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'The End Of Burnout' and the changing nature of how we work

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The numbers tell the story. According to a Labor Department report released last week, 4.5 million Americans quit or changed jobs in November, and that's higher than at any other time on record. And while a lot of attention has been given to so-called knowledge workers - people leaving in search of more fulfillment or something more in line with their true desires - it turns out the biggest churn happened among restaurant and bar workers, retail workers, hospitality workers and other jobs which typically offer lower wages.

Across the country, wages are getting higher. A wave of states and cities are raising their minimum wage this year, and 44 cities will be increasing it to above $15 an hour. So that got us thinking about whether these numbers could signal changes in the way Americans at all income levels are thinking about work, about the meaning of work in our lives and about the conditions necessary for people to thrive at work.

Writer Jonathan Malesic has one idea - burnout. He is the author of a book called "The End Of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us And How To Build Better Lives." He's had a number of jobs, from parking lot attendant to sushi chef to university professor, and has thought a lot about why people leave work. I spoke with him about how these recent economic indicators could also point to a larger shift in how Americans are thinking about the meaning of their work beyond the paycheck.

JONATHAN MALESIC: Wages and benefits are, obviously, a huge part of the rewards that we get from our work. But those aren't the only rewards. A reward is not just monetary, but it's social. It's emotional. It can even be spiritual. And, you know, simply being appreciated by your co-workers, your bosses but also your customers, patients, clients, your listeners is another reward that we can derive from work. So I think that job satisfaction, in terms of rewards, needs to encompass all of those different elements.

MARTIN: Your bio says you've worked as a parking lot attendant, a sushi chef, a college professor, which you loved until you didn't. Can you just talk a little bit about what were some of the factors at play when you thought about your satisfaction with each of those roles?

MALESIC: Yeah. Well, I'll start by talking about being a parking lot attendant. So I earned my Ph.D. and did not have any luck on the academic job market, and I ended up taking a job at a parking lot directly across the street from the university where I had just earned a Ph.D. And on the face of it, that sounds like a big mismatch, someone with all this education doing a job that doesn't require a whole lot of education. I mean, a high school student could do the job with no problem, generally. But I loved it.

And the reasons I loved this job that, you know, is ordinarily - has pretty low status is that, first of all, I had this great sense of camaraderie with the other parking lot attendants. The other attendants would swing by the lot and hang out for a bit. They would cover the booth if you needed to take a break or go get a cup of coffee or something like that. And some of those people are still, you know, some of my best friends. And so like, that sense of community that - those good feelings that you get by working with people you really like is a big part of the reward of work.

I would also say that being a parking lot attendant kind of stayed out of the way of my life. It didn't dominate my life. I would clock in for my shift, do the work, clock out at the end and I wasn't exhausted. I could do all the other things that mattered to me because my job didn't dominate every aspect of my being.

MARTIN: And what about, again, the other side of it, being a professor, which you loved until you didn't? So why do you think that happened?

MALESIC: I see burnout as the result of being stretched across this gap between your ideals for work and the reality of your job. And so my ideals for being a college professor were sky-high. I imagined it as the life of the mind - you know, the tweed-wearing professor asking questions about the meaning of life. And I literally did that. I truly asked students those kinds of questions. But - and at times, the reality lived up to those ideals, but oftentimes, it didn't. You know, it's still just a job, and the students were often not as excited about these questions as I was. But in addition, you know, there are still boring meetings. There's still paperwork. And it did seem like I wasn't really doing the work that I imagined I would be doing all those years ago. And so it was a real combination of factors, both internal and external, that I think caused my burnout there.

MARTIN: We haven't talked about gender. What role do you think gender has played in all this? And is this something that we could be talking more about?

MALESIC: There's evidence that women are more likely than men to experience burnout as exhaustion, and so burnout can manifest itself a little differently in women and men. And when you look at specifically parental burnout, women experience parental burnout more often than men do. They score higher on the burnout scale. But men react to parental stress much worse. There's greater risk of men being neglectful towards their children or having sort of escape fantasies. So those things show that, you know, we need to think about burnout between men and women a little differently.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, obviously, this is a big topic, which is why you wrote a whole book about it. But how can we start talking about this? Or is this just something that people have to tackle in their workplace?

MALESIC: Well, I think that one of the reasons that burnout remains so prevalent and such a stubborn problem is that we think of it as just an individual problem, but burnout is the result of conditions in workplaces, workplace culture. And it's a result of society and the view that we have of how work plays a role in being a good citizen, being a good person and so on. And so the way to beat what I call burnout culture is precisely to have these conversations, to talk with coworkers about the problems that you're having the - at work, the ideals that you brought to work to begin with and the way those ideals are not being fulfilled. And my hope is that we can start talking about how we might think about work differently on a cultural and societal scale.

MARTIN: Jonathan Malesic is a teacher and a writer. He's the author of the book "The End Of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us And How To Build Better Lives," and we reached him in Dallas. Jonathan Malesic, thanks so much for talking with me.

MALESIC: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.