DUCKWORTH: God, there’s so many basketball games. Why do they play so many games?
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: are you experiencing burnout?
DUCKWORTH: You are working yourself to the bone. You can’t give any more than you’re giving, and yet there’s no return on investment.
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DUCKWORTH: Mike, I’m going to read you a question from a listener with the beautiful name of Winter, who raises a question that I think quite literally every one of us has asked in some way or another. She says, “How do you avoid overworking yourself? I’d like to be more productive and hardworking, but after having been a physician for 10 years, I have often felt exhausted and frustrated. I’ve even taken some time off work, fearing I might be getting burnt out. But doing nothing made me feel guilty and unhappy, instead of making me feel relaxed and well. Even though I’d love to be as hardworking as Angela, I don’t know how to do it without feeling overworked and fed up. Can you help me find an answer? Thank you and best wishes, Winter.”
DUCKWORTH: I know, right? Beautiful name, beautiful letter.
MAUGHAN: Right. And a great question. Really interesting. What I think is partly interesting for me — it sounds like Winter is in the medical field. And I, I wonder — I think, first of all, burnout is something people experience across the board. I also think that people who have sort of this mission-driven life where it’s, “my work saves lives,” or “I’m a caregiver,” or “I’m in a role like that.”
DUCKWORTH: It’s, like, something selfless, right? Like, “I’m a teacher,” “I’m a counselor,” “I’m a physician,” “I’m a nurse.”
MAUGHAN: Right, there’s almost this even greater moral obligation. She said when she took time off that she felt guilt. And I think that someone who’s selling golf balls probably doesn’t feel the same level of, of guilt. They may feel the same level of burnout, but I wonder if there’s an even greater compounding effect when your job is like a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a caregiver.
DUCKWORTH: I think you’re exactly right to sort of hone in on that little detail in Winter’s note. And, indeed, if you look at the research on burnout, this term “burnout” really didn’t exist, for example, when my dad was starting out in his career, or my mother was starting out as an artist. But we have this term now, and there is a scientific literature, and it very much began with people who were in caregiving professions, including, and most notably, teaching and medicine.
MAUGHAN: I do want to be clear — obviously, like, I’m in tech and sports, and burnout is very real. No matter where you are — I’m sure you see it also in academia.
DUCKWORTH: People talk about it. Are they talking about it in, like, start-up world?
MAUGHAN: Oh, all the time. I mean, it’s really hard to build a company. Right? I, I mean, I — I think I’ve probably said before: the amount of blood, sweat, and literal tears is real.
DUCKWORTH: Hopefully literal sweat, but not literal blood.
MAUGHAN: I am certain that I have bled in various environments.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, maybe literal blood, too.
MAUGHAN: But, no, look, I just want to be clear: burnout is everywhere, and I think everybody experiences it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so, maybe for Winter — and also for you, Mike — it would be useful to go through the Maslach Burnout Inventory — the M.B.I., as it’s sometimes called — and this is the most widely-used measure of burnout in academic research. And it’s named after Christina Maslach, who is now emeritus, but she has long been a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
MAUGHAN: I’ve actually read some of her stuff, and tell me if I’m wrong, but I think she is married to the famous — or infamous, however you want to talk about it — Philip Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I believe that is true. So, they are a power couple, so to speak. And Phil Zimbardo is a whole other conversation. But yes, and I — I want to say, I don’t know Christina directly. But, you know, she really is the person who created the field. And I think we should administer her measure. So Mike, before we get started, let me say that the scale has 16 questions, but instead of, like, one global burnout score, you really look at your three subscores: one for “exhaustion,” one for “cynicism,” and one for “professional efficacy,” or the lack thereof. Um, and I’m not going to read you all 16, because you might be burned out by the end. But let me read you a couple of items. So, on a scale from “never” to “every day,” you know, just tell me how frequently the following statements apply to you. Are you — are you ready?
MAUGHAN: I am ready to go.
DUCKWORTH: All right. Okay. Here are two items from the exhaustion subscale. So, “I feel used up at the end of the workday.” How frequently is that true?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I — I work at a tech job all day, I do a lot of sports stuff. But then, especially during the season, we’re hosting at Jazz games. So, I’m hosting whoever —.
DUCKWORTH: Right, when the Utah Jazz are —. God, there’s so many basketball games. Why do they play so many games?
MAUGHAN: But I’m just saying — so, by the time the game finishes, not only am I a fan of the sport, and the team, and am heavily invested in how they do, I’m also usually hosting someone who is, I don’t know, a celebrity, a business executive, whomever. So, you’re “on” the whole time. So, all day, into the night. Then, I’ve got to drive home 45 minutes. And I’m usually pretty amped up by the game itself, so it takes me an hour or two to, like, settle down. So, I feel very used up. That doesn’t mean I’m not full of energy the next morning and back at work at 8 a.m., but I do feel used up when you’re on for that long and that continually. Of course.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Alright, so here’s your, um, second example item from the exhaustion subscale. “I feel tired when I have to get up in the morning and face another day on the job.”
MAUGHAN: I do — I do wake up tired often.
DUCKWORTH: Would you say, like, a few times a week, or once a week?
MAUGHAN: Oh, most of the time I wake up tired.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Well, Mike, you’re getting a pretty high score on exhaustion. But let me read you from the next subscale on the M.B.I., and that’s called “cynicism.” I think you’ll get the spirit of it when I read you this item. So, how frequently is this true? “I’ve become less interested in my work since I started this job.”
MAUGHAN: Oh, I think that’s not true.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. So, very rarely?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, I have a fascinating job, and I feel very grateful that every day is different, unique, interesting.
DUCKWORTH: And then here’s one more on cynicism. “I doubt the significance of my work.”
MAUGHAN: I do not. Thankfully, I’m in a job where there is high value to what we do, and a lot of people care, whether it’s on the charitable side, on the sports side. Even when you brought up cynicism, I immediately thought of Conan O’Brien and his last day on The Tonight Show, when he’s getting fired. It’s very public. It’s a tough situation, and I love that he says — he’s like, “Here’s my advice to young people.” And he says, “Don’t be cynical. It’s my least favorite characteristic.” And when you brought it up I had this visceral reaction, because I just think cynicism is so dangerous. And I think, if you don’t believe in what you do and don’t have connection to the people that you’re working with, I think that leads to burnout so much faster, because you don’t care, and you don’t see value to what you do. And burnout’s not just about how much time you spend at the office — how much you work — it’s about how you feel about it, and who you do it with. Because, I will say there are various points when I’ve felt incredibly exhausted, because we’re doing amazing things, we’re working something really hard, something really big. I am not satisfied with my job. My balance is way out of whack. But, like, it’s not like I’m —.
DUCKWORTH: But you feel engaged. And that’s — it sounds like it’s more important to you.
MAUGHAN: Because there’s meaning to what I’m doing. And, frankly, anything worth doing is going to be hard. You know, when you’re hiking a big mountain, or finishing a marathon, or something, it’s not like you’re suddenly like, “Wow, I feel so happy on mile 24!” Because you don’t. You feel terrible. You feel like you want to quit. Every muscle aches. But, you feel so engaged and satisfied, because you’re accomplishing a really hard goal.
DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know Conan O’Brien, but I did walk by his podcast recording studio once.
MAUGHAN: Did you really?
DUCKWORTH: I did. And I was like, “Oh my God, it’s Conan O’Brien!” He was so freaking nice.
MAUGHAN: He’s also a Harvard alum with you.
DUCKWORTH: I did not name drop Harvard. I did not also say that I have, like, minorly Google stalked him and read letters, like, he wrote to E.B. White when he was very young. I guess he must have been a teenager. And I think E.B. White wrote back, and he framed it — you know, E.B. White, like the author of Charlotte’s Web.
MAUGHAN: Right, with one of the greatest lines ever in literature that I am not going to nail right now, but —.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, you mean the last paragraph of Charlotte’s Web? Oh my gosh, let’s not bastardize it. I’m going to look it up. I used to have it committed to memory, but here it is: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That is the world’s best line, and I don’t know whether that’s why Conan O’Brien wrote to E.B. White. And, you know, I don’t know Conan O’Brien, but I will say, when you talk about his last day and sort of “being fired,” quote-unquote. And I guess now he’s having great success with his podcast and so forth — like, you have to believe that if he were answering these items, that he might agree with you that sometimes you’re, like, actually exhausted in what you’re doing, you feel sort of used up, but it’s quite a different thing to be cynical about your work, to feel like you’re not interested in it, and that you doubt its significance. And it sounds to me like you’re saying, Mike, if you had to choose, you would be happier being like you are, I guess, sometimes exhausted, but almost never cynical.
MAUGHAN: Right. I mean, I think that when you have something that you can fight toward, then you are much less likely to feel burnout.
DUCKWORTH: So, let me give you the last subscale. Let’s go to the professional efficacy subscale. Sometimes this is called “self-efficacy,” but let me read you the items. You’ll get the gist. How frequently is this true, Mike? “I feel I’m making an effective contribution to what this organization does.”
MAUGHAN: The vast majority of the time.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, and here’s another one: “I feel exhilarated when I accomplish something at work.”
MAUGHAN: Gosh, “exhilarating” is such a fascinating word choice here. That’s, like, such a high bar.
DUCKWORTH: I know. It’s — it’s a little extreme.
MAUGHAN: “Do I feel satisfied?” No. “Do you feel exhilarated?” Yes.
DUCKWORTH: Reading it to you verbatim. It’s item 11.
MAUGHAN: I mean, I think often. I’ll say often, because some of the things I work on are so big and fun, and when you mess up though, it’s a very public mess up, too.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Okay. So, first of all, these are both reverse-scored items meaning, obviously, the more you feel exhilarated and effective, the less you are burned out and, in particular, you know, the less you have a problem with efficacy or confidence, right? Like, that you’re actually making progress. And in a way, I think this is the most interesting of the three subscales that you answered, because we talked about how exhaustion and cynicism aren’t the same thing. One is, like, how you feel, maybe physically — as well as, to some extent, emotionally, but certainly physically. Cynicism is kind of the opposite of engagement — the opposite of feeling like, “I am all in on this.” And then this last subscale, to me, in a way is one of the reasons why burnout even is the emotional state that it is — like, feeling like you’re not getting anywhere. You know, like, not feeling like you’re making an effective contribution, not feeling like you’re accomplishing things at work. So, I am not Christina Maslach. I am not the world expert on burnout. But when I first started learning about it, and I was thinking about times that I’ve been burned out. So, I think, you know, as we have shared over some tearful dinners, Mike, last year was, like, the low point of my professional career in terms of — I guess nothing that you would see on my C.V., but just — I was feeling burned out. I was feeling extremely low efficacy. I mean, like, I was like, “Am I making an effective contribution?” No. “Have I accomplished anything that would even begin to look like exhilaration?” Like, absolutely not. I was working on a book that was going so badly. I think that drove me to feel used up at the end of the workday. It drove me to feel tired when I got up in the morning. And, in a way, I feel like it was the cause of starting to feel less interested in the book I was writing and to doubt the significance. I think there’s something for many people that — you know, if you think about Winter’s email, right, like, there’s this feeling of being on a treadmill, like you keep running harder, but you’re not getting anywhere.
MAUGHAN: I mean, look, we so often mistake being busy for being productive. And just running does not necessarily get you anywhere, right? The other thing that I thought of as you were talking about your book, though, and your work — there was this psychologist in New York in the early 1970s named Herbert Freudenberger. And he — he worked all of these shifts — 10 hours a day — at a private practice, and then he would go down to a free clinic where he would work and, you know, eventually broke down because he was working so much. And in the 1980s, he wrote a book called Burnout: The High Cost of Achievement, and had also written this paper titled “Staff Burn-Out.” And it was so interesting. He just posed the question: “Who is prone to burnout?” And then has this very unambiguous answer: “the dedicated and the committed.” I thought that was such an interesting framing, because if I think of someone who’s dedicated and committed, Angela Duckworth is dedicated and committed to excellence. You’re going to write this book, you’re going to do it well. And people who maybe don’t care as much are obviously less likely to burn out, because as we’ve talked about, so much of it is that you care so much that you maybe push yourself past the limit?
DUCKWORTH: I could not agree more. I mean, come on, if you’re a total slacker, you’re not going to be burned out, because you’re not working hard enough to be burned out. You’re not caring enough to be burned out. You’re not running on the treadmill really hard. You’re, like, leisurely strolling on the treadmill. I mean, you know, again, if you, like, think about the questions that you just answered, like “not feeling like you’re making an effective contribution, not feeling like you’re accomplishing anything.” Well, if you’re not trying to make an effective contribution, and you’re not even trying to accomplish anything, well, that’s one way to avoid burnout. Not one that we would recommend. And, you know, when you have this phrase, like, confusing being busy with being productive — I mean, when I think of burnout, I think it’s being busy and not feeling like you’re productive. It’s the feeling that you are working yourself to the bone. You can’t give any more than you’re giving, and yet there’s no return on investment. But I think that does lead to this disengagement. It leads to this kind of, like, “What’s the point of this, you know, fill in the blank” — for me, the book. “What’s the point of this stupid-ass sabbatical that I decided to take at great expense and complexity?” And then, that leads, in turn, to exhaustion. So, feelings of burnout can come from thoughts of, “I’m not getting anywhere,” and “This task that maybe once held meaning for me no longer does.” And I think we would like to hear, Mike, from our No Stupid Questions listeners. Have you experienced burnout? How did you deal with it? What was helpful, and what was hurtful in your particular situation? Send us a voice memo with your story, and please make sure to record in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone. Email us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com. We’d love to play your story on a future episode of the show.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela discuss the culture of quiet quitting.
MAUGHAN: I’m going to just get by. You’re not even going to notice. I’m going to do the bare minimum, because work is not my life.
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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about burnout.
MAUGHAN: Now what’s interesting, going back to Maslach and others, I think that if you are a caregiver, or again, doctor, nurse, teacher, et cetera, then it’s challenging, because my work matters so much, and you’re exhausted, that eventually you wear yourself out. I was reading something about Maslach who talked about this idea of “detached concern,” and talked about, you know, some poverty lawyers, for example, got so burned out that they lost the feeling of any human connection to their clients. It takes such an element of care, that eventually you just stop caring. But interestingly, I spent a summer down in Ghana many years ago, working with the Jimmy Carter Foundation on the extraction of Guinea worms.
DUCKWORTH: And, if I recall correctly, I think you told me that was the most meaningful chapter in your professional life.
MAUGHAN: It was a deeply meaningful chapter. So, Guinea worm is a parasitic disease that affects many poor communities in remote parts of Africa and has been mostly eradicated from the world. And while we were there the entire Ghanaian medical system shut down, because people went on a strike. So, we took all these patients. We finally found a doctor to treat them. We get into the operating room, and he made me glove up. I’m a college student. And he said, “There are no nurses. There’s nobody available. You’re paying me on the private market. I will help these people who are in desperate need, but I’ve got nobody to help me.” And I can’t usually stand the sight of blood. But what you realize in that moment is: you can do anything if you need to. I’m talking to my brother about it later, who is a neurosurgeon, and I said to Peter — I’m describing how this doctor acted with what I now have the language for — “detached concern” — for these patients. And my brother said, “Mike, as a doctor, you have to develop a very high tolerance for other people’s pain.” Don’t get me wrong, there is deep concern. But you can’t take everyone’s problems as your own, or you can’t continue to function.
DUCKWORTH: I think, you know, when physicians say that, you know, you can’t be, like, fully empathic with your patient who’s crying because she just got a diagnosis of breast cancer, right? Like, you have to have some remove. There has to be some quote-unquote “depersonalization,” because otherwise you’re just, like, not helpful. Like, somebody has to not be fully consumed by the emotions of the moment. I’m very glad, by the way, when I go to my doctor, or my therapist, and I am emotional about this, that, or the other and they are not. You know, like, they have the ballast, emotionally, in the conversation that we’re having.
MAUGHAN: They give perspective, right? And there’s been research that — that I remember vaguely from grad school, so forgive me that it was in a class, and I can’t pinpoint it.
DUCKWORTH: From your M.B.A.?
MAUGHAN: I think it was during policy school — but where we talked about venting, oddly enough, and the idea was that you should not vent to people within your workplace, because they can’t give you perspective. So, if you have to vent, pick someone who is outside of your quote-unquote “circle,” because, otherwise, you don’t ever get the perspective that comes with it. And so, this detached concern, I think, often can lead to perspective. Is that fair?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and, you know, there is a researcher that I like a lot named Ethan Kross at University of Michigan. And he studies emotion and emotion regulation. And he’s always beating the drum that in most cases that kind of emotional venting that you might imagine could be helpful, like, cathartic, actually is not. When you do that, the person who’s venting with you — who’s, like, “co-venting” — they tend to just, like, pile on. They’re like, “Oh my gosh. Totally, I agree.” And what happens is that the two of you might get, like, less perspective, because you’re just getting deeper into the emotions of it.
MAUGHAN: Right. That just becomes a spiraling, negative, terrible conversation.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, if venting is not the solution to burnout, then what is? And I, I wonder what you think because, you know, I read papers about burnout, but you actually work in an organization where people may or may not be experiencing different levels of burnout. So, what are your intuitions about this?
MAUGHAN: So, I think, as I go into this and answer your question, one thing I want to bring up though is this idea of “quiet quitting.” Because, I think, if people don’t have the resources to know how to deal with burnout, what they’re doing is — and this is kind of a new cultural phenomenon, but this idea of quiet quitting talks about when, you know, unmotivated, disinterested, checked out employees, they’re just trying to do the bare minimum so that nobody even notices that they are not quite engaged anymore, right? That’s different than a group of people, by the way, who are kind of — and I’m sure you’ve heard this — remote workers who are taking two full-time jobs, being paid by two people — doing two jobs, but at the bare minimum.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait. What? First, never assume I’ve heard of anything, because usually I haven’t. People are taking two full-time jobs, working remotely, getting paid for both, and not telling the employers?
MAUGHAN: Yes, because they’re like, “Well, gosh, they only care about productivity. I’m going to do the bare minimum. I’m going to, you know, work five hours a day at this job and four hours a day at that job, and I can toggle back and forth between.”
DUCKWORTH: I’m blanching, Mike. I am blanching!
MAUGHAN: It’s insanely unethical.
DUCKWORTH: So, it’s quiet quitting slash double dipping.
MAUGHAN: Well, that’s what I’m saying — I think they’re very different. But I think that people are responding in a certain way, which is, “I don’t care enough to fully engage.” So, either — some people respond by quiet quitting, which is, “I’m going to just get by. You’re not even going to notice. I’m going to do the bare minimum, because work is not my life.” Then there are others who are just trying to hack the system in an unethical way and take two jobs.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that is different. The quiet quitting sounds to me like somewhere on the continuum of burnout, actually, right?
MAUGHAN: I believe that. And so, there was actually a recent Gallup 2023 poll, this big thing they do every year, the State of the Global Workforce. And they saw that 59 percent of the “world’s employees,” they say, are engaged in quiet quitting. Fifty-nine percent say they are engaged in quiet quitting. Eighteen percent say they are “loud quitting.” Loud quitting they define as: “taking actions that directly harm the organization, undercut its goals, and oppose its leaders.”
DUCKWORTH: Okay, wait, I’m doing the math: 59 and 18. That’s 77 percent. Wait, 77 percent of the global workforce is either quietly quitting or directly sabotaging their work? Whoa!
MAUGHAN: Yes. Per the Gallup State of the Global Workplace Survey. Twenty-three percent — the remainder — are thriving at work.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, 23 percent are upstanding work citizens trying to just get stuff done in a reasonably productive way and haven’t yet experienced this mild version of burnout — if we’re right that that’s what quiet quitting is. So, is this a Covid-19-related phenomenon, quiet quitting? Or have people talked about quiet quitting for decades, and I just didn’t know about it?
MAUGHAN: No, I think it’s something that’s come up post-Covid, or during Covid. And I think, you know, the takeaway for leaders from this Gallup report is that, “Employee engagement,” they say, “does not mean happiness.” And: “Your quiet quitting employees are your organization’s low hanging fruit for productivity gains.” The question that you’re asking, though, is: “So what do we do?” Right? And how do you not only avoid burnout, but then also re-engage these people in a way that is meaningful to their contribution to the company? I’m super interested to hear what the research says, but my guess would be, based on what you’ve shared from Maslach, that you need, above all, I would probably guess, to feel, “My work matters, and what I do is important — that my actual action has an impact on the company.” If you’re just a very small cog in a very big machine, it’s easy to feel like, “Well, nobody even notices if I’m here or not,” which is why quiet quitting is possible, right? Because if nobody notices, then why am I going to put in all this effort if it doesn’t lead to anything?
DUCKWORTH: Do you think, then, if you’re experiencing something on the continuum of extreme burnout to quiet quitting, would you say that the answer is therapy? Like, is the answer self-compassion, which we talked about recently? Or, is it that you should do something at the workplace level, at the organizational level?
MAUGHAN: My intuition is at the workplace level and, frankly, probably at the manager level. The employee has to have a relationship with their manager, and their manager and organization need to communicate in such a way that what you do has an impact on this company. It’s interesting: there was a Gallup survey where they surveyed 7,500 employees to look at the main causes of burnout. And what they found is that it was much more about how someone is managed than what they’re doing. Because a lot of people think there’s this dichotomy where they don’t want employees to be burned out, but they also need to inspire this high productivity and performance. And really, the five reasons Gallup found that people experience burnout is: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from a manager, and unreasonable time pressure. So, it’s about, I think, how you’re managed, who you’re with — all those things we just talked about — have a much bigger impact than sort of the, you know, how much you work, itself.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you have basically read Christina Maslach’s mind. So, I’m going to quote from her paper, because it’s, I think, a surprising answer. It sounds like it’s obvious, perhaps, to you, as somebody who’s managed people and tried to do it well. And it’s maybe obvious to her. But when I talk to people about burnout, they’re like, “Okay, so what does a person need to do to deal with their burnout?” What does Winter need to do? Like, “Winter needs to go to therapy. Winter needs to get an executive coach. Winter needs to practice mindfulness.”
MAUGHAN: It’s so interesting: do you put the onus on the individual or the organization? And, and I would guess there’s — a burden should be placed on both, right?
DUCKWORTH: We’re “both-and” people, Mike. Like, we are so “both-and” people. But let me say that in the abstract of this paper that Christina Maslach wrote relatively recently — it’s 2017 — she says, “There’s a bias toward fixing people rather than fixing the job situation. However, current research has argued that newer models of job-person fit will lead to better definitions of healthy workplaces and to better strategies of social change processes.” She identifies six elements of the healthy workplace, and they overlap really well with what you just rattled off, but I will read you what she highlights as “features of a healthy workplace.” The article says: you know, “The six positive ‘fits’ that promote engagement and well-being can be defined as: (A) a sustainable workload; (B) choice and control; (C) recognition and reward; (D) a supportive work community; (E) fairness, respect, and social justice; and (F) clear values and meaningful work.” And in this article, by the way, her number one principle, when you’re applying this, is that prevention is better than treatment.
MAUGHAN: When is it not actually?
DUCKWORTH: I know, right? Good rule for life. And she absolutely thinks organizational intervention is better than individual intervention. And, I think that’s a good thing for Winter to hear, because you’re right that when people go into a selfless profession, like medicine, or teaching, or counseling — fill in the blank, “I’m helping the world, and I’m helping other people” — I think those are exactly the people who are like, “Oh, what should I be doing differently? What should I be doing better? How have I failed?” Right?
MAUGHAN: They’re more likely to say, “I need to fix the problem,” because they are people who fix problems.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, they’re helpers! So, you know, if you’re a giver, as Winter is, then maybe you especially need to hear what Christina Maslach herself says. Maybe you’re not the problem. Maybe it’s your situation. So, Mike, as we wrap up, let me just ask you this: if you think about my story of last year, and you think about Winter’s story, have you ever experienced recovery from burnout? I guess I should say, have you ever experienced burnout? And what was the ending of that story, if — if there was a story to share?
MAUGHAN: I have definitely experienced burnout. One thing that I wish I had learned earlier was voicing my own needs, because I feel like I — especially early in my career — just sort of took it and said, like, “Oh, I guess it’s going to be this hard.” Whereas, I think if I had raised my hand — and in fact, that’s a term we’ve always used on my team. It means, “I need a pause.” And I think that’s so important, because I don’t think I had that language, or maybe the personal maturity, to say at various points, “Hey, I’m raising my hand. Hey, maybe the workload’s unmanageable. Maybe I don’t feel like I have enough choice or control. Maybe I don’t have enough support” or — you know, all the things on the list. And because I didn’t, the organization couldn’t change. So, it’s kind of this, like, “Whose responsibility is it? The individual? The organization?” As the individual — because I didn’t say anything — the organization didn’t have the feedback, and therefore didn’t change. So, I just wallowed in the mire of burnout.
DUCKWORTH: Relatedly, let’s thank Winter for raising her hand and saying this. You know, when you say, Winter, like, “I’ve often felt exhausted and frustrated. I’ve even taken some time off work fearing I might be getting burned out, but doing nothing made me feel guilty and unhappy instead of making me feel relaxed and well” — well you just raised your hand and you said that aloud, Winter, in writing to us. And me just reading that made me feel better, because I was like, “Oh my gosh, Winter, that’s exactly how I felt last year. I am not alone.” And I want to tell you, Winter, in closing this conversation, just yesterday I did this, like, word cloud for my Wharton M.B.A. Students, but also my undergraduates. And the word cloud was like, “Take out your phones, and you answer this poll: in one word, how are you feeling right now?” And, you know, every time somebody enters something, the words that are more common get bigger. And the single largest word in the word cloud, for both my M.B.A. students and my undergraduates, gave everybody, in a way, a sigh of relief. And it was this: “tired.” And when people saw that other students were also tired, they were both astonished, and they felt like, “Wow, okay. So, it’s — I’m not alone. It’s not just me.” Maybe I should, like, screenshot that and send the word cloud to the good people who run the university, because more than fixing the person when it comes to burnout, the idea is to fix the situation.
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Angela reads Mike sample questions from the Maslach Burnout Inventory — or the M.B.I — measuring exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy. She says that the survey is the most widely-used measure of burnout in academic research, but we should note that there are several versions of this questionnaire. Angela was referring to the General Survey, but the most widely-used measure is actually the Human Services version, meant for occupations like doctors, therapists, lawyers, and clergy. This original version of the survey measures feelings of emotional exhaustion, personal accomplishment, and depersonalization.
Later, Mike shares a quote about cynicism from former late-night talk show host and fellow Sirius XM podcaster Conan O’Brien. He notes that O’Brien was fired as the host of The Tonight Show, but this is incorrect. O’Brien quit the show in January 2010, just seven months after taking over for comedian Jay Leno. He explained that his departure was in response to NBC’s decision to move The Tonight Show from its traditional 11:35 p.m. time slot to 12:05 A.M. the next day so that the network could air the Jay Leno Show at that time instead. O’Brien wrote in a press statement: “For 60 years The Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.”
Finally, Angela wonders if O’Brien was inspired to reach out to E.B. White because of the powerful last line of Charlotte’s Web. 16-year-old O’Brien was actually interested in writing to White after reading the author’s letters and essays — not his children’s fiction. He sent White a letter in January of 1980 asking for advice on becoming a writer. O’Brien shared in his letter that he did not take criticism well and was concerned that even the best writers are judged and critiqued. White replied, quote, “If you don’t take criticism well, you will have a rough time as a writer, because you will surely be criticized, no matter how well you do. I never minded it much, except when the critic had his facts wrong.” Wise words from a renowned author who sounds like he would surely appreciate this section of the show. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on generational differences.
Andrew RETHAZI: Hi, I’m Andrew from London, Ontario, Canada. I’m really interested in this idea of generations being defined by technology. I didn’t have always the latest, greatest technology in our house growing up. Although I was born in 1986, and that makes me a millennial, technically speaking, I’ve never really found myself to have much in common with other millennials. And I’ve always attributed this to the fact that I was brought up in a home that was quite resistant to technology.
That was Andrew Rethazi. Thanks to him and to everyone who shared their experiences with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your stories about burnout! Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: how is using G.P.S. affecting your sense of direction?
MAUGHAN: I can get lost in my own neighborhood and never find my way home.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: I don’t know if we should share that on this.
- Christina Maslach, professor emertia of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Herbert Freudenberger, 20th-century psychologist.
- Ethan Kross, professor of psychology and management/organizations at the University of Michigan.
- Conan O’Brien, podcast host, comedian, and former late-night television host.
- E.B. White, author.
- Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University.
- “State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report,” (Gallup, 2023).
- “What’s Really So Wrong About Secretly Working Two Full-Time Jobs at Once?” by Alison Green (Slate, 2023).
- “The Problem With Venting,” by Ethan Kross (Character Lab, 2021).
- “Conan O’Brien’s Final Monologue: ‘Nobody in Life Gets What They Thought They Were Going to Get,’” by Lynette Rice (Entertainment Weekly, 2020).
- “Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes,” by Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal (Gallup, 2018).
- “Finding Solutions to the Problem of Burnout,” by Christina Maslach (Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2017).
- “Maslach Burnout Inventory: Third Edition,” by Christina Maslach, Susan E. Jackson, and Michael P. Leiter (Evaluating Stress: A Book of Resources, 1997).
- Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, by Herbert Freudenberger and Geraldine Richelson (1980).
- “Staff Burn-Out,” by Herbert Freudenberger (Journal of Social Issues, 1974).
- “Dehumanization in Institutional Settings,” by Christina Maslach and Philip Zimbardo (U.S. Office of Naval Research, 1973).