Essay: The Burnout of Almost Everyone

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Graham Greene's architect Querry had to trek to an African leprosarium to find a metaphor adequate to express his mood; nothing less would be sufficiently wasted, blighted, defunct. Querry was, Greene meant, A Burnt-Out Case, like the leper Deo Gratias, his soul far gone. He was a masterpiece of acedia, a skull full of ashes, a rhapsodist of his own desolation.

Once, hardly anyone except a Graham Greene character could manage such Gethsemanes of exhaustion. Today, burnout is a syndrome verging on a trend. The smell of psychological wiring on fire is everywhere. The air-traffic controllers left their jobs in part, they said, because the daily tension tended to scorch out their circuits (the primitive "flee-or-fight" reaction to danger squirted charges of adrenaline into bodies that had to remain relatively immobile, tethered by duty to scope and computer).

Burnout runs through the teaching profession like Asian flu—possibly because it depresses people to be physically assaulted by those they are trying to civilize. Two years ago, Willard McGuire, president of the National Education Association, said that burnout among teachers "threatens to reach hurricane force if it isn't checked soon." Social workers and nurses burn out from too much association with hopelessness. Police officers burn out. Professional athletes burn out. Students burn out. Executives burn out. Housewives burn out. And, as every parent knows, there usually comes a moment in late afternoon when baby burnout occurs—all of his little circuits overloaded, the child feels too wrought up to fall asleep.

One of the biggest difficulties with the concept of burnout is that it has become faddish and indiscriminate, an item of psychobabble, the psychic equivalent, in its ubiquitousness, of jogging. Burnout has no formal psychiatric status. Many psychoanalysts regard the malady as simply that old familiar ache, depression. Even so, plenty of professionals take burnout seriously. Psychological journals are heavy with analyses of burnout.

Burnout is progressive, occurring over a period of time. Authors Robert Veninga and James Spradley define five stages that lead from a stressful job to a burnt-out case: 1) The Honeymoon—intense enthusiasm and job satisfaction that, for all but a few dynamos, eventually give way to a time when valuable energy reserves begin to drain off. 2) Fuel Shortage—fatigue, sleep disturbances, possibly some escapist drinking or shopping binges and other early-warning signals. 3) Chronic Symptoms—exhaustion, physical illness, acute anger and depression. 4) Crisis—illness that may become incapacitating, deep pessimism, self-doubt, obsession with one's own problems. 5) Hitting the Wall—career and even life threatened.

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