Finding a vocation in work can fulfill your life. It can also ruin it. I know this firsthand; both have happened to me. I used to be a tenured faculty member at a small Catholic college. For years, I was happy and successful by every measure. I was a respected teacher. I published. I won grants. I led committees that got things done. I was flourishing professionally.
Until one year, I suddenly wasn’t. I kept doing all the things a good faculty member does, but I did them with diminishing joy and increasing resentment. I started to get furious over small slights. I gained weight. I struggled to get to class on time. I struggled to get out of bed. The only thing that saved me from deeper misery—perhaps even saved my life—was a well-timed resignation letter.
I burned out. As I have explained in the pages of The Chronicle (“The 40-Year-Old Burn Out”) and Commonweal (“A Burnt-Out Case: Aquinas and the Way We Work Now”) that means I exhibited the three major components of occupational burnout, as defined by the psychologist Christina Maslach: exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy. I wasn’t simply tired. I took a semester’s unpaid leave after these symptoms became hard to bear; the time away didn’t change anything. That’s because the problem wasn’t just within me.
A strong sense of vocation isn’t enough to prevent burnout, because burnout isn’t a failure of vocation. It’s a disease that festers in the gap between your vocation and your job. The more the demands and rewards of your job diverge from the work you’re called to do, the more likely it is you’ll burn out. In my case, I invested a great deal of time and talent in my job without getting the recognition I craved and felt I deserved. I fought losing battles in the classroom and around the conference table day in and day out. My job was nothing like the life of the mind I had envisioned years before.
Academics can learn a lot about burnout from the medical profession, which is closely attuned to the problem in its ranks. Like academics, doctors have a strong sense of calling; they also have a severe burnout problem that ultimately costs patients’ lives. In a recent New Yorker article, the surgeon Atul Gawande noted that the burnout rate among physicians correlates with the amount of time doctors in a given subspecialty spend using computers, rather than doing direct patient care. “Surgeons spend relatively little of their day in front of a computer. Emergency physicians spend a lot of it that way,” Gawande writes. Surgeons have moderate burnout rates; emergency physicians have the highest rate in all of medicine. If you’re called and trained to heal people but spend your day doing data entry, you’ll eventually wear out, become cynical, and feel useless.
Academia leans hard on its workers’ sense of vocation to keep them going through the challenges of their jobs. The sense of a calling is what gets you into grad school and over its hurdles. The vocation—and no small amount of luck—gets you a faculty position. It motivates you to teach, to stay at work an extra hour to help a student learn to conduct an experiment or write a thesis statement. It nags you to join the committee that might effect the change you’ve been saying the university needs to make. It keeps you up late preparing the conference presentation. It makes you cry on graduation day.
Vocation also makes you stay in the job even as conditions degrade. When you’re vocationally committed, you’re more susceptible to the aspects of institutional life that cause burnout. Your work matters to you; it’s personal. The new initiative that seems at odds with the institution’s stated mission: it’s an affront to everything you care about. The salary freeze, an insult. Then there are the colleagues who harass you, or who don’t carry their end of the service load. The budget cuts. The much-needed new hire that’s canceled. They all strike at who you fundamentally are, what you’re meant to do. And yet you feel you have no right to complain, because, after all, you’re doing what you love. Amid all your stress and disappointment, you tell yourself you’re lucky to have the job at all.
The three elements of burnout are symptoms in the same way a fever is a symptom of a deeper illness; they’re actually defense mechanisms. Exhaustion keeps you from working any harder. Cynicism keeps you from placing too much of your job satisfaction in the hands of those you serve. Even the sense of inefficacy is a form of self-preservation; it helps convince you to throw in the towel on a job that’s no longer good for you.
I felt the exhaustion most of all. When I took the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the standard psychometric test for burnout, I scored in the 98th percentile for exhaustion. I only scored in the 44th percentile for cynicism. My goodness, I thought, if I’m writing angry all-faculty emails at ten p.m. and I’m below average for cynicism, then what are the trulycynical doing? By that point, my body and mind had already quit. Signing the resignation letter just formalized the matter.
We need to close the gap between academic vocations and academic jobs. That means we need to improve working conditions in academia. Create more full-time positions and hire adjuncts to fill them. Lower the administrative and regulatory work faculty do. Break down our isolation and improve collegiality, especially intellectual community. Align institutions’ activity more closely with their stated values.
We may also have to limit our vocational commitment to our work. Recognize what’s “good enough.” Admit we’re not indispensable to every initiative. Let those lecture notes get a little yellow at the edges. Leave that stack of exams at the office. Remember that even a coveted academic job is still, ultimately, just a job.
I still say “we,” though I’m no longer a full-time faculty member: evidence that even a thwarted vocation can move along for years through inertia. That’s just one reason among many for why it won’t be easy to address academia’s burnout problem. But pretending the problem doesn’t exist, in the name of vocation or otherwise, will only damage faculty lives. It will also harm students’ learning, and thus undermine the whole reason we heeded the call in the first place.
Jonathan Malesic teaches first-year writing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is the author of Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity(Brazos, 2009). His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, America, Commonweal, The Hedgehog Review, and elsewhere. Find him online at jonmalesic.com and on Twitter at @jonmalesic.