The End of Burnout

by Jonathan Malesic


Burnout, Malesic argues, originates in the gap between our ideals for work and the reality of the job. Burnout has three dimensions, each of which can be thought of as a spectrum.

  1. We hold on to the ideals and compromised realities for dear life. We’re thus overextended and exhausted.
  2. We’ve abandoned our ideals and submit to the compromised reality. We’ve depersonalized our coworkers and clients, and are cynical.
  3. We ignore or rebel against the reality while maintaining our ideals. We become disappointed or angry becuase our work doesn’t measure up to our expectations; we feel ineffective and worthless. We are frustrated. (This is the most common one, apparently.)

Alternatively, we can let go of both ideal and reality; the reality of work and our ideals go flying apart. And when that happens, well, that’s true burnout.

Our cultural conversation focuses almost entirely on exhaustion, and so people who are “only” overextended are likely overcounted. This is in part because exhaustion is the “noble” excess. It’s noble to work too hard! But to feel ineffective or frustrated, that’s nothing to be proud of or admit—yet it’s the most common profile.

The book contains a lot more than this, but this is my biggest takeaway. It’s a wonderful read from a former academic who was himself burned out, and wanted to understand what it means.