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It’s Imperative We Divorce Burnout From Work

After reading the latest Jonathan Malesic newsletter and thinking for a bit, I’m compelled to return to the burnout discourse once again.

First, let’s talk about the lengthy Men’s Health article Malesic links, because I need to come back to this idea that we are getting trapped into talking about burnout as if its only an occupational hazard, when the reality is that the occupational hazard is just the head of the burnout hydra on which we spend all our attention.

Whenever I read an article (or a book) about bunout, I do some simple word substituion. For instance, the WHO’s “increased mental distance from one’s job” becomes “increased mental distance from one’s life”, and Malesic’s “being stretched across a gap, between your ideals for work and the reality of your job” becomes “being stretched across a gap, between your ideals for life and the reality of your life”. Even this, though, only gets us a bit closer to a wider understanding of burnout because it’s really important to understand that it’s not merely about ideals, it’s about resources versus demands.

More, it’s not just about ideals and resources-versus-demands, it’s about a cultural bias toward the idea that anything and everything—and anyone and everyone—is to be judged by their use.

The dirty little secret about the burnout discourse’s focus on the workplace is that the value system of the workplace in fact infects and infests our entire culture. The goal of capital is unfettered accumulation and its method is resource extraction, and nothing and no one is immune from being seen as a resource to be extracted. In fact, if you aren’t being “of use”, our cultural value system equates that to being of no worth. It’s why we try to warehouse our the elderly and infirm in institutions where their “worthless” bodies can be generating value for the institution.

It’s telling that most of the purported success stories in articles like this one from Men’s Health are about people who somewhat revised their vocation but nonetheless are doing things like founding “a new youth media channel devoted to wellness”—in other words, they still are locked into the normative standard of needing to be “of use”. You don’t hear many success stories of overcoming burnout that feature people who’ve entirely escaped the economic hussle, because this simply isn’t allowed (nor, really, permitted to be imagined).

At the end of the Men’s Health piece, Malesic does highlight the thing that gets lost in the productivity shuffle around burnout.

Dr Malesic, on the other hand, reaches for a word that has all but disappeared from the language around work: dignity. ‘In the Anglo-American world, we tend to accord people dignity only if they have paid employment,’ he says. ‘But people should be accorded dignity just by virtue of being a human. We shouldn’t need to prove ourselves through our work. We should have the confidence to say: I matter. I am valid. I deserve to have a say regardless of my work.’

Where he loses the thread, though, is there at the end: this is not about “confidence”.

Just as Kate Daley, a clinical psychologist quoted by Men’s Health, says that addressing occupational burnout isn’t “just about doing things as an individual” but is “caused by organisations and it needs to be addressed by organisations”, so, too, do we need to understand that it’s not enough for an individual to have the “confidence” of self-worth if the entire cultural values field surrounding them and suffusing their lives says, often violently, otherwise.

In the final two-thirds of Malesic’s newsletter this week, he talks about capitalism, and he admits, right at the end, that he doesn’t “spend a lot of time” on the subject in his book on burnout. He’s not so sure, he says, “that if capitalism suddenly ended, we would get rid of burnout”.

[…] Burnout is not simply the experience of being squeezed. It’s the experience of being stretched between cultural ideals for work and the reality of your job. The cultural ideals for work in the rich world today are so closely intertwined with capitalism, I don’t think it’s possible to isolate the “capitalist” element anymore.

This really, I think, misses the point. Malesic’s conception of what the “end of capitalism” might look like seems to be limited to things such as imagining “[p]eople who work for nonprofits” today, or the difference between “working for Exxon Mobil” and “working for Mexico’s state-owned oil company”. These latter comparisons are especially rich, because they betray that Malesic doesn’t seem to understand that “ending” capitalism doesn’t mean going from working for a private corporation to working for a state corporation. It would mean ending the relentless cultural engine of unfettered accumulation and resource extraction.

I mean, really: an “end” to capitalism that still involves working for an oil company?

Malesic is right that “people should be accorded dignity just by virtue” of, you know, existing. His late-arriving analysis of the role of capitalism culture, however, seemingly falls just short of understanding. He’s right that capitalism and our “cultural ideals” are intertwined—that “those ideals are shaped by the broader economic system, but they also have lives of their own”—but the fact that those deals are determined and structured by capital is the entire point. Diminishing, even if not abolishing, the role of capital’s accumulative and extractive violence won’t prevent or prohibit anyone from deciding to overcommit themselves or work themselves too hard, but that’s entirely not the point.

Worrying about some sort of leftover productivity mindset on the part of this or that individual puts us squarely in “forest for the trees” territory.

Even in a post-capital world, might someone still choose to overwork themselves to the brink or beyond regardless? Of course—but since burnout is not an individual phenomenon, and certainly isn’t about personal “confidence”, the point is that neither they nor the rest of us would spend our lives coiled in a perpetual hypervigilence at the point of a gun held by a system that refuses our worth unless we are “of use”.

This post originally was published 3 months ago by Bix Frankonis on Posts older than a decade might not reflect my current views.