Jonathan Malesic had his dream job. He was a college professor teaching a subject he was passionate about, and he cherished the opportunity to educate young people. It was everything he thought he wanted, but he found himself struggling to get out of bed in the morning. He was reluctant to go into work. He was starting to hate his job. Eventually, he made the difficult decision to walk away from it.
His journey inspired him to write the book “The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives,” which blends memoir with social science, philosophy, and top-notch storytelling. Jon has also written about work and burnout for The New York Times, the New Republic, Vox and other publications. He recently chatted with Grotto contributor Mike Jordan Laskey about burnout and how we can fight it.
Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Mike: Burnout is a term that we all throw around a lot. What’s your definition?
Jon: Most broadly, burnout is the chronic experience of being stretched across this gap between your ideals for work and the reality of your job. It’s something that occurs over a long time, and it usually gets worse. It’s a consequence of being in these conditions where you’re not getting what you expect from your job — whether it’s because your workload is unmanageable, or you’re not getting the financial or emotional rewards that you hope for from your work, or you are being treated unfairly, or you’re just being ignored. Any of those can contribute to burnout.
Mike: What are some of the characteristics of burnout?
Jon: There are three classic components to burnout. The first one is exhaustion, which is sometimes called “emotional exhaustion.” The second is cynicism or depersonalization, which is emotional distancing from the people that you work with. The third component is a feeling of ineffectiveness. So you feel as if your work is not accomplishing anything, even if you might be accomplishing more than you realize.
Burnout is not something that happens for a week, and then you get over it. And burnout is not this vague feeling. There are specific ways to measure it. And I think if we understand burnout better, we’ll have a better chance of curing it.
Mike: In the book, you discuss how burnout is especially common in fields like education and social work — as these are jobs where ideals are high and the goal is to make the world better. Can you touch on this?
Jon: Burnout is a malady for just about anyone because we all bring a lot of ideals into our work. Though burnout was first identified in the 1970s among exactly the kind of workers that you’re talking about: poverty attorneys and social workers, teachers. These are people who want to eradicate poverty, or are idealistic in the best sense.
We should eradicate poverty. Let’s do it. But, of course, the problem is huge, and the obstacles to accomplishing that goal are enormous. And the funding and support to try to accomplish those goals are minimal. You throw someone with these extremely high ideals into this environment where they don’t have the resources they need, and it’s not surprising that they would suffer from burnout.
Mike: You write about your own story as someone with high ideals going into work as a college professor and then your experience not matching up to your expectation. Could you tell a bit of the story of how you got into studying and writing about burnout?
Jon: I was a professor of theology, and I had the highest ideals for my job. I was going to be educating young people and getting them really excited about this topic that I cared so much about. The reality is that a lot of the students weren’t all that interested in theology. And then you run into the ordinary limits of working in any kind of organization.
One topic I was really interested in was the moral and spiritual problems that arise in our working life, thinking about work as a center for theological and ethical reflection. Eventually, I kind of became what I was studying: a burned-out worker. I became a worker whose job did not live up to his ideals. And it became an existential problem for me.
Eventually, I quit that job. It was a long process, and I endured a lot of heartbreak to try to understand, “What is going on here? I love this job. I’m good at it. This is my dream job. Why do I hate it? Why do I hate getting out of bed and going to it every morning?” It took years to come to that realization and quit. Once I did, I started to think about it in terms of burnout. I didn’t know much about burnout, so I researched it. And I started to connect what I was learning about burnout as a psychological phenomenon, to what I already had been studying, with work as the focus of moral and spiritual questions. Of course, I also brought my own experience into it.
Those three threads there — the research on burnout, my long interest in work as a point of inquiry, and then my own experience — all came together. Over years, I wove them together and they became the book.
Mike: In the book, you do a great job of helping us think about how burnout is not just an individual’s problem but something that requires societal-level changes. What did you learn about the culture of work in the US? Why are Americans obsessed with our jobs?
Jon: The classic answer to this is the Protestant ethic, that we have picked up a secular version of old Calvinist anxiety. And whether the religious narrative of the Protestant ethic is historically accurate is not totally relevant. The important thing is that we have this anxiety about our worth as human beings.
So, we need to assure ourselves of our value. The dominant way in our culture we do that is by hard work. We value each other based on our employment status, how many hours we work, how exhausted we are. This is how burnout can become a brag. It’s a way of saying, “I am so valuable. I’m such a worthy person that I am destroying myself through overwork.” It’s fundamentally about anxiety, and the problem is that there’s no amount of work you can do to finally make the anxiety go away. It’s always, “Well, what have you done for me lately?”
I think this is why the cure to burnout has to start with being assured of our value and our dignity apart from our work — that you are valuable, whether or not you ever work a day in your life. You have worth. And if you start there, that can make us a little bit less obsessed with our jobs.
Mike: In the pandemic, there’s been a reorienting around work. More and more workers at places like Starbucks and Amazon are organizing to form unions in pursuit of better working conditions, which hopefully reduce burnout. How do we make that move from “work as a number-one driver of our self-worth” to some other way?
Jon: I agree with you that it is a big move. I also agree that we are seeing some signs of it, which is very encouraging. If burnout is the experience of being stretched across a gap, then we have to close the gap, and we probably have to close it from both sides.
So it means that we have to improve working conditions for the typical worker, and we are seeing some of that. In some industries, the four-day work week is being talked about. There has been some wage growth, but it’s unclear how that’s connected to inflation. Also, people are moving out of industries where the working conditions are really bad, like food service, and into industries where conditions are a little bit better. Perhaps that can exert pressure on the food service industry to improve conditions.
But the other side of the gap is ideals and the way that we think about work, and this is hard to measure. You can’t look in the monthly jobs report and see people’s ideals. But you can look at, say, TikTok, which is an expression of culture and what people are thinking. As we’re speaking, there’s this TikTok trend called “quiet quitting,” where workers are talking about doing the minimum at work. And that’s an expression of ideals — that your work doesn’t define you and your boss does not deserve all of your time and all of your availability. That is a sign of a cultural shift as well.
Mike: In your book, you share some examples of interesting communities who have been rowing against the current, resisting the work obsession. What was one favorite to learn about?
Jon: One of my favorites is a Benedictine community in Northern New Mexico, in the desert, in this very remote and beautiful canyon along the Rio Chama. I went there because I wanted to get as far away as I could from burnout culture without leaving the United States. These monks live largely off the grid. They generate their own electricity, they pump their own water, and they get a massive propane delivery for their heat. The most important thing for them is communal prayer, which they do for about five hours a day.
They are in the chapel together, praying the Psalms in Gregorian chant — that doesn’t leave a lot of time for work. They have to work in order to maintain their community and earn some outside money, but they confine their work day to about three hours, six mornings a week. When the chapel bell rings and they have to go back to prayer, they drop what they’re doing and go.
I asked one monk who had worked as a defense attorney [before entering the monastery] — so this is someone who’s very familiar with burnout culture — what do you do when that bell rings, and your work feels undone? He just said, “You get over it.” And it occurred to me that “getting over it” is a spiritual discipline that we really don’t practice very much in the secular world. I think that that could be a key to ending burnout culture — recognizing that work is not the ultimate good. There’s always something more important than your work. You’re always working in order to serve some other end, and you get over it for the sake of that end.
Mike: Not everyone is able to do the biggest “get over it,” which would be straight-up quitting a job like you did. Do you have any tips for those of us who might be starting to realize we’re feeling burned out, but don’t feel like we can quit?
Jon: I’ll be honest, it’s tough. Because if you stay in the same conditions, burnout just keeps going. You keep stretching. It usually gets worse, and it’s hard to reverse. Something has to change. Even if you stay in the same position, you can’t keep doing it the same way. You’ve got to change either your ideals or your conditions, and probably both. You may have to talk to your supervisor about shifting around some of your responsibilities. Supervisors need to recognize that they can’t keep stretching people across this gap forever, and you’ve got to talk to the people that you work with and figure out some kind of change.