Essay: The Burnout of Almost Everyone

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Burnout may be the late 20th century descendant of neurasthenia and the nervous breakdown—the wonderfully matter-of-fact all-purpose periodic collapse that our parents were fond of. Burnout is preeminently the disease of the thwarted; it is a frustration so profound that it exhausts body and morale. Burnout, in advanced states, imposes a fatigue that seems—at the time—a close relative of death. It is the entropy of the other-directed. Even the best worker—especially the best worker—will often, when thwarted, swallow his rage; it then turns into a small private conflagration, the fire in the engine room. A race of urban nomads who have wandered far from family roots tends to turn work into the spiritual hearth, a chief source of warmth and support. When the supervisor proves to be an idiot, when the pay is bad or the job insecure or unrewarding, then the worker experiences a strangely intimate and fundamental sense of betrayal, a wound very close to the core. Or perhaps the wound is his discovery that the core is empty. And with that discovery, he may resort to a pistol, a length of rope or a fistful of pills, leaving behind a note: "Burned out."

Despite the psychologists' exertions, the malady is utterly subjective and therefore unpredictable. One policeman will thrive in an assignment that may turn another into an alcoholic. In 1971 a Wall Street Journal survey found that the most physically draining and mentally numbing jobs were working at a foundry furnace, selling subway tokens, lifting lids on a steel-mill oven, and removing hair and fat from hog carcasses. Yet one worker took both pride and pleasure in the fact that he could clean a hog carcass in 45 seconds. Incidentally, it is also worth mentioning that being unemployed is a lot more stressful than an unsatisfying job, a fact that some ex-controllers are discovering.

Why is burnout, for all its serious implications, somewhat irritating to contemplate? Part of the problem resides in the term itself. It is too apocalyptic (in its private, individual way). Burnout implies a violent process ending in a devastation. The term perfectly captures an American habit of hyperbole and narcissism working in tandem: a hypochondria of the spirit. The idea contains a sneaking self-aggrandizement tied to an elusive self-exoneration. In the concept of burnout, there is no sense of human process, of the ups and downs—even the really awful downs—to which all men and women, in all history, have been subject. It also suggests that too many people become a little too easily thwarted. Most of the world's work, it has often been noted, is done by people who do not feel well.

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