Love & Wisdom

Clarity – Exasperated and Exhausted

Burnout is more complicated than you may think

By Danny O’Neil May 12, 2023

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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

I woke up in Florida on a Sunday morning with a hangover and a patch of angry red bumps on the small of my back. I also couldn’t find the Montreal Expos cap I had been wearing the night before.

I had a Seattle Seahawks game to cover that afternoon in Tampa, multiple stories to write and then a 6 a.m. flight the next morning so I could get back to Seattle in time to host a sports-talk radio show that began at 3 p.m.

I felt awful. Not just because I had drunk too much bourbon the night before, and not just because those angry red bumps turned out to be shingles. I felt awful because I was tired, frustrated and becoming increasingly sarcastic and cynical to those around me.

It was Nov. 27, 2016, two days after I had turned 42, and I was burned out. Again.

Now let’s pause here for just a second to talk about what that term means. Burnout gets mentioned an awful lot, but we’re never all that specific about what it entails other than to be tired from a job. So very, very tired.

And fatigue is part of burnout, but it’s not all of it. That’s not to minimize the impact of exhaustion or the damage it can do, but if it’s simply a matter of running out of gas, then taking time off or dialing back the workload will provide at least some relief and might solve the problem altogether.

Burnout is different, and what I was experiencing that morning in Tampa was about more than being overextended. I felt less effective at my job, and there was tangible proof I was not performing as well. I was also becoming Eeyore at work, prone to believing that everything was bad and getting worse.

Burnout has been a recurring problem in my working life. In 2002, this feeling precipitated a job change as I went from one newspaper (The Seattle Times) to another (the Post-Intelligencer). In 2009, I started drinking more, increasingly by myself. A few months after that 2016 incident in Tampa, I stopped drinking entirely. I’ve broken down crying in front of at least two different direct supervisors during a shift.

What made this even more pathetic is that by any objective measure, I was doing pretty well in a fairly competitive field. I was covering sports for a living, which is exactly what I’d been telling people I wanted to do as far back as junior high. I had ascended to covering the Seahawks at a major metro newspaper, and then after doing that for eight years, began working as a radio host.

Sure, the schedule was demanding. I traveled a lot and worked weekends and there were long days during the Seahawks season, but come on. I was getting paid pretty darn well to attend and talk about the games other people bought tickets to attend.

So, then I blamed myself for how I felt. I was too sensitive, too fragile. I was too eager to please. I didn’t stand up for myself enough and I was so eager to have my bosses like me that I agreed to everything that was asked until I became miserable and resentful. If I was burned out, I had no one to blame but myself because I was the one who had agreed to this whole working arrangement.

Somewhere inside all of that self-loathing was the fact I needed to take the first step away from feeling so very sorry about everything: I understood that something I was doing was contributing to this problem. There was something about the way I related to my job that was leading me to this same miserable place no matter what I was doing or where I was working. This didn’t make me feel better, but it did provide a bit of hope. If I was doing something that contributed to this, then I could presumably stop doing this or, better yet, start doing something different.

That morning in Tampa was a bottom of sorts. At least in my working life. I covered the game — which was dreadful, by the way, the Seahawks failing to score a touchdown. I made my morning flight, hosted the radio show and that night went to the doctor where I was diagnosed with shingles. I took the next day off, returned to work on Wednesday and slowly in the weeks and months and even years ahead, I set more limits on what I was willing to give to my job.

But this was about more than just setting boundaries. I downsized what I expected from my job though I didn’t have the language to describe it this way until last year when I came across the work of Jonathan Malesic.

Malesic was a college professor with tenure, who taught theology. At least he did until bottoming out several years ago, experiencing burnout so extreme that it was all he could do simply to arrive at school in time for his first class, which started at 2 in the afternoon. “At night, I ate ice cream and drank malty, high-alcohol beer — often together, as a float. I gained 30 pounds.”

That quote is in the second paragraph of his book, The End of Burnout, which describes his experience as well as his research into the subject. His book has resonated with me deeply, providing words for what I experienced while also helping me understand and solidify the changes I have made in my working life over the past seven years.

I’ve broken down crying in front of at least two different direct supervisors during a shift.

Malesic describes burnout as the feeling of being pulled between our expectations of what a job will do for us and the actual experience of doing that job. The larger the gap between those two factors, the more of a strain we feel.

Now, I had spent a fair amount of time angry about what I felt my bosses expected of me. I had not spent nearly as much time thinking about what I expected from my job beyond a paycheck. In fact, for a long time I would have said a paycheck wasn’t even the most important thing to me.

I wanted a job that wasn’t repetitive or redundant and I wanted control over my work. I wanted a job that would allow me to feel proud of myself and to get a feeling of accomplishment both from the work I performed and the way I advanced in my profession. I expected my job to provide me with nothing less than a sense of meaning and importance, which seems painfully naïve in retrospect. I’m far from alone.

“In the United States, we expect a lot from our work,” Malesic says. “In some cases, we expect work to totally fulfill us as human beings, and that’s a pretty tall order. It would be great if work really delivered on all of that promise, but it doesn’t and maybe it can’t.”

I expected my job to make me happy because it was what I always wanted to do, and I was demonstrably proficient at it. When it didn’t make me happy or when it was hard or when I wanted to feel better the only thing I knew how to do was buckle down and give more of myself to my job in hopes I would get a jolt of affirmation, a feeling of accomplishment or at the very least reassurance that I didn’t need to worry about losing my job.

I was giving more of myself than I was getting in return, which meant running at a deficit. It’s a recipe that will leave you tired, and if you keep on going, frustrated at your ineffectiveness and cynical because you depersonalize everything. You also may find yourself unable to locate the Expos hat you were wearing the night before.

My life didn’t change overnight, but it did change. Some of that was because I scaled back what I gave to my job, but I think the more important change was that I stopped asking so much from it. I began to see my employment more as an exchange. They got a specified amount of work from me, and I received monetary payment from them. While I hoped that this would be fun and invigorating and nourishing for my soul, I didn’t think of those as things I was promised or owed.

I’m still prone to say, “Yes” more than I should, and there are times I wind up feeling overwhelmed or tired, but it’s like it was before. I’m just tired, a bit overextended, and while that doesn’t necessarily feel good, I’ve never again found myself feeling like I did that morning in Florida.

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