Is it really possible to bring an end to the burnout culture? How did we end up in this fix anyway? And is there a better way to build our lives and our relationship to work? These are the questions that Jonathan Malesic seeks to answer in his book, The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.
I chanced upon this book when I was doing my research about teacher burnout. There are many things that I resonated with the author, who went through a hallowing burnout experience while working at his dream job of being a tenured professor. Like the author, I once dreamt of working as an academic, teaching bright-minded students and engaging in intellectually stimulating discussions. Reading about his burnout experience helps me realize that I too may end up disillusioned like him.
So I decided to dig deeper and examine some of the insights he has to share.
The End of Burnout summary
What is burnout?
Malesic defines burnout as “the experience of being pulled between expectation and reality at work”. He uses a metaphor of someone walking on stilts. One stilt is our ideals for work, and the other stilt is the reality of our jobs. And these two stilts are falling away from each other.
Malesic believes that it is important to define burnout clearly. In his chapter, ‘Everyone is burned out, but no one knows what that means’, Malesic found that, because researchers rely on different definitions and measures for burnout, they produced very different results.
Malesic grounds much of his research about burnout on the work of Christina Maslach. Maslach created the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the most widely used instrument for measuring job burnout. The MBI assesses burnout as a continuum on 3 different dimensions:
- Emotional Exhaustion (or Exhaustion),
- Depersonalization (or Cynicism), and
- Reduced Personal Accomplishment (or reduced Professional Efficacy)
We often think of burnout as exhaustion, but a medical worker who treats his patient in a depersonalized manner, and a teacher who feels incompetent in her job, could also be showing signs of burnout.
Thinking of Burnout as a Spectrum and not just in binary terms
Many studies tend to present burnout in binary terms. You are either ‘burned out’ or ‘engaged’, ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. But in Maslach’s MBI, there is a spectrum to burnout. Depending on the extent we are affected by each of the 3 dimensions of burnout (exhaustion, depersonalization, reduced personal accomplishment), the experience of our burnout will be different. One may fall in and out of the spectrum at different times.
In his chapter, ‘The Burnout Spectrum’, Malesic discusses these 5 different profiles of burnout, but adds his own spin:
- No burnout: close alignment between ideal and reality. Holding both stilts and walk without struggle.
- Overextended: dominated by exhaustion, clinging on to work ideals in spite of contrary reality
- Cynical: abandoning our ideals and submitting to that compromised reality. Treating others as less than complete human beings.
- Frustrated: ignoring or rebelling against the reality while maintaining our ideals. Feeling ineffective and worthless.
- Burned out: letting go of both ideal and reality. Feeling used up and empty.
When we know which profile we are in, we can identify the right treatment to help us in our recovery. For example, if the worker is overextended, then the employer can reduce their workload and spare them from further strain. If the worker is feeling frustrated and ineffective, then managing the complexity of their work or providing better training could lift them up from the mire.
Why is the burnout culture so prevalent today?
Malesic argues that the burnout culture is deeply rooted in our belief that work is “a means not just to a paycheck but to dignity, character, and a sense of purpose”. Burnout culture has persisted because we cherish these ideals about work. We fear losing the meaning that work promises.
Malesic also shared his own experiences. As a burned-out tenured college professor, Malesic could testify that it isn’t only about poor conditions of employment. It isn’t something we can eradicate just with better pay, benefits, and security across the board. Working conditions only tell half the story.
Rather, Malesic believes that burnout is really ‘an ailment of the soul’.
“We burn out in large part because we believe work is the sure path to social, moral, and spiritual flourishing. Work simply can’t deliver what we want from it, and the gap between our ideals and our on-the-job reality leads us to exhaustion, cynicism, and despair.”– Jonathan Malesic
The aim of the book
Malesic’s book aims to “help our culture recognize that work doesn’t dignify us or form our character or give our lives purpose. We dignify work, we shape its character, and we give it purpose within our lives.”
We dignify work, we shape its character, and we give it purpose within our lives.– Jonathan Malesic
Once we realize this, Malesic believes, we can devote less of ourselves to our jobs, improve our work conditions, and value those of us who do not work for pay. Together, we can end burnout culture and flourish in ways that do not depend on work.
Additionally, our individualistic approach to work keeps us from talking about burnout or uniting in solidarity to improve our conditions. We blame ourselves when work doesn’t live up to our expectations.
That’s why Malesic believes that the cure to burnout has to be cultural and collective. We have to offer each other the compassion and respect that our work does not.
My Key Takeaways
Malesic’s book is divided into two parts: ‘Burnout Culture’ and ‘Counterculture’. In this review, I will focus primarily on the first part. The second part contains many examples of how certain groups and organizations (such as a Benedictine monk community) conduct their work in a way that demonstrates Malesic’s vision. However, these groups are peripheral and few. I find these examples inspirational, but we will have to create communities that model these ideals where we are.
Let me first share what I like about the book.
1. Shares personal experience
As mentioned earlier, the author draws on his own personal experience of burnout. It communicates to the reader, “I know – I’ve been there.”
When he was young, Malesic idealized the professor’s life, sitting around with bright-minded students, engaging in intellectually stimulating discussions, doing meaningful research. But after decades of hard work and finally reaching his goals, Malesic was disillusioned by reality.
Students plagiarized their essays. Classroom discussions were flat and, instead of eager eyes, he got blank stares. Until he could not drag himself into the classroom anymore. No amount of self-care, retreats or sabbatical can heal his burnout soul.
As a fellow educator, I can relate to this very much. I can also relate to his background in theology and spirituality. Although by God’s grace I had not crossed the point of total burnt out, I was pretty close back in 2020.
Some of the insights he gained through his burnout experience are very helpful to me. For example, learning to let go of my work perfectionism, and acknowledge my own limitations. I also learn about the dangers of identifying myself too closely with my work and performance.
2. Thorough analysis of the causes and ‘history’ of burnout
At this time of writing, burnout has become a buzzword. Yet everyone has different ideas of what it really meant. If we use burnout as synonyms with exhausted, drained, or disillusioned, we miss the nuances that each person’s burnout experience may feel like.
Reading about this causes me to wonder if I had been careless in the way I referred to burnout in my earlier articles. Is every downtime in my career considered a burnout episode? What if, by over-emphasizing the experience, I end up trivializing it?
Malesic was also very meticulous in chronicling the ‘history’ of burnout. His chapter on ‘Burnout: The First 2000 Years’ is certainly one of the most thorough treatments of how our understanding of burnout has evolved over the millennia. While burnout is a new word in the last 50 years, the experience has been described in various terms throughout history: melancholia, acedia, and neurasthenia. But it has now marked our entire generation due to technology and our ever-increasing work demands.
What could be improved:
1. The author makes rather sweeping generalizations about Calvinism and the Protestant work ethic.
On Work Saints and Work Martyrs
Malesic asserted that John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination (the unconditional election of some to be saved) indirectly led to the anxiety of the modern worker. While good works, in Calvinist theology, cannot earn you salvation, they can be signs of election. To know whether you are elected or not, you need to examine your works or actions: does it contribute to a prosperous society? Since God also ordains people to different “callings” to carry out His will for humanity, being productive in your calling is one way of making sure of your election.
How is this related to burnout? Well, Malesic claims that it makes us anxious to demonstrate to our potential employers, and to ourselves, that we are some kind of ‘work saints‘. ‘Like divine election, this type of status is an abstract condition that we cannot assign to ourselves, but we hope others will recognize we have it and thereby keep us employed.’
This anxiety towards work also leads to what Malesic coined as ‘work martyrdom’. A work martyr is one who maximizes productivity without regard for the self. His prime example was Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915), the African-American leader who advocated that only hard work can alleviate the poor conditions of his oppressed community. While the idea that ‘hard work will always earn its proper reward’ is noble, Washington taught it to students whose society was never going to honor that promise.
Wait, was it Calvin’s fault?
Was it really John Calvin’s theology of work that elevated work and contributed to the burnout culture? I have my doubts about the statement. Malesic was rather dismissive in his treatment of the subject, and did not show sufficient engagement with Calvin’s theology of work. He sums up his claims in the introduction,
“The Protestant ethic that we carried into the postindustrial era helped create the vast wealth of the countries that are today most concerned about burnout. But it also valorized a destructive ideal of working to the point of martyrdom. To overcome burnout, we have to get rid of that ideal and create a new shared vision of how work fits into a life well lived. That vision will replace the work ethic’s old, discredited promise.”Jonathan Malesic
Wow, harsh statement. As an Asian and a Christian with a Calvinistic bent, I have to disagree on a few counts.
Firstly, the countries most concerned about burnout are not only in the postindustrial West. China, Japan and Singapore, among other Asian countries, are also affected. One can also blame the Confucian ideals for the phenomena, but what benefit is that?
Secondly, people looking to ‘prove themselves’ through their work and productivity simply do not understand the doctrine of grace. it is really our fallen human nature that seeks to justify ourselves, to prove our worth through the work we do. Not Calvinism.
2. Malesic’s solution falls short in ‘canceling’ the burnout culture
So, after all that is said about ‘why work drains us out’ (which he did very well), what is Malesic’s final recommendation to help us ‘build better lives’, as his subtitle suggests? I think here is where Malesic falls short.
A new premise
His attempt starts off well, though. To build a new model of the good life, Malesic argues, we first need to dig a deeper foundation. One that challenges the basic premise that work is the source of dignity. Because, ‘In a society that views work as the means to prove their value, they’re going to work harder, exposing themselves to the physical and psychological risks of labor, including burnout.’
Instead, Malesic advocated for the concept of dignity by pointing us to a document titled Rerum Novarum, published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Leo’s point is that the dignity of the person – not the dignity of work – is the highest principle when it comes to labor.
90 years after Rerum Novarum, John Paul I wrote Laborem Exercens, in which he affirmed that work only has dignity because human beings do. Because every person is a creature made in the image of God, ‘the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.’ Work doesn’t dignify us; we dignify work.
Why the premise fails
I do agree 100% with this premise – that work only has dignity because people do. But, true as it is and noble as it sounds, believing in this notion does little to change the world that challenges it. As Malesic himself admitted, ‘A workplace organized around Leo’s principles is nearly unimaginable to twenty-first-century Americans. It would be one where employers took the flourishing of their workers as seriously as they take their profits.’ One might add twenty-first-century Asians, which represented 60% of the global workforce.
Given such a behemoth barrier of resistance, Malesic’s manifesto comes across as rather naive:
“We will realize this vision in community and preserve it through common disciplines that keep work in its place. The vision, assembled from new and old ideas alike, will be the basis of a new culture, one that leaves burnout behind. It will make dignity universal, not contingent on paid labor. It will put compassion for self and others ahead of productivity. And it will affirm that we find our highest purpose in leisure, not work.”Jonathan Malesic
When we see each person having inherent dignity, Malesic reasons, we can argue for better working conditions. With that, “[e]thically better work will cascade from that single source and extinguish burnout.”
Will enough people believe in this vision enough to change the working conditions and economic structure that has emerged from decades of post-industrialization? And can this vision sustain itself? Or will it collapse from the gap between the stilts of ideal versus reality – the same metaphor that Malesic uses to describe burnout?
I wish it works. But I doubt it will. The reason is that we live in a sin-filled world that undermines the good we try to push through. Every good intention and every good idea stands a chance of being corrupted or co-opted into the fallen mechanization of the world we live in. This ultimate utopia – of human dignity and leisure above work – can only be realized when Christ returns to restore the world. We catch glimpses of its beauty and goodness in our Sabbath rests, during which our approach to work and labor is renewed from the lenses of the cross. But to expect it to be fully realized in this world is not realistic.
The subtitle for Jonathan Malesic’s book is ‘Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives’. In my opinion, Malesic has done an excellent job of explaining the first part. The definition, causes, and history of burnout were well documented and analyzed. The second part is less effective. Although Malesic painted a magnificent vision of how that ‘better life’ could look like – human dignity comes before work, minimum living wages, replacing a total work mentality with leisure – it seems to me too idealistic to be fitted for this side of heaven.
I would recommend this book to those who are thinking about the problem of burnout. If you hold a supervisory position, or are in a position of influence, reading this book can increase your empathy for your workers who deserve dignity simply for being human. Even if you cannot change the culture of the world or the city you are in, you can start with the organization or the department you are in charge of.
If you are a worker who is experiencing some form of burnout (exhaustion, cynicism and/or frustration), reading this book will help you be aware of how your beliefs about work may have contributed to it. Do you see work as your source of significance? Are you working to prove your worth? That could be a recipe for burnout, as Malesic has argued in his book. Or, if you find your relationship with your current work so toxic that you cannot bear to live through another day, maybe reading Malesic’s experience may give you the courage to change to a more suitable job.
Whatever shortcomings the book may otherwise have (and these are few and far between), I have certainly learned much from it. It has provoked my thinking about burnout in ways I have not thought of before. I heartily recommend it for your benefit as well.
Hope you have enjoyed this review! You may also want to check out my other reviews of resources that help you to live your calling, and improve your work-life balance and mental health.
- Book Review: ‘The Voice of Jesus’ by Gordon Smith
- Book Review: “What’s Best Next” by Matt Perman
- Book Review: Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”
- Book Review: ‘Love Your Work’ by Robert Dickie
- Book Review: ‘Master of One’ by Jordan Raynor
Other than books, I also review the following websites and podcasts: