The new slaves?

Why burnout is a social, political and ethical problem

I'm someone who gets easily bored: if I start a novel and don't enjoy it I just leave it, if a project or a place doesn't excite me I'm out, if a person doesn't challenge and inspire me the relation will not go very far. With work I'm lucky to have found the right match. After many years I still find burnout to be a fascinating topic, I suppose the reason is that burnout is not simply about personal self-care as many "how to" books would like us to believe. Rather it is a social, political and ethical problem. Understanding burnout is about questioning the "rat-race", adopting a critical mindset and reflecting on a lifestyle that has turned people into "minions" married to their job no matter how dysfunctional the relation is. Exploring burnout means addressing what is fundamentally flawed in our society.

If Karl Marx were to write about workers' conditions in today's western and westernised societies, I like to think that he would critically reflect on how - while work conditions have improved for some - "the new assembly line" is made up of mindless paperwork and of inboxes clogged by hundreds of unread emails. It is no longer the factory that kills people, it is what anthropologist David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs" - jobs that break our spirit. Grabaer writes:

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working [...]. The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger [...]. And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

I love this analysis, it points to the social and political dimension of our psychological distress. Even among those who have meaningful jobs - idealists who work in social change or serve as doctors, nurses, social workers, humanitarians - there is an amount of soul-killing duties that turn people into bureaucrats, an endless list of "bullshit tasks", a box-ticking exercise aimed at complying with organisational policies. If your job is meaningful but you spend a considerable chunk of your time with your head buried behind a screen trying to catch up with a never-ending flow of emails and bureaucracy, can you still say that your job is meaningful? I just spoke to a nurse who is considering leaving her hospital job because she can't deal any more with all the meaningless paperwork. The world is full of people who entered a profession that promised to be fulfilling for oneself and useful for others, and find themselves stuck in a BS job. And that's were often burnout and/or boredom kick in. Burnout is so prevalent in our society and across professions not simply because we lack work-life balance, but because many are stuck in jobs that are made up of pointless tasks, where overly competitive and bureaucratic organisations do little to foster learning, care and transformation. Opening conversations on the social dimension of burnout seems to me a constructive way to rediscover our humanity at work, going beyond a solipsistic practice of self-care, and taking a good look at a form of systemic violence that, in the name of productivity and success, damages our health and our relations.