It’s not you, it’s the culture
Nora and Scott are talking about burnout and how to end it in the new year. Writer Jonathan Malesic explains why the forces driving burnout are all part of our cultural obsession with work, and why self-help books and articles aren't much help. His new book is called The End Of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.
Hosts: Nora Ali & Scott Rogowsky
Producer: Bella Hutchins
Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus
Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder
Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop
Director of Audio: Alan Haburchak
VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer
Full transcript for this episode below.
Scott Rogowsky: Nora, what are we talking about today?
Nora Ali: We're bantering about burnout today.
Scott Rogowsky: Bantering about burnout.
Nora Ali: Yeah. It's grown over time, I think, this at least concept of burnout. I am curious if you've been burned out before, Scott. I imagine the answer is yes.
Scott Rogowsky: I'm an American living in America. So yeah, I think all of us in this society where we're constantly told to hustle and grind, rise and grind. There's a lot of grinding going on and the grinding can get exhausting, it can grind you down.
Nora Ali: It can, and cause you to...
Scott Rogowsky: And grind you out.
Nora Ali: ...grind your teeth at night, which is what I do.
Scott Rogowsky: Grinding teeth.
Nora Ali: Yeah.
Scott Rogowsky: And it's certainly a pandemic in its own respect, that's been plaguing Americans for many years, even before these last couple, where we're really seeing a shift in thinking about work. And this is pretty much what our guest is going to be talking about today. But, yeah, no, I've had a lot of personal experience with burnout. I've quit most jobs that I've had just because I get so wrapped up in them. I'm very bad with the work-life balance.
Nora Ali: Oh sure.
Scott Rogowsky: When I go into something, I go into it and I can't turn my brain off. I'm losing sleep over it and it just consumes me.
Nora Ali: Yeah. Well, I feel like burnout is almost a social badge now where you ask people at the top of a Zoom meeting, how's it going? And the response is, oh, I'm so busy, just doing too much, so much going on. And if someone responds differently like, oh, you know what? I'm doing great, work-life balance real good. It's annoying almost, because that's what we relate on. It's collective burnout. But yeah, I've been burned out certainly at jobs before. And it's not even the jobs where I was working the most hours in finance or e-commerce, that's when I was working the most hours just objectively speaking. But those were cases where I felt like I was building something, making daily progress, which is one good way that I've learned to combat burnout generally, is feeling like you're taking small steps in the right direction versus just being on a hamster wheel. But in my last job, anchoring news during the pandemic, that was very burnout-inducing. So I certainly felt a lot of mental burnout in the last couple of years, as many of us have, and largely as a result of the function of the job that I had. But with that, Scott, comes also guilt, because yeah, I wasn't on the front lines. I'm not a health care worker. I'm doing the news. So I felt guilt.
Scott Rogowsky: A double whammy.
Nora Ali: Yeah, it's a double whammy. I felt guilt that I was feeling burned out.
Scott Rogowsky: Of course.
Nora Ali: That I shouldn't be feeling burned out. So, it's a very complicated subject for all of us.
Scott Rogowsky: And it almost reminds me of back in being a high school or middle school, I remember, yeah, it's almost this competition about how much homework you have.
Nora Ali: Yeah.
Scott Rogowsky: And oh, I've got to, I remember sitting around people going, oh, I've got to write three papers tonight, then I've got two tests tomorrow. I sit and go, oh, that sucks for you, sorry, I'm supposed to come back with something even worse. It's like, this is terrible.
Nora Ali: We should now start bragging about how much relaxing we've done at the end of a weekend. Let's celebrate those wins from now on.
Scott Rogowsky: I went for a walk and I saw three types of birds. I think I just saw kingfisher out my window here. I love talking about that stuff, but no one wants to hear it, Nora...
Nora Ali: I do.
Scott Rogowsky: ...that's the problem.
Nora Ali: Well, that's why we bring on guests to teach us the way. So, this all, burnout, new social constructs, this is all something that our guest today writer, Jonathan Malesic, has thought a lot about. And in his new book called The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives, he reflects on his own personal experiences with burnout at his dream job, or at least what he thought at the time was his dream job. And he also traces the social history of burnout and offers some interesting solutions to what he argues is a cultural problem and not an individual one. So let's hear our conversation with Jonathan Malesic. From Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, the podcast that gives you a front-row seat to candid conversations with some of the biggest names in business, asking them the questions you wish you could ask. I'm your host, Nora Ali.
Scott Rogowsky: And I'm your other host, Scott Rogowsky. Nora and I are here for your ears, bringing you stories of how business shapes our lives today and into the future. Now let's get down to the business of burnout. Thanks for making the time. We're big fans of your work and the conversations around labor, which is what we've been talking about here on this podcast a few episodes, right Nora?
Nora Ali: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Scott Rogowsky: We talked about the Great Resignation with Derek Thompson, and we're talking burnout with you. How about first of all, you just explain and define burnout as you see it and as the culture views it.
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah. Well, and the way that I see it and the way the culture views it, are not necessarily the same thing. We talk about burnout in a very loose way. And part of what I want to do in the book is to make that definition a lot more precise, because if we are a little too expansive in our definition of burnout, then everything is burnout, and if everything is burnout, then nothing is burnout, and we don't actually help anyone. So the definition that I use, most broadly, burnout is the chronic experience of being stretched between your ideals for work and the reality of your job. And that happens to all of us to some degree at some point. But when it happens over a long time and you end up feeling exhausted, and you end up feeling cynical, meaning you start treating your coworkers, your clients, your students, patients, etcetera, less as people and more as problems. And third, when you have a sense of ineffectiveness about your work. So exhaustion, cynicism, ineffectiveness, those three things together, those three dimensions, they make up burnout.
Nora Ali: I want to be sure I understand the differences between how you talk about and how we normally think about it, because when I think about burnout, I just think about overworking, lots of hours, but that's pretty different from what you explained and that you expect to get out of your job is different from what your job actually is. So how can we start to reconcile that notion of maybe our ideals should not have to align with work? How should we start thinking about that to prevent the negative consequences?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah. Well, and the first thing I'd say is that being overworked is definitely a common cause of burnout for sure. But I also think that burnout is more than just overwork. In my case I experienced burnout as a college professor and it wasn't just that I was working a lot of hours. Sometimes I was, often I wasn't, but more burnout was the result of all of the ideals and expectations of what I thought it meant to be a college professor and all the investment of my identity that I put in it. And the reality is that it's not the life of the mind, you don't just spend all day philosophizing and all of that, there's all kinds of boring, tedious, stuff that is not at all what I expected the job to be. And because I'd invested so much of my identity in it when I came up against all of that, I just, I don't know, there was just this tremendous gap between how I'd idealized the job and what it really was.
Scott Rogowsky: You slipped on that tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches and you felt like that was it. You finally had reached your full potential, but it wasn't enough. The tweed wasn't enough, Jon.
Jonathan Malesic: Tweed is a lot.
Nora Ali: Tweed can work wonders.
Jonathan Malesic: All right. Tweed will go a long way, but there are limits even to what tweed can do.
Nora Ali: Are we just applying too much meaning and purpose for our jobs? And we should not be trying to put that much pressure on ourselves? Because I've also heard that one way to combat burnout is to find meaning. But it sounds like what you're saying is maybe not, maybe that just adds pressure in trying to feel fulfilled with work?
Jonathan Malesic: I think so. In our culture we expect work to totally fulfill us as persons. We expect it to be the source of our dignity. We expect it to be where we prove and shape our character. And I want to say those are good things and those are still things that I want for my work. But when we focus so much on all those things together, those are pretty high ideals. And so many jobs just can't deliver them. So sometimes finding purpose in a job that seems purposeless, that puts it on the worker to solve a problem that they didn't create. Well, this person doesn't need to find purpose. This person maybe needs a different schedule. Maybe this person needs a better pay. They need better vacation, and so on.
Nora Ali: When we talk about this focus on hustle and grind, one of the easier constructs to blame is capitalism, just capitalism as a whole. But I know you have a more nuanced take on that. What is the role of capitalism in fueling burnout and hopefully, maybe even ending burnout in the coming years?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah. It's hard to separate out capitalism as an economic system from all the other stuff that comprises our work culture. If we snapped our fingers and capitalism ended tomorrow, I'm not certain that we would get rid of burnouts. Within capitalism most, not all companies, aim at profit, and one way to increase your margins is to cut your labor cost. And so there often is a downward pressure on working conditions in capitalism, but people burnout at nonprofit institutions all the time. I burned out, the college where I worked is nonprofit. It's just very hard to pull those things apart, I think.
Nora Ali: And you are calling then in that case for not an overall overhaul to capitalism, but structural change versus having to rely on the individual to make changes in the workplace. And you wrote that, I think there should be laws that mean no one has to work two job to support themselves. So, that is no longer a necessity. So what are some of those structural changes, whether it's minimum wage, or labor laws that might actually help to reduce burnout for those blue collar workers especially?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah. And all of the structural changes that I suggest start with a philosophical notion, the idea of dignity. I argue in the book, work is not where we get dignity, work does not dignify us, we dignify work. We're the ones who have the dignity. And once you recognize that everyone has that dignity regardless of their work status, well, then the policies can start to fall into place to recognize that. So yes, one would be a universal basic income at whatever level we decide. And we even tried that early in the pandemic with the $600 a week unemployment insurance supplement. But in addition, once you are on the job that dignity needs to still be respected. So yeah, I think that minimum wages should be an awful lot higher. I think that the standard work week should probably be lower with more guaranteed time off and things like that. All of those would allow people to get the material stuff that they want from work and probably a lot of the immaterial stuff, but without quite so many of the stresses and drawbacks.
Scott Rogowsky: We're going to take a quick break. We'll hear more from John when we come back. Tell us about how the pandemic has heightened the concern and the conversations around burnout? And maybe the fact that there is some danger in popularizing this word, it could flatten the meaning. Is that possible?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah, just to your last point first, definitely we see burnout everywhere than we are no longer able to help the people who are really struggling at their jobs, and the pandemic, it disrupted everyone's work. Some people lost their jobs overnight, other people were working from home often while also serving as unpaid, untrained teaching assistants at home. And because I think we view so many other areas of our life as work, my students view school as their job, parents view parenting in terms of work. We talk about marriage as work, because we turned all those things into work, we only had a work-related term to apply to them and to make sense of the great disruption that the pandemic caused. And so, yeah, now we're seeing burnout everywhere. The vocabulary of work dominates our moral vocabulary altogether. And we need a richer moral vocabulary to talk about the value that all these other activities have apart from the work-like aspects.
Nora Ali: So there's clearly a lot more research that needs to be done on burnout and also finding the right language to even talk about it. And we've pointed out that it's a relatively new cultural conversation we're having around burnout, but according to your book, people have been complaining about work for over 2000 years. So what does historical evidence of burnout look like from so far back?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah, people have been exhausted in every age. Exhaustion is not new. Burnout is relatively new. The term as we now use it emerged probably in the 1960s, but it wasn't really theorized and it didn't start to get studied until the mid-1970s. Extremely nerdy, I think very interesting story: Two psychologists, Herbert Freudenberger, who was a clinician working in New York City, he started seeing what his coworkers called burnout and he said, hey, there's this thing it's called burnout. This is what it's like. And so he was one of the first. And simultaneously in Berkeley, California, the research psychologis Christina Maslach was also responding to complaints about burnout, in her case from poverty attorneys, counselors, people in the helping professions. And so she also theorized burnout simultaneously. And meanwhile Neil Young is singing about burnout. Bob Dylan is singing about burnout. There's something in the culture in the 19, around 1973, 74, that brought burnout to public attention. And it really took off, the flourishing of burnout as a cultural keyword was in the 1970s. And we're almost repeating that same cycle now. A decade ago people weren't talking about burnout very much in North America, but now we are on the level that we had been in the seventies and eighties.
Nora Ali: Let's take another quick break. And when we come back with Jonathan, perhaps we'll get into some solutions, we'll be right back. All right, Jonathan, in an article on your Substack, Burnout Culture, you address some of the criticisms that you have received in response for your arguments around burnout, around perhaps working less. I think that's great that you take your criticisms head on, but one of the criticisms was that your message applies to educated elites with cushy jobs and high salaries, and doesn't apply to people who have to "work for a living." So what is your response to that particular criticism?
Jonathan Malesic: I think actually that criticism is a complaint that's on behalf, supposedly, of working class workers, people who do work with their hands, people who spend a lot of time on their feet and so on, but I don't think it actually represents their real concerns. I think that we should have higher minimum wages. We should have shorter standard work weeks. We should have more time off and things like that, what working-class person does not want that? Most people want better working conditions. And I think that attention to burnout should draw attention to the dignity that all those workers have and to elevate their conditions. At the same time, I do think that we need more research into how delivery drivers or retail workers, fast food workers, how they experience burnout. Most research pays attention to people in healthcare, in business, in the helping professions, stuff like that. And we really need to know more about the burnout of truck drivers say.
Scott Rogowsky: Perhaps the criticism, it stems from the same line of attack on Henry David Thoreau, and the Transcendental idea of finding leisure and pursuing your genius without having to do the whole hard labor. And he's looking at these laborers toiling away and thinking, if only you could sit here by the pond and simply gaze upon nature and think about the passage of time instead of actually doing the hard work. Well, then I could see an argument saying, who is going to lay the railroad at that point. If everyone's gazing and pursuing genius, but you're not advocating that we all become Thoreau, or are you?
Jonathan Malesic: Well, yes and no. We all don't need to live in a cabin by Walden Pond, but Thoreau, he asks that very question. Yeah, who's going to lay the railroad? And he realizes, well, maybe we don't need so many railroads. And this opens up the question, not just of what each person demands of him, herself as a worker, but also what we demand of other people as workers. So when I demand overnight delivery, when I demand the railroad, all of those things are created by labor. When we demand a cheap meal immediately delivered to us, we might not think about the fact that doing so could be contributing to someone else's burnout, someone else's exploitation. And so, my vision of a better way of working does mean, not just being concerned about yourself and yourself as a worker, but being concerned about the work you demand of other people.
Nora Ali: But we're such selfish beings though. Will we ever get to a place where I'm not going to want my food delivered in 20 minutes right to my door?
Jonathan Malesic: Well, we went a long time without it, we can try it again.
Nora Ali: But now that we know we can get it, I feel like it'll be hard to, and no, I'm serious though, I feel a little skeptical that we're going to change our expectations and get to this where we as individuals, people like us, who can get delivery are not going to put the burden on those who are making the food and bringing the food to us.
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah. I don't know. I guess I'm somewhat optimistic that we can not only make the transition, that once we see the labor that we're expecting of others, we can start to think, well, how can we make that person's labor better, or how can we reduce the burden on them? And I think that once we do that, there's a much better society on the other side of that.
Scott Rogowsky: Or if that delivery driver were paid a hundred dollars an hour, and it was commensurate to the work being put in, and that's what it comes down to, it's the exploitative nature of the low-wage jobs, and the lowest wage of jobs are tied to these essential workers that we've billed them in the pandemic, the grocery store workers, and the delivery people and people who work in the slaughter houses and the oil fields like you talk about, the dirty jobs and the menial labor. These are all of a sudden rebranded as essential workers, but they've never been paid as essential workers, and never been given the dignity of being called an essential worker until now. So why do you think it's so important to call for work and not the worker to gain dignity?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah. Well, the worker already has all the dignity they're ever going to get before they ever go to work. And oftentimes when we talk about the dignity of work, so this is commonly brought up in our political debates. What we mean is that the conversation operates on the assumption that the worker doesn't have dignity first, and then they go to work to get dignity. When you have that paradigm, then any working conditions are justifiable. Well, this person's earning dignity. So, why do they need a living wage? Just think about a newborn child, no parent is going to say, well, this kid's great, but he doesn't have any dignity because he or she hasn't gone to work ever. No one thinks that. And so we carry that dignity with us, and then we go to work and what we deserve as dignified human beings are working conditions that honor that dignity, that recognize, that full humanity that each one has. And this is what I think is great about Thoreau, that line that you quoted, he sees these Irish laborers who were not viewed as very dignified in their society at the time, he sees them as brothers. He says, I want better for you. And I think we need to make that same move today. And each of us is a worker who has demands placed on us, but to look at the workers who we place demands on, see them as brothers and sisters, and to say you deserve better. And when that happens on a big enough scale, then, well, that benefits the individual too.
Nora Ali: Let's get to some of the tangible solutions and examples. One section of your book is called "How to Build Better Lives." And in that you give examples of people who are "resisting burnout culture." So in our modern day workplace, what does it mean to resist burnout culture and what are some examples that you saw?
Jonathan Malesic: Sure. Yeah. The most radical example I saw was at a Benedictine monastery in a remote canyon in Northern New Mexico. I will admit that that solution to burnout culture does not really scale for everyone, but it's a limit case. What would a really radical departure from burnout culture look like? And in the case of this monastery, it looks like working three or four hours a day and stopping your work when the bell rings to call you back to the chapel for communal prayer. So one big lesson that we can get from these monks is the need to make something more important than laboring. For them it's their communal prayer. And I asked one of the monks, and this is a guy who had been a defense attorney. He had worked in the world for a long career before going into the monastery in midlife. And I asked him, well, what do you do when the bell rings and you feel like your work is undone? And he said, you get over it. Getting over it just struck me as this really important spiritual discipline that we could all stand to practice, to get over the pride and self-investment that we have in our work, to get over this, some of our ambition for the sake of something better.
Scott Rogowsky: I've been trying to tell myself that for many years now, just get out, get out of the rat race, that's what it comes down to. And again, I come from this entertainment background, which I brought up before on the show. It's very unique in how it works and the highs and lows and what am I gunning for? Is it to become the next Seinfeld? Is it to become just the next Joe Rogan as a podcaster? And I don't know, and those things are so impossibly difficult to actually reach. So, is this good enough? Can I just enjoy this and not try for anything else? These are conversations I have with myself all the time. And again, I also then feel the guilt that Nora and I have talked about, the fact that we have the luxury to even have these conversations, because we have these nice jobs and we are in a good place like you had with your professor job. Maybe I could ask for a one-on-one session with you later, John, this could become a therapy, this is becoming a therapy session.
Jonathan Malesic: Well, but I'll say, I burned out at, like I said, job that is objectively really, really good. And you look at the rates of burnout among physicians, and they're much higher than they are for ordinary workers. And so, like I said, we do need more attention to burnout in lower wage service work, stuff like that. But burnout is not just an index of how bad your job is, it's always relative to ideals, expectations, what's been promised to you basically.
Nora Ali: I do want to hear about the manager side of things in the workplace. You spoke with the chief people officer of City Square, which is a Dallas nonprofit that does anti-poverty work, a line of work that could easily cause burnout. And she had said that compassionately managing people's roles within the organization helps keep burnout in check. So overall, what can managers do? Maybe some of our listeners are managers, what can they do to help with burnouts within particular roles amongst their employees?
Jonathan Malesic: Yeah, one thing that they do at City Square is very much emphasizing the personal nature of the culture. And I sat in on an all staff meeting, and City Square is not a gigantic organization by any stretch, but it has about 160 employees, enough where you can know most people, but not everyone. And one of the most impressive things that they did at their staff meeting, was they sincerely expressed gratitude to people who had done work that helped them out. They call it, "You Better Recognize." And the microphone just gets passed around to whoever raises their hand and wants to recognize one of the coworkers. And they say, you better recognize so and so for the work they did on this project. You better recognize the guys who transformed our meeting room on very short notice for a high-stakes meeting that we weren't anticipating or something like that. And that recognition can go a long way, especially if it's sincere, if you really know what the people in your organization are doing, you know who they are as human beings, why they come to work for your company, what they want to get out of it. And if you begin to see their dignity, you can honor that. And on top of that City Square has pretty generous paid time off policies, up to about eight weeks of paid time off, which yeah, the kind of work that they do, they need it.
Scott Rogowsky: Jonathan, as we start the new year, 2022, after these two crazy years we've had with so much burnout in so many areas, how can we, as a society, resolve ourselves to make a change, make an improvement on our attitudes towards work? What will be your resolution for America in this new year?
Jonathan Malesic: My resolution for America in the new year would be simply to see the labor that each one of us is doing, to see the labor that the people around us are doing. And to think if that work is occupying the best place in our lives, we need to resolve, to rethink that and to think about what might be more important? What things are we working toward that our work is intended to serve?
Scott Rogowsky: Amen. I like that. I like that.
Nora Ali: That's great.
Scott Rogowsky: Just appreciate, appreciate the work that goes into things like getting your chicken nuggets delivered, Nora.
Nora Ali: All right. Well, Jonathan, we've learned a lot about burnout. Maybe putting less burden on ourselves to combat it, trying to enact change in the system. It's been a great conversation. Jonathan Malesic is a writer, and his new book out now is titled The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. Jonathan, thanks again for joining us.
Jonathan Malesic: Thank you so much for having me.
Scott Rogowsky: And now, BC listeners, we want to hear from you. We're speaking to a professional organizer for our new year episodes. How do you approach the top of the year when it comes to cleaning up both your life and your space? Are you a DIY guy or gal, or do you hire a pro? Would you ever hire a pro, or will you keep hoarding and hoarding until you have the most cat skeletons in your drywall? We would love to hear from you. So send us an email at email@example.com, or DM us pictures of those cat skeletons on Twitter @bizcasualpod, that's B-I-Zcasualpod, with your thoughts.
Nora Ali: You could also leave a voice memo on our website, businesscasual.fm, or give us a ring and leave us an old fashion voicemail. Our number is 862 295 1135. As Business Casual grows we are excited to get to know our listeners, old and new. Drop us a line, and don't forget to leave your name and where you're calling or writing from, so we can hear from you in a future episode.
Scott Rogowsky:Business Casual is produced without the least bit of burnout by Katherine Milsop and Bella Hutchins, additional production sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Alan Haburchak is a director of audio of Morning Brew, Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia and Jessica Coen is our chief content officer. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. If you like what you heard, please follow Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you go for ear candy. And we'd love it if you would give us a great rating and a review. We want both.
Nora Ali: Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali.
Scott Rogowsky: And I'm Scott Rogowsky.
Nora Ali: Keep it business.
Scott Rogowsky: And keep it casual.