Burnout’s Long Shadow

Photo credit: borchee, iStock.

If there is anything that can be called the affliction of our time, it is burnout. We all know burnout in one form or another, either having experienced it ourselves or knowing others who have. When faced with the question ‘how are you?’, ‘tired’ seems to be as acceptable an answer as ‘good’. A little more honest, if anything. Of course you are tired, who isn’t? It is (part of) the reason why Byung-Chul Han famously dubbed our late modern society the burnout society. 

But what exactly is burnout? Well, according to the World Health Organization’s classification of diseases it is an occupational phenomenon:  

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 
  • reduced professional efficacy.”1

Now, I am definitely no doctor, but this definition seems rather reductive. Work stress is certainly a large part of many cases of burnout, but pressures in our society come from all directions, not just the workplace. Worse, it plainly suggests that burnout is a personal failure on the part of the afflicted. You should have managed your work stress better and now your ‘professional efficacy’ is suffering. Perhaps you should apologize to your boss for having worked yourself to the bone? 

Well, we are not getting the sympathy of the WHO then. WebMD’s definition is a little more considerate:  

“Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job. 
Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands.”2

Here, the emphasis is less on the individual’s responsibility to manage their stress whilst the exogenous pressures that we face are acknowledged. Still, they do go on to say that “burnout keeps you from being productive” which—while not untrue—shows how tied up the word is with late-capitalist ideals of proactivity. In some ways, burnout comes to represent the antithesis of the uncritical consumer and producer—definitions and descriptions often link it to an increased cynicism for a reason—of neoliberal society. And yet, as it always does, neoliberalism also offers itself as the cure. More on that later, but first a closer look at burnout is warranted. 

Burnout comes in all shapes and sizes. My burnout occurred about nine years ago now. I was just starting my second year in English Language and Culture at the UvA when from one day to the next, something in me snapped and all of a sudden I was not only mentally incapable of getting the work done, but physically exhausted. I had to scale back and cut a course, but it wasn’t enough. Before long I felt forced to quit and deregister. I would have to take a year off and ‘manage my stress’ as the WHO would put it. But it got worse instead of better, and one year turned into five. 

Although it felt like something snapped at the time, in reality there was a long build-up of increasing mental and physical strain as well as depression that I was simply not able to recognize until I was forced to reflect. The first year was awful, every day was a struggle, every night a battle with uncontrollable muscle tension, hyperventilation, and panic attacks. It is hard to imagine now how bad it really was, and when I think back it feels like I am exaggerating despite knowing that I am not. 

Perhaps this is one of the problems with burnout. It is commonplace. We all know it. We all suffer from its symptoms from time to time. It is relatable. But that also makes it dangerously easy to relativize. It can’t be all that serious if we all experience it in some form or other, right? 

And if despite its prevalence you suffer from it for multiple years, then that can feel like one hell of a personal failure. It is one of the ways in which WHO’s definition—and the broader sentiment it represents—can gnaw at your conscience. Enough time has passed for me to see that such thoughts are nonsensical, but when I look back at what I wrote in that time the feelings that caused those insecurities all come back to me. Take this short stanza from a poem I wrote a few years into the burnout: 

Burned up mid flight I find myself among ashes 
-my own- I fall- I fight 
like the dying flashes of a flare 
I must reignite. 
I must find the light 
like a straggler struggling 
to keep up 
Always chasing 

What stands out is the personal pressures that it exudes, the demands of ‘I must’ without offering the reason why. In fact, everything I wrote—and write—on the subject inevitably comes back to “I”. Much of my writing at the time is defined by this “I”, and even when it is absent, I seem to write sci-fi or fantasy ailments that have a suspicious amount of overlap with the symptoms of burnout. Write what you know, I guess, but I find it odd that the only way in which I write about burnout is from a deeply personal perspective. Even in this article I cannot escape the tendency to revert to a solipsistic mode that makes me a little uncomfortable. Burnout is a story about society as much as it is a story about me—or anyone who goes through it, so why does it always come back to “I”? 

The truth is, I am not sure if this is a recognizable problem or simply a deeply personal one. I somewhat selfishly hope it is the former, I fear it is the latter. But I do suspect that it touches on one of the core problems of burnout. To see why, let’s read Byung-Chul Han’s assessment of burnout: 

“Psychic maladies such as burnout and depression, the exemplary maladies of the twenty-first century, all display auto-aggressive traits. Exogenous violence is replaced by self-generated violence, which is more fatal than its counterpart inasmuch as the victim of such violence considers itself free” (47).3

Burnout is not a virus that enters your body; it is related to our dissatisfactions, our hubris, and any number of personal flaws that can all be implicated. This gives rise to common questions, such as: why didn’t I take a break sooner? If I hated it so much there, why did I stay? And so on. Afterall, we have the freedom to have done things differently. It all adds up to one conclusion: the malady is self-inflicted.  

In some sense this is all true. However, it is not the full story. Burnout is on the rise, especially since the covid-19 pandemic with an Indeed survey estimating that 52% of American workers are experiencing some form of burnout4, and the APA Work and Well-being survey reporting that “nearly 3 in 5 [US] employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress”5. Surveys on serious burnout complaints in the Netherlands show that in the period of 2010 till 2018 burnout has been on the rise with over 17% claiming to have serious burnout complaints6. In the face of such numbers, we have to conclude that real systemic societal issues are at play here. Prevention can’t come in the shape of personal stress management, whilst outside pressures steadily keep mounting. We need a relief of societal pressure, whether it be at work, school, social media, or otherwise. A self-help attitude is not a solution to the problem of burnout in the big picture, but rather a perpetuation of a society that pushes us into burnout. 

For all the self-help and professional help I have had, and as much as it has helped me in recovering from burnout, it has nonetheless left me changed: on the one hand I have become better at recognizing when I need to pause and ‘manage my stress’, on the other I have developed symptoms I am not sure I had before the burnout and the depths of my energy reserve remain more shallow than before. Burnout lurks, it follows, it hovers, and haunts. All of it by no choice of my own. Yet, as a consequence I am aware of myself and monitor myself often and still not often enough. I can’t let myself slip, because if I do, then the sense of failure would be larger than the first time around, and who knows what physical and mental consequences it may have. In that way, the WHO’s definition of burnout wins out over the reasonable one despite all I have written to the contrary. Yes, of course I benefit from taking care of myself, but because the lens is firmly fixed on me, the “I”, our neoliberal society can continue to do its insidious work from the shadows.  

If we are all exhausted for so much of the time, then we must question the systems that produce burnout as a by-product of the demands for bottom lines, efficiency, and flexibility, instead of taking ourselves to task for it one more time. 

Written by Reinier Van Der Plas

References:

  1. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases#:~:text=%E2%80%9CBurn%2Dout%20is%20a%20syndrome,related%20to%20one’s%20job%3B%20and
  2. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs
  3. Han, Byung-Chul. The Burnout Society, translated by Erik Butler, Stanford UP, 2015.
  4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2021/04/05/indeed-study-shows-that-worker-burnout-is-at-frighteningly-high-levels-here-is-what-you-need-to-do-now/
  5. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress
  6. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1062557/burnout-rates-in-the-netherlands/

1 Comment

  1. Do entertain a layman as he plays devil’s advocate—I actually think burnout only exists when you’re doing the wrong thing. Some people can run one marathon a day for decades and still continue doing it, while others could undergo a weekly training schedule and still burn out. And what you say is true. It is a personal problem that’s unique to each of us. Anyway, thanks for this post!

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