As I established earlier, I’m interested in the conversation around so-called occupational burnout primarily because I’m sensitive to whether it will elevate or obscure the conversation about autistic burnout, but also because I worry that the focus on work belies that our culture generally breeds a disconnect between the mythology of what we think is good for us and what actually is good for us.
To repeat myself: our society’s innate and implicit peer pressure to be “productive”—to conform and perform—results in a fundamental disquiet that reaches across populations and surrounds far more than our work lives.
Over at The Baffler, Charlie Tyson examines how burnout “became the buzzword of the moment”, using as a jumping-off point Jonathan Malesic’s recent book, The End of Burnout. Tyson notes that many popular “journalistic treatments of burnout […] tend to emphasize the heroic exertions of the burned-out worker”. This not only valorizes acceding to the pressure of conform and perform but also continues narrowly to focus only on occupational burnout, failing to grapple with whether or not it’s merely an aspect of a much more structural psychological malady.
The psychologist Christina Maslach, a foundational figure in burnout research—the Maslach Burnout Inventory is the standard burnout assessment—sees burnout as having three components: exhaustion; cynicism or depersonalization (detectable in doctors, for example, who see their patients as “problems” to be solved, rather than people to be treated); and a sense of ineffectiveness or futility. Exhaustion is easy to brag about, inefficacy less so. Accounts of the desperate worker as labor-hero ignore the important fact that burnout impairs your ability to do your job. A “precise diagnostic checklist” for burnout, Malesic writes, would curtail loose claims of fashionable exhaustion, while helping people who suffer from burnout seek medical treatment.
Last time, I talked a bit about how a list of burnout symptoms accurately reflected my four decades living unknowingly as an autistic person, and certainly Maslach’s trinity of “exhaustion; cynicism or depersonalization […]; and a sense of ineffectiveness of futility” perfectly encapsulates that life experience. It’s my experience with autistic burnout which informs my engagement with all discussions of occupational burnout and which leads me to consider that they each are but one tentacle of a deeper Eldritch horror undulating beneath society as a whole.
Continuing to focus on work, Tyson writes, “If burnout stems, as Malesic says, from the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, then burnout is punishment for idealists.” A framing of the ideal versus the real might make sense when restricting ourselves to talking about work, but I question its fit when talking about that intrinsic field pushing us to conform and perform more generally.
It isn’t idealism to want to be healthy. It’s a natural drive toward claiming a natural right. This is one of the things we don’t notice if we limit our discussions of burnout to the world of work.
Tyson is right that much of the burnout discourse centers an elite for whom it “resonates with affluent professionals who fetishize overwork”, but I think he miscues when, citing Malesic, he compares burnout (which he deems “a transitional term”) to an earlier “historical parallel”: neurasthenia. The miscue isn’t in the comparison, but in the blithe dismissal of the utility of “burnout” because of its elite connotations, like neurasthenia before it.
He quotes American Nervousness, a 19th-century work on neurasthenia by George M. Beard, which compared “the human nervous system to an electrical circuit”. It’s worth taking a minute to read the entirety of the long, somewhat repetitious passage from which Tyson quotes.
Edison’s electric light is now sufficiently advanced in an experimental direction to give us the best possible illustration of the effects of modern civilization on the nervous system. An electric machine of definite horse-power, situated at some central point, is to supply the electricity needed to run a certain number of lamps—say one thousand, more or less. If an extra number of lamps should be interposed in the circuit, then the power of the engine must be increased; else the light of the lamps would be decreased, or give out. This has been mathematically calculated, so that it is known, or believed to be known, by those in charge, just how much increase of horse-power is needed to each increase in the number of lamps. In all the calculations, however widely they may differ, it is assumed that the force supplied by any central machine is limited, and cannot be pushed beyond a certain point; and if the number of lamps interposed in the circuit be increased, there must be a corresponding increase in the force of the machine. The nervous system of man is the centre of the nerve-force supplying all the organs of the body. Like the steam engine, its force is limited, although it cannot be mathematically measured—and unlike the steam engine, varies in the amount of force with the food, the state of health and external conditions, varies with age, nutrition, occupation, and numberless factors. The force in this nervous system can, therefore, be increased or diminished by good or evil influences, medical or hygiene, or by the natural evolutions—growth, disease and decline; but none the less it is limited; and when new functions are interposed in the circuit, as modern civilization is constantly requiring us to do, there comes a period, sooner or later, varying in different individuals, and at different times of life, when the amount of force is insufficient to keep all the lamps actively burning; those that are weakest go out entirely, or, as more frequently happens, burn faint and feebly—they do not expire, but give an insufficient and unstable light—this is the philosophy of modern nervousness.
Six months ago, I mentioned to my therapist that I’d thought of a new metaphor to describe my autistic life. I’ve been trying to find useful metaphors in part because at some point I am going to have to convince the nation’s disability system that I am, in fact, disabled. I’d been using the metaphor of having built the foundation for a house (my ability to live independently) but my inability to build anything atop it (for example, employment and so economic self-sufficiency), lest the foundation collapse.
The new metaphor I’d hit upon for my autistic experience and the limitations it places upon me was that of a house’s electrical wiring.
What I mean by all of this is not that we need to pay more attention to me, or to autistic burnout, but that we need to release the burnout discourse from the shackles of our (pre)occupation with work. What’s really happening is both more pressing and more basic than simply re-engineering the way we think about our jobs. It’s (excuse me) baffling that Tyson calls upon the spirit of neurasthenia only to undermine burnout merely as an elite phenomenon rather than to recognize in each the signs of a more fundamentally unhealthy one.
The body, both politic and personal, suffers from always teetering on the edge of an overload. Some of us keep falling in. Defining the value of our lives only by how little we deviate from some normative standard of how much use we can be cannot help but do anything else.