Toward A Social-Relational Model Of Burnout?

I’ve some deeply conflicted feelings about Mandy Brown’s thoughts about burnout, sourced in part in my troubles with the ways in which occupational burnout obscures other kinds, including autistic, especially given that the separation seems mostly unnecessary.

Note that I mean here to intentionally rescue burnout from the territory of the mental health industry: in a three-dimensional Venn diagram, there is likely some overlap between burnout and mental health as a category of concern. But burnout is also more and different than that—it’s zeitgeist, it’s shorthand for the way our relationship to work is changing, it’s a criticism of systems that ruthlessly prioritize profits over worker health or equity. It’s the outcome of laws and policies that engender exploitation. Reducing burnout to a mental health issue has the effect of putting it out of reach of bigger structural conditions and relegating it to individualized settings—in effect, this allows those structural conditions to escape interrogation or intervention. I’m not saying there isn’t a mental health component to burnout, or that some sufferers of burnout won’t benefit from therapy or treatment. I am saying that we cannot fully address the problem that is burnout if we see the scope of repair as limited to mental health.

There’s no need to “rescue burnout from the territory of the mental health industry” if one looks at things through the lens of the social-relational model of disability—and, surely, we need to look at burnout through a disability, or at least disability-informed, lens.

My first exposure to the social-relational model of disability came from an extraordinarily-useful paper on autistic burnout almost a year ago now. (See also my post about seeking relational capacity.)

The [social-relational model] bridges these perspectives [between the medical and social models], conceptualizing disability as a form of social oppression dependent on the relationship between an individual’s “impairments” and social and environmental influences. While aspects of a person’s condition may restrict their activity, disability is socially imposed.

Brown basically walks right up to why I think it’s imperative to divorce burnout from work when she describes burnout as “a criticism of systems that ruthlessly prioritize profits over worker health or equity" and “the outcome of laws and policies that engender exploitation”. These dynamics go far beyond work, our relationship to it, and society’s valorization of it. They go, in fact, to the more critical underlying point that capital requires the negation both of solidarity and of capacity.

We get nowhere in the fight against burnout—and certainly we are self-undercutting both solidarity and capacity—if we limit ourselves, but the limit isn’t one of limiting ourselves to talk of mental health. Instead, it’s one of limiting ourselves to viewing mental health somehow as separate from social critique.

Referring posts