How Men Burn Out
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, women 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.
Researchers define burnout as a syndrome with three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness. According to a meta-analysis published in 2010, women on average scored higher than men on the exhaustion scale, but men scored higher on cynicism.
Cynicism (also called depersonalization) is “emotional distancing” — in other words, it’s when you view your co-workers, clients or patients as objects or problems more than as people. When I was teaching full-time, my cynicism looked like impatience with students’ slow learning and awkward essays. I am sure my attitude only made it harder for them to learn.
Yet cynicism is commonly taken as a sign of competence. As a result, the stern manager, the hard-boiled detective and the brusque physician are all male-coded cultural archetypes. Emotionally open male figures have not yet fully supplanted them. The fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso, all smiles and positive self-talk, is funny because he defies the paradigm. In reality, it’s the dour Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, whose mantra is “Do your job,” who has won six Super Bowls.
They way men burn out as parents also reflects the way they are conditioned by the breadwinner ethos. In one study, researchers in Belgium found that while mothers scored higher on the parental burnout measure, fathers more quickly exhibited burnout and its negative consequences: escape fantasies, suicidal ideation and neglect of children. That is, given the same level of parenting stress, fathers reacted much worse than mothers did, putting both themselves and their children at greater risk of harm.
“Fathers may be more vulnerable to demands arising from a role which is gender-typed and not seen as an integral part of being a man,” the Belgian researchers write.
A skeptic might see this as evidence that men are weak and coddled. The researchers, however, see it as a sign that societies need to do a better job of preparing men to share the burden of parenthood.
When men encounter problems at work or elsewhere in their lives, they are much less likely than women to talk about it, in either public or private. Written accounts of male burnout are hard to find. Men are about 40 percent less likely than women to seek counseling for any reason. And the well-documented crisis in male friendship means that many men have no one aside from their spouse or partner they feel they can open up with emotionally. Single men often have no one at all; when they burn out, they may do so alone.
The key problems that distinguish men’s burnout — the characteristic cynicism, the lack of preparation for parenting and reticence about their struggles with work and fatherhood — share roots in the ethic of stoical duty our society has instilled in boys and men for decades: Go to work, and shut up about it. If you can put food on the table, then you’re a good father.
The breadwinner ethos is a faulty masculinization of a noble ideal — that even those who do not work still deserve to eat — shared by men and women alike. It’s a source of meaning for countless people who labor in difficult conditions so that their children won’t have to. It is also hard to live up to. This lingering ideal has been devastating for many blue-collar men, who pinned their self-worth to the notion that they were providers even as their job prospects diminished.
Middle-aged and younger men may think this ethos is a relic of their fathers’ or grandfathers’ era, when fewer women worked full-time. I certainly thought I was past it.
But as a society, we are not. The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that 71 percent of Americans thought “being able to support a family” was important to a man being a good husband, compared with 32 percent who said it was important to a woman being a good wife. Younger respondents were only slightly less committed than average to this ideal of manhood; 64 percent of adults age 18 to 29 said breadwinning was important to being a good husband, while 34 percent said it was important for being a good wife.
My burnout ebbed after we moved to Texas. As a freelance writer and part-time college instructor, I now earn a fraction of what my wife does. I know that isn’t my fault; the differential is due to the declining labor conditions of journalism and academia. I care about my work, but it no longer means everything to me. We don’t have kids, but at home, I know I’m doing my part.
Ultimately, to end our burnout culture, we will need not just better working conditions but new ideals about work’s role in human flourishing. That will entail committing to ideals of manhood that rely less on economic productivity and more on virtues like loyalty, solidarity and courage — including the courage to quit a job, raise a child or both.
Jonathan Malesic is the author of “The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives.” He lives in Dallas.
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