The Burnout Conspiracy: What It Really Is (And How It’s Being Used Against You)
“Burnout” is a hot topic these days.
Large corporations are fighting it. Employees are given cautionary tales about it. And everyone seems to sell a strategy, course, or product to prevent it (strangely none of them involve working less).
Burnout has become a meme.
The word itself is so popular because “burnout” sounds better than “having my spirit ground out of me by the endless demands of workism” or “gradually drained of life by the urban industrial complex”. It implies a high performer just couldn’t help but work too hard and too much.
When burnout is used in this way– it cheapens, lessens, and obscures what’s really going on. It’s a sleight of hand. It’s a way of passing the buck to individuals for bearing the damages and excesses of corporate culture.
Most of the time, burnout is not an individual failure or personal problem. It’s not poor time management. It’s not even burning out. Burnout is a healthy response to a totally f — ked situation.
In this essay I explore the word itself, how it’s used against us, and what burnout really is (and what to do about it).
Burnout — A Word History
Burnout is a trendy achiever-friendly word used when we hit our breaking point. When our mind and body unionize to go on strike after years of abuse.
It’s a high-octane business approved euphemism. Burnout sounds much better than saying “I’ve totally mismanaged my life” or “I’ve over-invested in professional demands to the point of becoming socially, spiritually, and physically bankrupt.”
It’s talking around the edges about a truly tragic situation. It’s a call for help without putting ourselves out there. And it masks the true humanity of the situation.
But where did this word come from?
Burnout appeared on the scene in the 1970s. It was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping professions” (nurses, counselors, social workers, etc) (NCBI).
Paradoxically, the folks in the helping professions (the ones who actually burnout) seem to receive the least attention.
You don’t read about senior care centers fighting burnout amongst their minimum wage workers who spend all day cleaning up literal s — t. You don’t hear about people pulling two full time shift jobs — tire factory in the morning and Walmart in the evening — being offered mental health programs by their employers.
Burnout is a distinctively white collar conundrum. It’s the senior partner at a multibillion dollar law firm who works around the clock to pay for his third house. Or the senior analyst at the investment bank who pays 15K per month to live in an NYC studio apartment.
The folks that are really dealing with burnout — those in the helping professions at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy — burned out long ago.
They’re beyond burnout. They’re exhausted. They’re barely holding on.
But they have no other option but to keep going.
Real burnout is distinct from having mismanaged your life or sold out. Understanding the history of the word demands that folks like us — who receive all the attention around burnout — push for change to support those who are are burned out and have no choice but to keep going.
Burnout is passing the buck.
Imagine we’re in leadership at a large investment bank.
Many of our people have issues. Would we like to point out that we demand 90 hour weeks of mind-grinding analytical work and implicitly promote a culture of amphetamine abuse? Or is it easier to hold our 23 year old new hires responsible for preventing “burnout”?
Burnout is corporate culture’s scapegoat.
This isn’t so different from industrial revolution era steel mills saying that their child workers simply ought to be more careful if they don’t want to lose fingers or fall into molten steel. It’s taking a problem of corporate norms and work culture and placing it squarely on the individual. It’s a sleight of hand to divert attention from systemic issues to individual responsibility.
After doing a bit of research, this seems to be a business story that’s as old as time.
In the early 2000s, BP hired a PR firm Ogilvy & Mather to create a concept that would hold individuals, not fossil fuel companies, accountable for climate change. Soon after they launched their carbon footprint calculator.
We can see this subtle tactic at work here. This campaign encouraged folks to calculate how much their daily activities, such as driving to work or buying food at the grocery store, were impacting climate change. That’s not a bad thing on its face. But it’s a diversion. It shifts discussion from passing policies or subsidizing green energy at the macro level to maybe you and I can carpool with neighbors to work.
This trick is known as “insidious propaganda” in academic circles — working public consensus into blaming individuals rather than institutions for institutional problems.
Reduce, reuse, recycle is another example. It’s a lovely initiative on its face. But what’s the story there? This campaign was actually funded by Coca-Cola affiliates and other plastics companies. See the pattern with BP?
Instead of saying maybe we should manufacture less plastic or shift to more sustainable (and more expensive) production practices, they place the blame squarely on you and I. The problem is not that xyz bottling Co. manufactures 100 million tons of plastic per year that end up strangling sea turtles in the Pacific. The problem is there was this one time where I forgot to put my water bottle in the recycling bin.
There are plenty more examples. Here’s the framework. Think of any company that’s manufacturing things that are bad for people or the environment. How are they shifting the responsibility to individuals?
The pharmaceutical companies that engineered the opioid academic love to talk about addiction prevention. But interestingly these strategies never involve selling fewer opioids. Car companies encourage carpooling rather than tougher emission standards on cars. And loads and loads of companies engineering incredibly addictive and health-damaging foods then tell us to “make healthy choices”.
Burnout is one of many cases. Instead of turning towards the norms and standards of corporate culture — the demanding hours, the lack of purpose, the increasingly slim benefits — we turn on ourselves. We think we’re responsible. Insidious propaganda at its finest.
What burnout really is — and what to do about it.
Burnout is not a disease. Nor is it a malady. It’s a symptom.
It’s a normal, healthy response to f — ked up circumstances. When the body produces inflammation in response to a damaged muscle — it’s a healthy response, not a disease.
Imagine we’re sitting in the office and all the sudden the person across from us looks a little funny. They faint. The two people sitting on either side of us say they feel funny too. You begin to feel faint.
At this point do you say “well that’s weird there must be something wrong with me” or do you say “I better get the hell out of this room”?
That’s not so different from the logic with burnout.
When everyone in a given company or industry suffer the same mental health destruction it’s not a “you problem”. It’s a consequence of the external environment. And given the entire US workforce is facing an epidemic of burnout and a great resignation, I’m going to say there might be something in the water.
Burnout is a symptom, the cause is our misaligned cultural values and lack of work-life protections. In terms of culture — since the 1960s the American Freshman Norms survey has shown a shift in what we value. In the 60s “develop a meaningful life philosophy” was the most important thing while “be well off financially” was towards the bottom. This is now reversed. At the same time, the average American work day has increased 90 minutes in the last 20 years.
When it comes to other “radical” employee rights such as guaranteed time off and maternal leave, the US has some distinguished company. We rank alongside Suriname, Guyana, Burma and Swaziland in terms having the world’s least robust work-life protections. Most European nations require at least four weeks off per year. Canada — the 2nd stingiest in terms of work-life rights after the US — offers 19. It’s as if those damn socialists think we should work to live and not live to work.
Considering the trends around work culture in the US it’s no surprise that burnout is ubiquitous. It is surprising though that we don’t question why: what is the real cause?
The answer is pretty damn obvious. There’s something in the water. Burnout is the symptom not the cause. It’s a consequence of the environment — our socioeconomic norms and cultural values.
The pattern of insidious propaganda obscures this fact. Burnout is not a YOU problem. It’s a WE problem. And it’s time we take responsibility: by changing corporate culture (see Great Resignation) and pushing for work-life policy that is considered a basic human right in every other developed country.
We should do this for our sake and for the folks who are really burnt out and can’t do anything about it. Burnout is not a “you problem”. And it’s not a necessary evil. It’s a physiological consequence of the excesses of high performance culture. It’s inflammation of the soul.
It’s our mind and body screaming at us:
“Work to live, don’t live to work!”
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