In a culture where work can be a religion, burnout is its crisis of faith.
People who are suffering from burnout tend to describe the sensation in metaphors of emptiness — they're a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge. Thirteen years, three books, and dozens of papers into his profession, Barry Farber, a professor at Columbia Teachers College and trained psychotherapist, realized he was feeling this way. Unfortunately, he was well acquainted with the symptoms. He was a burnout researcher himself.
Being burned out on burnout — now that was rich. Madame Curie died of radiation poisoning; Joseph Mitchell famously developed a 32-year-long case of writer's block after writing a two-part New Yorker series about a blocked writer; now Farber was suffering the same self-referential fate. He jokes about it today (who wouldn't?) but hardly felt sanguine as it was happening (who would?). Colleagues tried to persuade him to stick it out. "But for the most part, I've resisted coming back," says Farber. "I've never been able to find that same sense of satisfaction."
Farber had burned out once before. Back in the late sixties and early seventies, he taught public school in East Harlem. He'd wanted to help people, do the world some good. Yet for four years he'd struggled to stop his students from fighting with one another, and in spite of his best efforts he couldn't even teach all of them to read. His classroom became a perverse experiment in physics, with energy never conserved (input always exceeded output), and he, a teacher in perpetual motion, always craving rest. Eventually, he began to pull away from his students — depersonalization, as the literature now calls it — justifying his seeming insensitivity by telling himself he wasn't making a difference anyway. It was only when Farber went to graduate school at Yale that he learned that this syndrome had a name: Burnout. "The concept offered a perfect understanding of what teachers were feeling," he recalls. "It wasn't in fact that they were racist and mercenary and noncaring but that their level of caring couldn't be sustained in the absence of results."
Farber was so captivated by the notion of burnout he made it the subject of his dissertation. And he stayed with it for another thirteen years. Until the day he couldn't anymore. He still remembers the breaking point. He'd just completed a book about burnout among teachers, a subject he'd once considered exceptionally urgent. "Yet even as I was writing," he says, "I had this sense that I really wanted to finish it so that I could go on to something else. I felt somewhat bored, and somewhat depleted. I'd said all I wanted to say." He ponders this point. "I guess," he says, "I lost the sense that it was important."