It is possible something is the matter here. Just as there were deep flaws in the work ecosystems of the caring professions, noticed by researchers in the seventies, it’s possible there’s something wrong with our professional environments—and perhaps, more broadly speaking, our culture of work. Isn’t this worthy of examination? Work, after all, is a form of religion in a secular world. Burning out in it amounts to a crisis of faith.

I came across this article in New York Magazine eight months ago or so, and despite being intrigued by the topic, put off reading it until now. Why? Because it looked fairly long, and I didn’t feel like I had time to read it, then. Of course, the author writes about how we’re always hurried, and waiting. That’s a secondary point, however, and first and foremost the article is interesting for its direct perspectives on burnout, burnout apparently being a relatively recent and little-researched concept.

But today, says Maslach, corporate settings are cautiously, slowly, cracking their doors, letting people like her in, because they recognize that something’s gone awry. “Like in Silicon Valley,” she says. “It used to be the case that people would say, ‘You’re burned out? You don’t like the job? So quit. I don’t run a country club,’ ” says Maslach. “But what was happening was the best and the brightest wanted to opt out. They started saying, ‘I can’t do this; this is not a life.’ They’d go to the Midwest and start a pet-food store.” Maslach adds that when she did interviews at nasa, she noticed similar problems there. “So suddenly, these places were saying, ‘Whoa, what do we need to do to get these people?’ Getting the most out of people didn’t actually mean getting the best. That’s when there was a new wave of interest in burnout.”

Admittedly, I don’t quite understand the “I don’t run a country club” bit, but I like the rest. There are interesting anecdotes, and also facts and figures (which you can take with however much salt you like):

  • According to a survey in the Netherlands, 10% of the workforce is burnt out at any given time;
  • Younger workers are more likely to burn out than older workers;
  • Single are more likely to burn out than married;
  • and people in strongly individualistic societies are more likely to burn out than… well, those in less individualistic societies (though I’m not sure how exactly that distinction is made for the purposes of the fact).

If you don’t have enough time to read the article in its entirety, this last bit’s a good one to go out on:

As Schaufeli, the Dutch researcher, notes, one of the strongest predictors of burnout isn’t just work overload but “work-home interference”—a sociologist’s way of saying we’re receiving phone calls from Tokyo during dinner and replying to clients on our BlackBerrys while making our children brush their teeth.

Indeed, that’s her colleagues’ most startling finding of all. Most Americans believe they work more today than they did 35 years ago. Yet according to the American Time Use Survey, an ambitious project that for 41 years has been asking thousands of participants to keep detailed time diaries, Americans now have five more hours of leisure per week (38) than they did in 1965. Certainly, there are academics who reject these numbers—in The Overworked American, published in 1992, the economist Juliet Schor calculated we were working nearly an extra month per year, setting off a rather sharp debate about her methodology—but even those who agree our leisure time is increasing will readily concede that Americans experience their leisure quite differently and therefore may feel as if they’re working more. For one thing, it’s non-contiguous leisure time, time meted out in discrete increments. Human beings have always resisted the fracturing of time. Gleick points out that Plautus cursed the sundial. Now, he says, we gain 90- second reprieves with our microwave ovens. But do we do anything meaningful in those 90 seconds? Or do they vanish in the same particle puff?

(NYMag: “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” by Jennifer Senior)