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The High Cost of How We Work

Why do our jobs leave so many of us exhausted, cynical, and feeling useless—and what can we do about it?
February 9, 2022
The High Cost of How We Work

The End of Burnout
Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives
by Jonathan Malesic
University of California, 269 pp., $27.95

For a 1,500-year-old enterprise, Benedictine monasticism has seemed awfully relevant of late. Perhaps this is not surprising—St. Benedict’s communities, rooted in an intentional balance of prayer and work (ora et labora) largely unchanged since the sixth century, provide an attractive alternative to our frenetic modern life.

Rod Dreher’s widely discussed The Benedict Option, published in 2017, is perhaps the most obvious example of this revitalized interest. In his book Dreher calls for concerned Christians to withdraw from the public sphere, rejecting the ills of secularism and forming small communities of likeminded orthodox believers, to nurture more wholesome forms of community to last through whatever dark times may lie ahead. Whether intentional or not, this approach treats religion as an instrumental good, our best hedge against cultural decline. The problem is, however, that you don’t go to a monastery to fix the world; you go to the monastery to fix yourself.

In his new book, The End of Burnout, Jonathan Malesic draws heavily upon Benedictine monasticism to offer an alternative to a specific modern ill—our unhealthy work-life balance. Yet unlike Dreher and some writers who followed in his footsteps, Malesic more appropriately uses this tradition to treat the causes of that woe, rather than its effects. As the monks he interviews make clear, the monastery is not an escape from the problems of the world but is itself the very battleground of the spiritual life. “There are many demons,” says one monk in Malesic’s book. “That’s why we’re here.”

Our cherished American work ethic, Malesic believes, is one of those demons. Recent studies, such as the World Health Organization’s estimate that some 745,000 people died from overwork in 2016, indicate that something is wrong with how we approach our jobs. Malesic’s own experience as an exhausted and unfulfilled college professor, to which he refers throughout the book, will resonate with most readers: our current work climate is unhealthy.

Malesic notes two major problems with the way we talk about worker burnout. First, the term itself is poorly defined, often indicating something as straightforward as fatigue while at other times referring to something closer to clinical depression (Malesic tends toward the latter). Second, mainstream articles on the topic tend to treat achieving a sustainable work-life balance as kind of “life hack,” often using imprecise, sensationalized research to exaggerate the extent of the problem, then suggesting tips workers can follow to avoid it. Malesic rightly notes that our current conversation allows companies to profit from a crisis that is partly of their own making: “By applying this veneer of scientific respectability over a broad and fuzzy set of experiences, they can create a burnout emergency—and an entire market of people who stand in need of a cure.” Malesic traces burnout’s lineage through two millennia of malaises such as acedia, melancholia, and neurasthenia, until its rise to the fore of our social consciousness in the 1970s. Over the last half century, it has only grown more prominent, he argues, spurred by the depersonalization of the workplace and the rise of what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.”

Malesic follows psychologist Christina Maslach’s identification of three main indicators of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and a feeling that one’s work is ineffective. At bottom, he suggests, the condition stems from an incongruity between our expectations for and the reality of our jobs. He uses the image of two stilts, one representing our work ideals, the other our actual work, to help explain this. As the stilts grow further apart—in Malesic’s own case, as his lofty expectations for being a college professor grew increasingly distant from the reality of uninspired students and college bureaucracy—we “burn out” to varying degrees.

To address burnout, Malesic argues, we must bring the “stilts” closer together by improving the reality of our working conditions and reshaping our societal expectations around work. The End of Burnout focuses on the latter.

Malesic uses two related but distinct traditions to explain our cultural attitude towards work. The first is the Protestant work ethic, chronicled by Max Weber in his 1905 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber famously traces the roots of our self-made, hard-working ethos to the Calvinist impulse to demonstrate that one is among the predestined elect. Our incessant drive to demonstrate our self-worth through hard work imprisons us in what Weber calls an “iron cage” in the “monstrous cosmos” of capitalism. Notwithstanding the various challenges over the last century to Weber’s thesis, his diagnosis is as recognizable as ever.

Malesic’s own faith offers an alternative paradigm. While Weber’s account has work imparting value to the worker, Catholic teaching posits that the inverse should be true: Work doesn’t dignify us—we dignify work. In his lecture “Leisure, the Basis of Culture,” given in the wake of the Second World War, German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper describes what he called our modern culture of “total work.” Without a conception of leisure—not simply “free time” but things done for their own sake, like sports, art, and, especially, for Pieper, worship—our society devalues any activity, and ultimately any person, that cannot demonstrate its usefulness. Along with heavily referencing Pieper, Malesic refers to the 1891 papal encyclical Rerum Novarum to offer a vision of the dignity of the worker. In it, Pope Leo XIII argues for a living wage and the tethering of working hours to “the health and strength of the workman.” The encyclical contains the first modern expression of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” and Catholic social teaching in general.

The pairing of these two Catholic thinkers not only works well for Malesic’s purposes but marks a step forward in the discourse between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the secular world. Usually Pieper is the terrain of tweedy conservatives with aristocratic sympathies; Rerum Novarum is often fodder for social-justice-minded Catholics who hang pictures of Che Guevara in their faculty offices. Malesic, unburdened by these associations, not only recognizes the essential sameness of the two thinkers’ insights but also makes them accessible to a mainstream audience that would otherwise have no occasion to encounter them. Surely the nonreligious reader can recognize in his or her own work experience Pieper’s notion that a culture of “total work” has marched through recent history like a “demonic force.”

All of this brings us to the Benedictines. The heart of The End of Burnout lies in Malesic’s visit to an isolated monastery in New Mexico, which provides him with an opportunity “to dig beneath our industrial-age assumptions about labor until [he] struck medieval bedrock.” That bedrock is the 1,500-year-old pattern of life laid out by St. Benedict in his “Rule.” The ascetic monks of Christ in the Desert meet for prayer seven times a day, starting in the pre-dawn dark, where they chant the Psalms and recite their prayers slowly, their words falling into the natural cadence of unhurried breath. They bow deeply to each other before leaving to start the day’s work, which lasts only until lunch. Afternoons are spent in prayer or recreation, then the monks finish their day with prayers in Latin, followed by entering into the “Great Silence” that lasts until early the next morning.

Nothing takes precedence over the non-negotiables of prayer, study, and communal gatherings. When the bell rings at 12:40, the monks stop whatever work they are doing, even if they are not finished. In the early dot-com era the monastery embarked on a wildly profitable web-design service. But the work soon became all-consuming, and they shut it down in 1998. The monks’ choice, though foolish in the eyes of the world, was not a difficult one for them to make: The monastery simply “couldn’t justify the labor” the project demanded. From the monks’ vantage—which Malesic aligns with Pieper and that of other philosophers like Thoreau—work is never its own end. It exists to serve some larger notion of human flourishing.

To see how this might play out in a more worldly life, he visits the large religious community of Benedictine monks and nuns in and around St. John’s College in Central Minnesota. Its several hundred members work in schools, hospitals, and parishes in the area, and, as a result, their lives are not as rigidly scripted or ascetic as those of the New Mexico monks. Malesic interviews several members of the community and most report battling the demon of work at some point in their lives. All, however, ultimately anchored themselves in non-negotiable time set aside each day for prayer, whether personal or communal. Their commitment to the larger religious community, and its providing the necessities of life, creates for them a refuge to escape Pieper’s world of “total work.”

Malesic doesn’t think we need to all become monks to achieve a healthy work-life balance. But he does see something essential in the spirit that animates a monastic community:

. . . the monastic principles of constraining work and subordinating it to moral and spiritual well-being might help us keep our demons at bay, align our labor with our human dignity, and end the culture of burnout.

Malesic is to be commended for not using the monastic tradition as an escape from the demons of secular life, for those demons are first and foremost private ones. Instead, the monastery serves as an example of how religious life might be of service to the world.

How, though, to bridge the gap between the bell that rings in the early-morning dark at Christ in the Desert and the one that rings each morning on Wall Street?

Unfortunately, this is where The End of Burnout falls short. Malesic offers several scattershot examples of those who have managed to strike a healthy work-life balance, but nothing that suggests a real path forward. He applauds a nonprofit in Dallas for recognizing and valuing the contributions of each of its workers, and highlights two former academics whose disabilities have forced them to find purpose outside of the confines of a typical work life. Yet he fails to consider any organization that has prioritized its workers on a larger scale, such as the Catholic-founded Spanish work cooperative Mondragon. The circle of individuals he interviews is largely limited to writers, editors, and academics. What options for a better work-life balance might there be for those whose jobs don’t allow them to pick and choose when to work? Or for whom the pandemic was not an occasion to slow down and “enjoy” life, as he rather buoyantly puts it, but amounted to a nightmare of juggling childcare and Zoom kindergarten, along with their own work commitments? Whether intentional or not, Malesic appears to be talking to those whose jobs look a lot like his own.

Ultimately, the book fails to close the gap between Malesic’s ideals for a better society and the reality on the ground. Near its close, he imagines a college addressing burnout head-on in a “radically honest all-campus meeting, in which everyone acknowledges that the institution’s whole way of operating was harming everyone involved.” Imagining is great if you are John Lennon, but anyone involved in academic life at any level knows that such a meeting is a pipe dream.

One wonders, too, whether Malesic is thinking wishfully when he states that religious commitments to human dignity are not necessary to keep the demons of work at bay on a societal level. “Secular human rights should do the trick,” he claims. It’s true that something like a universal basic income might go a long way to allowing people to find an identity apart from their work—in fact, Pieper argues for something similar in stressing the value of an “honorarium,” a salary not tied to effort. But even given the freedom associated with something like a guaranteed income, who is to say that we will be able to escape the mentality of “total work”? It’s not simply a matter of having free time, but of what we are inclined to do with that freedom. Pieper quotes Aristotle to emphasize this: “this is the main question, with what activity one’s leisure is filled.” Malesic perhaps rightly concludes that the coming wave of automation might provide us all with more free time, whether we like it or not. “Let the machines burn out,” he says. “We have better things to do.” But without a clear sense of what that “better” consists of, we might be as adrift in freedom as we were imprisoned in work.

Midway through his book, Malesic quotes a vignette from Thoreau’s Walden, in which a farmer sits down after a day’s work and hears the sound of flute music, which “came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him.” For our current conversation about how and why we work, Malesic’s book, despite its shortcomings, offers such an otherworldly strain. In mixing Thoreau with papal encyclicals, feminist thinkers with aristocratic philosophers, he makes a persuasive case for the reorientation of our ideals surrounding work, and the proposition, catholic in every sense of the term, that acknowledgement of human dignity must precede any ability to demonstrate it.

Mike St. Thomas

Mike St. Thomas is the head of the English Department at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island.