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How Men Burn Out

0 2 years ago

Eight years ago, I had a great job as a tenured professor at a small college in Pennsylvania. I seemed to have it made: autonomy, security, excellent benefits, even a modicum of prestige. But then I started to dread going to work. The students’ indifference to my teaching felt like a personal insult. I became furious in response to minor slights from colleagues and got into heated arguments in faculty meetings. I was burning out.

When I came home, I complained on the phone to my wife, who was beginning her own academic career at a college 200 miles away. But her patient ear was not enough to solve the problem. Neither was a semester of unpaid leave while we lived on her salary. When I went back to work, my burnout picked up right where it left off. My wife ultimately saved me when she was offered a job in Texas. I quit mine and followed her.

Despite my relief, I felt like a failure not only as an academic, but also as a man. Even as gender roles seem increasingly flexible and open to revision, we are still a society where men attempt to prove their manhood through their performance at work. And I couldn’t do my job.

The intense public discussion of burnout during the pandemic has given too little attention to how men experience this problem. Articles on mothers’ burnout far outnumber ones on dads’. There is (rightly) much public concern about burnout among nurses but little focus on it among truckers.

Academics and journalists have good reason to concentrate on women. The “second shift” of child care continues to put disproportionate strain on working mothers. And there is evidence that women burn out at higher rates than men. According to a national study published in 2019, female physicians were at 32 percent greater risk of burnout than their male colleagues.

That disparity is a problem, but in a profession where the burnout rate is 44 percent, there are still hundreds of thousands of male doctors suffering and potentially putting patients in danger.

If we want to end burnout, we have to address the problem for men as well as women. And to address men’s burnout in particular, we have to acknowledge that consciously or not, our society still largely equates masculinity with being a stoical wage earner. Not all men view themselves this way, and even men who don’t are still susceptible to burnout. But research shows that men and women tend to undergo burnout differently. The signature patterns in male burnout each reflect an enduring breadwinner ethos that does not serve men well.


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