In the story of our lives, we might be the main character, but work is the dominating theme, our constant motivation. It's the central thing we do as adults, the primary focus of our mental function for most hours of the day, most days of the week. The types of jobs we have influence who we know, where we live, how much society respects us. Being jobless, then, isn't only difficult because of the financial instability — it's also a kind of social death. As such, the fate of the jobless — the attendant derision or pity is often used as a cautionary tale. And the warning works: Most of us are terrified of losing our livelihoods.
The so-called Great Resignation has been making headline after headline for months now, as people have been quitting their jobs in droves. There were predictions that when federal pandemic benefits expired just after Labor Day, industries facing a labor shortage would find an influx of job seekers. And yet, snatching away benefits hasn't worked that way. So far, there hasn't been a dramatic increase in applicants. It's not just a perplexing economic problem. People rejecting available jobs runs counter to what we've been taught since childhood — that work isn’t just how we live our lives, it’s why we live our lives.
It's a sign of the times — and of how fed up people are with the conditions of work — that people are now rejecting this worldview, and doing so to such a degree that it’s become a movement. If the movement has a motto, it would be the word that’s been on everyone’s lips over the past 18 months: burnout. According to an Insider survey of over 1,000 American workers, 61% said they were currently "at least somewhat burned out." An Indeed report from March found that the majority of respondents said their burnout had worsened during the pandemic, with 52% overall saying they were currently burned out. You've probably heard — or said yourself — the following things repeated ad nauseum: "I'm so tired. I'm so exhausted. I can't believe we have to keep going."
But burnout isn't just fatigue. It's far more insidious and complicated.
"Work burnout happened to me when I worked at a large corporation and realized that although I was putting in long hours, doing good work, and it looked good on paper — I was going nowhere," says Alexis, 38, who works in the PR industry. "Then I saw a meme [that said] 'if you died tomorrow, your job would be posted faster than your obituary,' and it sucked all the joy out of everything I did."
"Burnout happens when work consumes your mind outside of the office, yet your only opportunity for a long time is to tread water while killing yourself," she says.
Camilla, 29, saw her health deteriorate. "For me, the burnout was serious when I relapsed badly into anorexia nervosa," she says. She worked in health and safety in the meat industry. "It took me a year to recover to the point where I could work again, and even at that, I only work part time out of the house. Anything more, and I can easily slip back."
Her husband, who works in hospitality and retail, is burned out, too. "[He] realized it was bad months ago, but felt trapped. He has since handed in his notice with no job to go to, because he simply can't take it anymore," Camilla says. "He feels suicidal, exhausted, and hopeless. But having put in his notice, he instantly felt better."
Camilla has come to the exact same morbid conclusion as Alexis: "At the end of the day — your job will be posted before your funeral notice ever will be. Remember that."
Maybe a telltale sign of burnout is when you start thinking in such extreme terms, ruminating on life and death as it pertains to your work satisfaction. If you’re wondering what would happen if you died tomorrow, and weighing how deeply your workplace would feel the loss of you, you’re not just tired. You're preoccupied with existential questions related to meaning and purpose. And they’re all related to your job.
Alice, 28, felt suddenly and wholly burned out after her company announced a major restructuring. It soon became clear that there was no longer a future for her there, but it was a job she had sincerely loved. She had worked hard at it for years.
"I sobbed," she recalls. "And I was like, I haven't cried like this since I was dumped by my abusive ex.” It was as painful as any romantic betrayal, she says: "I felt empty." Only, unlike a breakup, Alice still is connected to her employers, “because I'm financially dependent on them."
There’s a lot of debate about what exactly burnout is: A medical condition? A philosophical matter? Is it just the cost of doing business? Of being alive? According to the World Health Organization, it's an "occupational phenomenon." But that seems to be an anodyne way of saying that the exact nature, cause, and solution to burnout aren't entirely clear.
And there certainly does seem to be variance on what we talk about when we talk about burnout. Does burnout imply a length of time that you've gone without a break, or a certain degree of severity? Can you be burned out even if you don't have an extreme workload? If you're recharged after a few days of PTO, is that not burnout? Does it come with depression? Can you love your particular job but still be burned out? Does burnout cause a fundamental shift in how you think about your work?
For some, burnout is just another way to say their stamina has been used up, and they need a vacation. But for others, "burnout" is a term that encompasses a kind of melancholic meditation on the unrelentingness of work; more recently, the pandemic and climate crisis anxiety seem inseparable from it.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a test developed by psychologists to measure this "phenomenon" on three scales: exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy. An online test on MindTools asks you to rate yourself on statements like, "I am harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve," and "I feel that I have no one to talk to." It also includes a statement on perceived workload, but it doesn't include a numeric scale of the average number of hours worked. Overwork in sheer hours seems to be too simple a metric to diagnose burnout.
For a long time, "burnout" was a word most commonly used in the medical industry. In 2014, Dr. Richard Gunderman wrote an article for The Atlantic in which he argued that the reason medical students seem to suffer higher rates of burnout compared to other college students isn't because the work is intrinsically more difficult, but rather because the way they were being taught was often soul-crushing. It was an educational environment, he claimed, that did little to nurture compassion — ironic, considering these were training to care about the wellbeing of others. Gunderman contends that burnout is not, then, necessarily caused by stress and overwork, but "the sum total of hundreds and thousands of tiny betrayals of purpose, each one so minute that it hardly attracts notice."
Thinking of burnout as a form of betrayal is illuminating, because it frames burnout not as a solitary experience — an agony you battle alone, something that's your sole responsibility to heal from — but a relationship in conflict. For those medical students, the conflict comes from being let down by their professors and mentors, and their subsequent interrogation of whether this path would allow them to be the kind, empathetic doctors they wanted to be. For others experiencing professional burnout, the details of the conflict vary, but the core problem remains the same: Workers feel betrayed by their employers.
This is why burnout hits when work fails to live up to our expectations of it. Many of us were raised on the mantra: “It’s not work if you love what you do,” and so we want to believe that our jobs can not only provide financial stability, but also emotional and spiritual nourishment. Not all work is a calling, but the journey toward finding the right job can be likened to a pilgrimage. In a time of increasing secularism, work remains our steadfast religion.
In Peggy Lee's 1969 anthem Is That All There Is, she sings about the end of a great romance. But she's not despairing over the extreme pain that came with losing love — rather, she's disappointed that the end of her relationship wasn't more ruinous. "I thought I'd die," she sings, "But I didn't. And when I didn't, I said to myself: Is that all there is to love?"
Lee’s disillusionment isn't just about mourning something tangible, but is also about the loss of a fantasy — that this love was the most important thing to her being, that it was necessary for her survival. For many suffering from professional burnout, there’s a similar disillusionment. When your dream job disappears, shouldn’t you be allowed to disappear, too? Instead, not only can’t you disappear, but you're also staring at many more decades of meaningless work until you can retire. How do you cope with that? The disappointment can be staggering.
And yet, in the depths of disillusionment and burnout, there can also sometimes be a strange sense of freedom in recognizing that work might never provide the purpose and emotional sustenance you once believed it would. And that's okay. You'll survive. Collectively, we will simply need to come up with a new way of thinking about work. It turns out, work — like any relationship — isn't the be-all, end-all we’d thought it could be.
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen, who wrote a viral Buzzfeed article on burnout that garnered millions of views, agrees, and believes purpose-driven passion is a particular trap for burnout. In her book, Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, she observes, "The desire for the cool job that you're passionate about is a particularly modern and bourgeois phenomenon — and, as we'll see, a means of elevating a certain type of labor to the point of desirability that workers will tolerate all forms of exploitation for the 'honor' of performing it." Studies have also shown that "obsessive passion" can increase work conflict, which in turn increases the chance of burnout.
Connected to the "cool job" being a bourgeois preoccupation is the recognition that the omnipresence of the burnout conversation right now is due to relatively privileged workers experiencing it — including many who work in media, whose thoughts on burnout are inherently going to be more amplified. But, burnout, after all, has long been a regular feature of many low-wage, precarious jobs.
"That's the thing — when middle class people realize it, it bumps it over into a majority realization," says Petersen. "Because, ostensibly, middle class people are the largest component of the United States or of most countries. And so that bumps it over into more shared public consciousness. I mean, it kind of sucks, right? You have to wait for the people who have previously been comfortable to realize something for it to become part of a larger conversation."
Now that burnout is a well-established part of the conversation, is it time to just throw up our hands and reject any notion that we might find work we love? Not exactly. In fact, it's not that we should be seeking jobs we feel nothing for, or feel ashamed for loving our jobs — it's more that we should recognize that passion can make an already unequal relationship even more unequal. It's realizing that "passion" is irrelevant to the reciprocal obligations between employers and employees. It's acknowledging that it's okay to have a completely transactional relationship to work, especially when facing the threat of burnout.
In order to survive without a passion for labor, work itself has to be less necessary for survival. But that's hard to imagine — a world where work doesn't take center stage, where you don't mention your job within minutes of meeting someone new. The concept of a post-work world has existed for a while now, but the idea that people should care less about their jobs, let alone work less, often causes deep moral outrage. This isn't all that surprising, considering how much of our identities are defined by work. It's as if, without work anchoring all of our lives, society itself will disintegrate.
"I have internalized capitalism — which is when you really think of yourself only in terms of your ability to work," says Petersen.
She also reveals that while she’s gotten some pushback from older generations on the idea that work doesn't need to be the great, overwhelming passion of your life, not everyone feels that way: "I think some [boomers] have gotten to this point in their life where they have a midlife crisis and are radicalized, like, 'I shouldn't do this. I look back on my life, and what do I have to show? What is a career? Who did I serve with my career?'"
Throughout her book, Petersen not only surveys what burnout looks like, but lays out the ways in which it's a structural rot. If a bridge collapses, we wouldn't just tell people how to drive around it, we would demand it be repaired. In the same way, we need to repair the crumbling infrastructure of work, not get emails from HR about how to "practice self-care" and be told to take PTO without ensuring that we can realistically take time away from their jobs, or any guarantee that things will be better once we’re back from vacation.
Petersen has some ideas about what to do: "It has to be things like making emailing after hours or slacking after hours into something that you actually get a talking-to about," she says. "A negative performance review instead of something that's implicitly praised because you're working all the time."
Petersen is also in favor of a four-day workweek. "If we were actually working four days, then you would see some shifts, because people would have time for things that give them sustaining recharge every week," she continues. "This is very different from taking a week off one time."
"We're talking about really reorganizing the way work finds its place in your life," says Petersen. "We have to think about, What if work wasn't the center of our lives? How do we reorganize our entire life, our entire society, so that even if we are spending the most time doing it, that it is not the number one priority. It is not the way that we define whether we are successes and failures. It is not the primary access of our identity."
However much it feels like "everyone" is quitting their jobs, we should be wary of thinking that all, or even most people have the ability to do so. It's also unclear yet that we're seeing a major shift in power between workers and employers. The Great Resignation has likely been bolstered by stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment benefits. But most of us need jobs as a matter of financial necessity, and quitting on the spot remains only a pleasant fantasy for many, rather than a plausible reality.
Still, though, what it represents is a hopeful blip, and a reminder to employers that their futures are also precarious if they don’t take care of their workers. Perhaps it could be an inspiration toward implementing a long-term bulwark against burnout. Instead of encouraging vacations, discrete periods of rest, it’s time to enact labor protections that guarantee higher wages, that end at-will employment, that boost unemployment benefits permanently, that disentangle healthcare access from employment status. In other words, creating a world where workers who aren't being treated well, who aren't satisfied with their jobs, can simply quit without a backwards glance. Until that happens, burnout will continue to be endemic in our society, and individuals will continue to find their own solutions for how to cope.
Alexis, who identified her burnout thanks to a meme, is currently working at a different company — and that change alone has helped. "I feel phenomenal," she says. "They treat me like a person who deserves kindness and a future they want. I know it feels like a low bar, but I've been amazed at the people I've met here who feel the same way."
"Maybe burnout is what led me to a better place. But traveling through the muck to get here was about as painful as it gets," she says.
Camilla is doing better, too. "I'm happily working at a deli in a local shop," she says. "It's not what I spent thousands training for, but I'm happy doing that part-time while I write."
Alice, though, is still at her burnout job, finishing up a long-term project that could take anywhere from six months to a year. "I dream of working 30 hours max a week," she says. "I would love to take a year off. But I don't have the money."
When psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s, it was a very personal endeavor, a result of his attempt to describe what he was feeling in his own line of work. "I don't know how to have fun," he observed in a voice recording describing his symptoms. "I don't know how to be readily joyful."
He didn’t explicitly ask, “Is that all there is?” But he might as well have. After all, part of the recovery from burnout is making a promise to prioritize being joyful, in whatever ways we can. If the old career adage promised that as long as you do what you love, you'd never work a day in your life, the new one is simply: Work is just work. And life is too short and important to be wholly dedicated to it. As Peggy Lee sings: If that's all there is, then let's keep dancing.
Names have been changed to protect identity.