Where Work is a Religion, Work Burnout is its Crisis of Faith

18 Mar

Where Work is a Religion, Work Burnout is its Crisis of Faith

NOTE: This is potentially my favorite article, ever. I just find it so fascinating. It’s certainly my for-the-moment-favorite, but DEFINITELY in the Top 5 all-time favorites. At any rate.

Almost 5 years ago, New York Magazine published an article about burnout: the feeling that you’re “a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge.” The feeling that you physically cannot continue doing what you’re doing for a moment longer.

It’s difficult to determine whether one has fallen victim to burnout, in that, like depression, it’s hard to tell when your feelings have passed the point of “normal” and can no longer be restored by playing hooky for a day. Earlier this semester, around Valentine’s Day (correlation is not causation, folks!), I was feeling so exhausted, so unmotivated, that I was sincerely thinking of taking the following semester off  (what I would’ve done I do not know). I just didn’t care about the papers I had to write, or the readings I was supposed to do. I didn’t want to go to class, and I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone. I couldn’t see the point- you learn the material in order to write the papers, you retain it enough to take the final (let’s be real here, you cram enough to take the final), and then you forget everything and it’s like it never happened. What’s the use in wasting my time? I was just done.

Tell me you know a student who hasn’t felt that way, though, and I’ll tell you you’re a liar. What was different about this time was that I couldn’t make myself do the work. I tried going to the library, I tried turning off the Internet, I tried reading in the laundry room, but I couldn’t stop myself from staring blankly at the pages I was supposed to be reading. I was stuck.

That Monday, as luck would have it, my morning class was cancelled. I took it as a sign and skipped my afternoon class, too, and instead waited in line for three hours for $10 tickets to the first preview of ‘Anything Goes.” And you know what? It cured me (well, that and a reorganization of my sleep schedule. NOTHING seems important when you’re tired). Has it been a battle to get through pages of Rousseau and dance readings? Sure it has. But I’ve regained my ability to power through. While I don’t always see the point, I’m once again able to make myself do what I need to do.

So how is burnout different from boredom? And is it like “emerging adulthood,” a disease of the privileged, communicable only to those with the funds to abruptly end their careers in favor of seminary school or cab driving?

I guess both questions kind of answer themselves at once. To me, burnout can only occur when one enters a job with expectations. Generally speaking, if you’re a cashier, or a retail associate, or a waitress, you’re not going into that job with expectations of reward or enjoyment. You’re taking the job because you need a job. Thus, those jobs produce boredom. Burnout, on the other hand, is reserved for jobs entered with an expectation- you become a banker because you want to make money, you become a doctor because you want to save lives, you become a teacher because you want to save the world, you do all these things because you think it will give you happiness. No job is ever fun 24/7, so when you’re in a lull, your expectations of the end satisfaction become your fuel to push through it. When the lull never ends, you begin to run out of expectations, and then you end up stranded on the highway to nowhere without a gas station or AAA person in sight.

So it’s not necessarily that burnout is only contracted by those who have the money to explore other options, it’s just that those with jobs requiring little to no energy input won’t ever reach that level of unbalance. It’s tough to be disappointed when you have no expectations.

Inevitably, as the article states, this ends up creating a “poor little rich girl” scenario: yes, let’s all feel badly for the wealthy bankers- or as the joke cited by the magazine states: “wouldn’t it be nicer if they were terminal?” What’s funny, as the article concludes, is that highly unbalanced expectation/reality equations results in bankers, lawyers, and other high-powered professionals entering the professions that were defined by burnout in the first place- teachers, nurses, social workers. It’s cyclical. Helping people doesn’t make me feel better, so maybe money will; the money isn’t working, so maybe being a humanitarian will.

What does this all mean exactly? I’m not quite sure. What I can gather, however, is that ‘work,’ like ‘childhood,’ has taken on a new meaning since my grandparents got their first jobs. As my grandfather always told me, “It’s okay if you don’t like your job. That’s why it’s called work. If you were supposed to enjoy it, they’d call it fun.” He wasn’t saying that we should all do things we hate, but basically his point was that work doesn’t need to be what’s making us want to get up in the morning. Somewhere along the line, though, that’s the definition it took on. Work stopped being simply a job, it became your calling. We now all strive to find our passions, not just something that enables us to make enough money to support these passions as hobbies. I’m not saying we should all hate what we do, but I think it’s wildly important to separate our work life from our home life. I’d be amazed if you could find me a group of surgeons who love Grey’s Anatomy, or a team of cops who hang out every Wednesday night to watch Law and Order. Inaccuracies aside, I think it’d just be too much to spend all day in a hospital and then go home and watch one on TV. More than liking it, I’d think we’d want our job to have a purpose- I can’t help but keep thinking of the part of the article where they talk about the insurance agents who burn out the least frequently are those whose homes caught on fire or cars crashed as a kid, so as mundane as their work may be, they know it’s important.

I’m curious as to at what point in time work became a religion. I mean, clearly this is much more of a problem on the coasts, where the major cities are, but still. I wish more in-depth studies had been done on burnout in the past, because I’d love to investigate trends on burnout over generations: is Generation Z going to burnout more quickly than GenX and GenY simply because we’ve (they’ve? I’m not really sure where I land in this one, because Wikipedia cites GenY as going from 1982-200ish and GenZ as going from  the 1990s-present) been raised on expectations? Follow your dreams, shoot for the moon, the whole nine yards- it”s great to encourage children, but is it ultimately doing them a disservice in the long run?

This commentary has been very cyclical, but that’s kind of like burnout. You work until you can’t and then you chance jobs and work until you can’t and so it goes. This article raises so many questions and thoughts that I’m not qualified enough to adequately comment on. Ultimately, burnout is a loss in one’s ability to do what he needs to do. This loss can be accredited to poor treatment, an inability to meet expectations, or a lack of purpose. It’s a feeling of knowing things could be better- in order for us to know that, things must have been better for us at some point- and wanting to stop at nothing to reach the Better Place where we Most Fit. So maybe the solution is making adolescence and college less about what we want to do and more about what we have to do. Sensory adaptation- the longer you’re around a bad smell, the less you’ll smell it. The more we have to do things because it’s what we have to do, the less often we’ll lack the willpower on grounds that “there should be more.” Perhaps just this one time, ignorance is bliss. But for most, it’s far too late for that. We’ve already been raised to shoot for the moon and do what makes us happy. Maybe it’s for the best, though. If we are, indeed, so determined to have both money and a calling, maybe we’ll be the first to learn how to balance everything , so convinced are we that we can do it all. If work is a religion, maybe we could begin the re-separation of church and state.

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One Response to “Where Work is a Religion, Work Burnout is its Crisis of Faith”

  1. Katie March 20, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

    I just basically want to say that this blog post is so relevant to my feelings about career choice right now. Over spring break, my close relatives kept asking me “Oh, so what’s your major? What do you want to do with your life?” and I really can not answer their questions. On the one hand, my relatives are telling me to “Follow [my] heart and do what [I] love.” Yet, with the same breath they continue to advise me to “Take a job that will make [me] secure.” Sure, in an ideal world I could get both. But, at least I feel, these oppotunties are rare. I find myself sharing your grandfather’s view of work. I know that this means my life will probably not be enjoyable because I am not going to find “my calling” but there’s only so much time I can grant myself to create a nice living for myself. As much as I want both career happiness and security, I increasingly find myself looking at majors and careers that I would not particularly like to do, but would grant me a nice living. Maybe I’ll stumble into the perfect fit but who knows? Only time will tell, right?

    Loved the post. Thanks for sharing. Hopefully we all will be able to find our true “calling” and not be burdened with a burnout! Life does work in extraordinary ways.

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