie the notion that surgeons were unfeeling technocrats. The conclusion also said that there was no correlation between exhaustion and caseload. “It has much more to do with frustrations in the changes in medicine,” says Lazar J. Greenfield, one of the study’s co-investigators and the chairman emeritus of Michigan’s Department of Surgery. “The liability risk is higher, the patients are more demanding, reimbursements have progressively declined.”

To me, the most beguiling data to emerge from burnout research are the profiles of the people who experience it most acutely. In her early work, for instance, Maslach found that younger people burn out more often than older people, a finding that turns up again and again both here and abroad. (In fact, that study from the University of Michigan explicitly said that younger surgeons burn out more quickly than older ones.) This conclusion may seem counterintuitive, because we associate burning out somehow with midlife disillusionment. But not if we think of burnout as the gap between expectations and rewards. Older workers, as it turns out, have more perspective and more experience; it’s the young idealists who go flying into a profession, plumped full of high hopes, and run full-speed into a wall. Maslach also found that married people burn out less often than single people, as long as their marriages are good, because they don’t depend as much on their jobs for fulfillment. And childless people, though unburdened by the daily strains of parenting, tend to burn out far more than people with kids. (This, too, has been found across cultures; in the Netherlands, a recent survey by the Bureau of Statistics showed that twice as many working women without children showed symptoms of burnout as did working women with underage children.) It’s much easier to disproportionately invest emotional and physical capital in the office if you have nowhere else to put it. And the office seldom loves you back.

“I did a study in the south of Israel of ‘sandwich generation’ couples—people who have young children and elderly parents,” says Ayala Pines, the Israeli researcher. “This is very stressful, but what I found is that these people were not that burned out at all, because their families also provided emotional support.”

Pines’s work has also shown that people in fiercely individualist societies are more prone to burn out. “I once did a study comparing Mexican college professors to American college professors,” she says. “The Mexican burnout rate was lower. To them, the kind of lifestyle you describe in New York is insane. At noon, you come home, eat, and see your family. It isn’t even a question.” In Israel, she adds, she consistently found lower levels of burnout than in her studies in the United States, even though the lives of its citizens are tangibly threatened in a way that most Americans’ are not. “And one explanation I have,” she says, “is that it’s because of the existential threats to our daily lives. You feel your own life is more significant.”

Of course, Maslach also found that there are certain types—depressives, people with problems with anger or anxiety—who are more prone to burn out. And if you’re inclined to look at the world through the prism of psychoanalysis, you’ll realize there are an almost infinite number of reasons why people choose the wrong kinds of jobs for themselves. Pines says it best. “I think one of the reasons people burn out is because they take jobs that they hope, consciously or unconsciously, will help them overcome unresolved childhood issues,” she says. “But instead of healing the childhood wound, work reopens it.”

Woo hoo. Re: An appendix to the principles of Jewish Buddhism. Saying hi. Re: Hey pal. Burnout. WHEN are we eating? Open Enrollment Info. Quick q. Arrrrrrrrrrgh.

You are looking at nine e-mail subject lines I received in a one-hour period last week. It was then that I realized I answer an e-mail once every 6.66 minutes. The very thought of committing this fact to paper has kept me crippled for several seconds. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing my boss should know.

One has to wonder whether the developments of a high-speed world haven’t made burnout worse. First, the obvious: With the advent of e-mail, cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys (or “CrackBerrys”—the argot here seems extremely apt), and other bits of high-speed doodadry, it has become virtually impossible, in senses both literal and metaphorical, to unplug from our jobs. As Schaufeli, the Dutch researcher, notes, one of the strongest predictors of burnout isn’t just work overload but “work-home interference”—a sociologist’s way of saying we’re receiving phone calls from Tokyo during dinner and replying to clients on our BlackBerrys while making our children brush their teeth.


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