Mar 7, 2022 - Podcasts

Let's talk about burnout

Daily news of a horrific war in Europe, alongside two years of living and working through a deadly pandemic, has so many of us grieving and exhausted. Yale psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos is the host of the hit podcast The Happiness Lab, and she says it's time to take the signs of burnout seriously.

  • Plus: Russia's crackdown on the press.

Guests: Axios' Sara Fischer and The Happiness Lab's Laurie Santos.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Monday, March 7th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today: a pause to talk about burnout. What it actually is – and how it can change us. But first: our One Big Thing: Russia’s crackdown on the press.

New legislation from Moscow approved on Friday could imprison journalists for up to 15 years for publishing what Russia deems as “fake news” about the invasion. As a result, CNN, CBS and ABC have stopped broadcasts in Russia, and the BBC and Bloomberg have suspended operations in the country entirely. Axios’ media reporter Sara Fisher has been following the story. Good morning, Sara.


NIALA: Where did this legislation come from, Sara?

SARA: I think that Vladimir Putin is very anxious and desperate to control the messaging to his own people domestically. And as a result, they scrambled and came up with a new law that basically said: anything that you say about our invasion, you know, they're not calling it an invasion internally, but, uh, what's happening in Ukraine, that's not using government sources, it can be deemed, in quote, “fake news.” There was a little bit of prelude warning leading up to this, but I don't think journalists and networks in the country were expecting it to come down this way.

NIALA: And then the big question also is what does this then mean for how we understand what's going on inside Russia?

SARA: It makes it very hard. Vladimir Putin is already a very isolated leader. This makes it even harder to read him. It also makes it hard to understand how the people of Russia feel when we have news organizations on the ground able to do independent and objective reporting, we can see that people are protesting. Once we don't have visibility and access there, we might not understand just how much the people inside Russia are protesting or how they're even feeling about the war. And that's huge, Niala, because this entire war is really dependent on domestic approval within Russia. If Vladimir Putin doesn't get that, it's going to be very hard for him to continue moving forward.

NIALA: Sara, what do we know about how state media in Russia has portrayed this war then?

SARA: The way that people are getting information is mostly only through Russian state-backed media. They're portraying the invasion as something that they were doing to protect Russians that are residing inside Ukraine. You know, you are hearing stories of Russian soldiers going in and being surprised that the Ukrainians are not welcoming them because they were told, through propaganda efforts, that they were going to go in and save the Ukrainian people. And now with Western media outlets being yanked, it's going to be even harder for them to know what's really going on.

NIALA: Sara Fischer is the author of the Axios Media Trends newsletter. Thanks, Sara.

SARA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: Something else to know this morning: the international criminal court last week opened an investigation into war crimes by Russia in Ukraine. And CNN’s Jake Tapper yesterday asked Secretary Antony Blinken if the U.S. has seen evidence that Russia has committed war crimes. Here’s what Blinken said:

ANTONY BLINKEN: We've seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would constitute a war crime. Uh, we've seen very credible reports about the, uh, the use of certain weapons. Uh, and what we're doing right now is documenting all of this, uh, putting it all together.

NIALA: The UN is reporting that at least 360 Ukrainian civilians have so far been killed – but saying that the actual number is almost certainly much higher.

In 15 seconds, we take a breather from these headlines to talk burnout, with Dr. Laurie Santos.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. COVID appears to finally be lifting, a cause for joy - even if its a cautious one. But now a horrific war in Europe, alongside two years of living through this pandemic…has so many of us grieving and exhausted. Yale psychology professor, Dr. Laurie Santos, has been thinking a lot about the negative emotions we’ve all experienced lately. She teaches the Science of Happiness and her free online course on this is the most popular in Yale history. She also hosts the hit podcast, The Happiness Lab. This season, she talks about how to use negative emotions to enact positive change in our lives. And the final episode focuses on a topic we know all too well these days. Burnout. Everyone's talking about burnout all the time. Dr. Santos not only teaches this, as you will soon hear she's living this, along with all of us. She told me there were three things you should know about how scientists define burnout. First, there's exhaustion.

LAURIE SANTOS: Which is usually like emotional exhaustion. You're not just physically tired, but you're emotionally tired.

NIALA: Then there's this component of feeling ineffective.

LAURIE: You kind of have this lack of personal purpose or meaning, but it's in part because you just are not optimistic about how effective you're going to be.

NIALA: And the third thing is what scientists call depersonalization.

LAURIE: It's basically just an extreme cynicism towards everyone around you, right. You know, people at work have bad intentions, people at work aren't going to do what they're supposed to do, right. You're just like really down on the rest of the human race. But I think a lot of it is that this sense of not being very effective, and getting exhausted because of that, often comes about because of the level of purpose and pride we take in our work. In my episode, I talked to Jonathan Malesic, who has this wonderful new book on burnout. And he really talks about the fact that it's not people who are kind of just like not paying attention to work who get burnt out. It's the people who like, love their job, who see their job as a calling who really want to dive in, you know, with both feet into the deep end of what they're doing. These are the people that wind up feeling so ineffective and feeling so exhausted from their work. And so I think it takes a real renegotiation with how we think about work, you know. Is it the end all and be all of your entire existence? Is it your full identity? And you wonder, you know, well, what's your identity as a friend? Or as a, you know, a son or a daughter, or, a person who's doing good things in the world.

NIALA: There's also this very fundamental, and very lovely idea that you introduce of dignity and humanity. And that as a society, we assign dignity to people because of their job, but that maybe we should honor that in people just because of their humanity and it's not about what they do. That seems like such a huge concept to change culturally.

LAURIE: Totally, totally. It’s like our worth as a human is not how much we like contribute to capitalist society. Or if you're a student, what grades you get. I mean, our identity is like incredibly tapped into what it means to live a good life and be a good person and connect with the people around us. And so I do think the current burnout crisis we're facing. We often think we have to fix this with oh, a four day workweek and, you know, like get some yoga at work and things. And I, you know, those things can help, but I think we need a broader structural conversation about what we value, and how work fits into that.

NIALA: How much did doing this episode affect you personally?

LAURIE : Well, I was doing the episode at a time when I, myself was experiencing a lot of these features of burnout. I was, you know, doing research on the burnout scale, which is just a scale you can take to measure these three different parts of burnout. And I almost didn't want to take it myself because I had the sense that the score would be pretty bad. But it really made me realize that I need to practice what I preach with this stuff. And so, I've recently put in for an academic leave from Yale to take some time off and sort of reevaluate some of these things. In part, because I think, you know, we all need to recognize that when you start seeing the symptoms of this stuff, it doesn't get better unless you make some radical changes. And this was the message of, you know, my entire season about negative emotions. We think negative emotions are bad, avoid them, and so on, but it's kind of like, you know, when you put your hand on a hot stove and it hurts? Like that pain is telling you something, it's telling you: Hey, get your hand off that stove.

NIALA: So what are you thinking about your identity and expectations around work right now? I would love to ask you-I want to ask you this in a year.

LAURIE: Yeah, yeah. I'll come back. I'll come back on Axios. We can talk then. Yeah. I mean, I think part of it is really recognizing how little our identity is wrapped up in other things. Like, am I missing something that I really should be investing in to live a good life. One caveat, I think professors have this wonderful career where a sabbatical is like a built-in thing that you can take. I think all careers should have this, so, privilege acknowledged here. But I think honestly, what I'm trying to do most is to signal that this is okay. Is to signal that this is sometimes necessary and as hard as it is, the host of the happiness podcast can be experiencing these emotions such that she has to take time off? Maybe that should be true for all of us. Maybe we all need to take this seriously.

NIALA: Dr. Laurie Santos, thank you.

LAURIE: Thanks so much for having me.

NIALA: Okay that’s all for today – but let me leave you with one more fun thing: a project has broken the record for most money EVER raised on the crowdfunding site kickstarter. More than 20 million dols, for fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. He was originally trying to raise just 1 million…which he hit in about half an hour. I just started reading one of his books and I have to say…I’m understanding the appeal. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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