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Can’t Get No Satisfaction

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John Robinson, the University of Maryland sociologist who calculated those expanding leisure hours for the time-use survey, argues that our obsession with efficiency at work has unfortunately seeped into our attitudes toward leisure, with the multitasking of our downtime as the loony and paradoxical result. We run on the treadmill while listening to music while watching TV. We cook while flipping through a magazine while yakking on the phone. All of which raises a question: If our leisure isn’t restorative, aren’t we more apt to burn out?

“Oh, yes, I would think so,” says Schaufeli. “Because that’s what burnout is, in essence. A mismatch between effort and recovery.”

Alden Cass is sitting in his office, showing me his various tools for reigniting burned-out clients. “I created this thing, bullish-versus-bearish thinking,” he says. He hands me a worksheet with silhouettes of bulls and bears. “I give them for homework so they can monitor their thoughts,” he continues. “Usually, when you’re burnt out, your first thought is vicious, irrational. What we call bearish. So they start monitoring what goes on in their heads. And once they have evidence, they can redirect those thoughts. They have ammo now.”

Burnout, says Farber, is “the gap between expectation and reward,” which may have the most relevance to New Yorkers. This has always been a city of inflated expectations.

Because Cass is an executive coach, it’s his job to tell people how to assume responsibility for their own distress. But Maslach has always contended that burnout says more about the employer than it does about the employee. “Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles,” she famously wrote in 1982, “without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they’d been submerged!” The trouble is that corporate America has always been leery of the presence of burnout researchers. When Cass tried writing his dissertation about Wall Street burnout, he was turned away from every human-resources office downtown. Maslach’s not surprised. “Anything that might suggest that something is not working well in a company or an organization of some kind, people then worry, This could be used for a lawsuit,” she says. “So doing research is fraught with peril.”

But today, Maslach and her colleague, Michael Leiter, are attempting longitudinal studies of employees in a variety of companies and institutions, hoping they can find early-warning signals of distress. Some of what they’ve found has been pretty amazing. In a university system, for instance, Maslach discovered that a certain employee award, designed with the best of intentions, was making people nuts. “You could not have designed a better award to engender backbiting and hostility,” she says.

Milton Moskowitz, co-author of Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For,” keeps a mini-compendium of things that companies do to prevent burnout. Intel, for example, allows its employees to take an eight-week sabbatical once every seven years. (Of course, most Europeans take this much vacation every year, but still.) The managers at Boston Consulting Group place their consultants in a metaphorical “Red Zone” if they work 60 hours a week and send someone to come talk to them if the trend continues. And once a quarter, Dow Corning has a no-meetings week.

But it’s an uphill battle. Moskowitz also tells me about a conversation he once had with an employee at a high-profile high-tech firm. He reached this young man during the day, but only barely, because this fellow was heading out to see a movie. Moskowitz marveled at how wonderful that was and how flexible his employer must be. “Oh, yes,” the employee told him. “Here, I can work whatever 80 hours per week I want.”

“The worst case of Wall Street burnout I know is of this guy who wound up driving a cab,” Cass tells me.

A cab?

He shrugs. “There’s a control factor in driving a cab. You go from point A to point B. On Wall Street, you start your day with no idea how it’s going to end.”

driving a taxi doesn’t sound like a particularly soothing solution to burnout. But there’s something to the idea of changing jobs. Maybe extreme burnout victims don’t need a life coach or a sabbatical or a no-meetings week. Maybe what they need is a headhunter.

Usually, I can’t imagine taking up another career. But in the rare moments I do, my fantasies tend to run in an altruistic direction: Teach high-school English in a poor school district. Fight poverty in Africa. Donate a kidney. And I wonder how many of my contemporaries share these fantasies or have actually done it—that is, made a change in their lives that actually relieves them from the crushing burdens of thinking about themselves. How strange would it be if people were trying to cure their burnout today by leaping to the helping professions, the same professions that led people to study burnout in the first place?


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