Beyond Burnout: Finding Meaning in Contradictions

The challenge is not to reject happiness in favour of duty of self sacrifice but to initiate processes of thinking, feeling, and acting that undo subjection, starting from everyday life’

Nick Montgomery and carla bergmann, Joyful Militancy

Numerous articles proliferate extolling the need for more attention to be paid to the phenomenon of burnout, with most pieces in this genre follow a similar format, paying lip service to the idea that the structural dynamics of contemporary labour relations themselves produce distress, then pivoting sharply to prescribing engagement in atomised coping behaviours such as meditation, counselling and exercise. The proliferation of burnout, evidenced by the cottage industry of writing about it (I see the irony here), remains largely unexamined as a symptom of the way we understand our relationship to both work and the material reality of our condition in the neoliberal economy. In this piece I seek to present burnout as something which should be understood as one part of the broader story about the contradictions between labour and capital. In particular, I want to explore the abuse of our compassion for each other in order to maintain the structure of society, and the dissatisfaction this generates. This dissatisfaction itself is revealing of our desire for something more in our relationships to each other and ourselves, and contains the hope for a meaningful action.

Burnout goes public

Writing on burnout emerged spontaneously in two places in the 1970s. Psychotherapist Herbert Freudenberger used the term to describe his experience of unpaid work at a clinic with other volunteers in New York, working with people experiencing substance use issues. He observed that the enthusiasm of people who passionately took on this role dissipated after about a year, to be replaced with physical exhaustion, irritability and apathy towards the work itself. In California, psychologist Christina Maslach and her academic colleagues were separately conducting research on the fatigue of service workers in what became known as the ‘Maslach Burnout Inventory’, which asked a series of questions grouped into the domains of: exhaustion, depersonalisation and personal accomplishment that Maslach felt characterised the phenomenon of burnout in her studies. The fact that these two high-profile accounts of burnout emerged at the same time suggests that this was a concept that already existed in the lexicon of service workers, and after these articles exposed it the concept was debated widely, though still largely within the health and service sectors.

The emergence of this discourse in the 1970s amongst this specific group of educated service workers aligns with other developments observed at the time. In 1977 Barbara and John Ehrenreich coined the term ‘professional-managerial class’ (PMC) in their paper of the same name to formulate their experiences as socialist organisers at their university. They proposed that the PMC had developed via the state’s appropriation of working-class social reproduction , using the example of midwifery to explain that traditional community practices had been replaced by degree-holding professionals who were strangers to the people they worked with. These practices were then redeployed in the apparatus of social control and propaganda, for instance by social workers, teachers and journalists. Another feature of the original paper that is useful for our purposes is the observation that there is a fundamental anxiety felt by the PMC in that their status in society is predicated on both a paternalism towards the working class and an emotional investment in the functions of the state. The Ehrenreichs’s suggestion here is that because the status of the PMC requires the sanctification of specialised bodies of knowledge, it is in their class interest to outsource as many aspects of their lives as possible to other professionals (counsellors, accountants, lawyers, and tutors for their children). This leads to a situation in which private life is progressively colonised by these external influences.

Clearly this insight is applicable to more than just middle class professionals today. In The Managed Heart, Arlie Hochschild uses the term ‘emotional labour’ to describe this kind of commodification of feelings by external influences. That private feelings have become parts of ourselves that can be bought and sold is a feature of jobs far exceeding those directly involved in formal ‘care’ industries. Cheeriness and agreeability are arguably a feature of every workplace in which human interaction occurs. The imposition of ownership over feelings is described by David Graeber in ‘Anthropology and the Rise of the Professional-Managerial Class’ as a form of ‘spiritual violence’ that attacks workers’ sense of their own internal autonomy of thought and feeling. This form of mass alienation speaks to the resonance that the burnout concept has for a wide range of workers who feel that their emotions are not their own.

As these discussions of emotional commodification indicate, the concept of burnout itself may not be a discrete phenomenon. Indeed, there have also been pointed critiques of both Maslach’s and Freudenberger’s characterisations of burnout as they emerged in the 1970s. In 1981, in ‘Burnout as Alienation’, social worker Howard J. Karger equated burnout directly with Marx’s theory of alienation, arguing that whereas the alienation of the industrial worker is a person-object relationship, the situation of service workers is person-person, whereby the interpersonal skills of the worker are transformed into commodities such that the worker themself becomes an object. Karger points directly to the financialisation of the economy and the emergence of ‘scientific management’ as contributors to the alienation of workers. Graeber explains this process as a transformation from an emphasis on surplus extraction from labour to one on direct extraction through rent-seeking, making all workers fair game for exploitation of their labour, their leisure and their lassitude.

Waves of Alienation

There are important antecedents to burnout that can enlighten us as to its contemporary role. The task of social reproduction is a crucial one to the function of any system, and capitalism is no different. The task of social reproduction is essentially the creation of new people for a society, and it has been a feature of scholarly debate since Plato’s Republic. In trying to explain by the middle of the twentieth century why it was that workers under the often miserable conditions of industrial production did not always rise up against their oppression, Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm formulated the idea that

Capitalism functions only with men who are eager to work, who are disciplined and punctual, whose main interest is monetary gain, and whose principle in life is profit as a result of production and exchange

In ‘The Application of Humanist Psychoanalysis to Marx’s Theory’, Fromm described this project as the ‘social character’, which was enforced through every aspect of society from entertainment and art to education and parenting. This is reminiscent of course of all of the different tasks that the Ehrenreichs described with the PMC, in particular the paternalist element which positions the state as parent to the undisciplined masses. The social character, Fromm argues, is unstable; it necessitates the denial of a full humanity, so the worker must attend to this missing part through the mechanisms of the economy, namely perpetual consumption. Yet it is also in this fundamental dissatisfaction, enforced in the social character, that Fromm sees the hope for change when a critical consciousness of this condition can be developed.

Another feature that burnout may help us explain is the avoidance of dissonance that may lead to dissent. Asylums, Irving Goffman’s study of ‘total institutions’ originally published in 1961, contains a passage interesting in its use of language reminiscent of burnout. In relation to a staff member feeling empathy towards the suffering of inmates of the institution in which they work, Goffman writes,

The sympathising staff member may feel he has been ‘burnt’ and retreat into paper work, committee work, or other staff-enclosed routines. Once removed from the dangers of inmate contact, he may gradually cease to feel he has reason to be wary, and then the cycle of contact and withdrawal may be repeated again.

Here we have a description of a phenomenon in which the risk of developing feelings which make the oppressive tasks of the institutional worker untenable is managed by a withdrawal into administrative duties. Goffman’s description of the phenomenon of being ‘burnt’ by dissonance and subsequently rejecting of it is, as he sees it, a natural part of the cycle of the ecosystem of an institution and not an aberration. This speaks to the fundamental instability of the social character, that even within the confines of a total institution the human impulse for empathy is unable to be fully crushed.

The new precarity

Viewed in this way, burnout becomes a question of power. The function of burnout is precisely to break down the human empathy of workers, especially those of us employed as functionaries of the state to control its subjects. The risk of such empathy is that we will recognise the contradictions in our world that lead to our shared distress. The endless reframing of the individualised, atomising solutions to the ‘problem’ of burnout demonstrates that it is really no problem at all, and further reinforces the disconnection that characterises the experience of burnout. The inequities of this experience are also concealed by the flattening narrative of universal burnout. Those who provide care in precarious circumstances, casualised employment, or unpaid labour are not afforded the luxury of reprieve. Under neoliberalism the privileged workers are afforded, in exchange for their compliance, a more comfortable misery.

By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Barbara Ehrenreich had abandoned her theory that the PMC would come to dominate the economy. The financialisation of capital which characterised the neoliberal agenda of Reagan, Thatcher and the Hawke–Keating governments, and the defeat of militant labour resulting in ‘capitalism without opposition’ has also ensured the increasing precarity of what was once the relatively privileged position of the PMC. Ehrenreich pointed to the new normal of ‘debt-ridden unemployed and underemployed college graduates, the revenue-starved teachers, the overworked and underpaid service professionals, even the occasional whistle-blowing scientist or engineer’ as evidence of the blurring of distinctions between the professional and the proletariat, indicating a greater degree of mutual interest perhaps than had been obvious in the 1970s, as well as a changing in the material context in which burnout today occurs. Oncologist Ranjana Srivastava reminds us, for instance, that health care professionals are at much higher risk of dying by suicide than the general population, indicating that the distinction between service user and service provider is not as clear as it may appear on the surface and that the interests of workers and the people we work with are, at a human level, very much aligned.

The cult of work

There is also something that must be said about the ideology of work itself which permeates any discussion of burnout. We are all taught to view our worth as human beings in the context of our employment, and this is reinforced in every aspect of our society. Those who are unable to work (in the sense that exclusively refers to wage-labour) are viewed with pity or outright hostility in media accounts. Those who adhere to the wage-labour system and find themselves in precarity are mythologised as ‘battlers’. Refusal to perform undignified work is punished with heavy financial penalties, which have forced people, as with the Robodebt scheme, into mental illness and death. The fact that the Reserve Bank of Australia’s governor Phillip Lowe has agreed to meet with Suicide Prevention Australia in response to his decision to raise interest rates is a piece of gruesome pantomime pointing to the sacrifice of human life necessary for the performance of the economic rituals that animate capitalism.

This misanthropy at the heart of the political economy has placed impossible demands on our own compassion as workers. The crisis of care in the United Kingdom provides revealing examples of the disconnect between the values of compassion and respect for human dignity essential for the delivery of high-quality healthcare and the lived experience of working under the military logic of a warzone, or the impersonal drudgery of an assembly line. Nurses David Richards and Gunilla Borgin describe this ‘shitty nursing’ as a new normal in a system designed to run on perpetual crisis. They cite on the one hand failures in basic service provision, and on the other the tendency of careers to move skilled practitioners swiftly into management roles, leading to abstraction of leadership. Burnout is not an aberration. It is necessary for such a system to function. Burnout violently divides workers from their values to better act as agents of a deliberately neglectful state.

Given this context, it is unsurprising that the refusal of work has become weaponised against workers. At the beginning of the pandemic the spectre of the Great Resignation prophesied the mass defiance of workers choosing personal satisfaction over ceaseless toil, the emphasis being on the selfishness of workers in depriving industry of compliant labour. The evolution of this concept into the even more deeply conspiratorial phenomenon of Quiet Quitting, in which workers merely perform their jobs as directed without immiserating themselves for no reason, shows the ways in which public discourse continues to promote an ideology of not simply compliant workers, but happy and cheerful ones. Further to this theme, an amusing article in Fortune now warns managers to remain vigilant to the Resenteeism, an apparently novel phenomenon of people hating their jobs. One can imagine the group of managers—perhaps at a corporate wellness retreat—reciting such stories by the campfire to frighten one another. Such capitalist hysteria occurs often alongside innocuous articles warning of the impacts of burnout, suggesting a narrative being driven by the dominant ideology rather than one that acknowledges the experience and causes of alienation.

Prefigurative action: Learning to feel for ourselves

Overcoming burnout doesn’t mean we have to add more and more activities to our schedules to balance our lives at work. Fitting in another yoga class, a run before work and a counselling session on top of all of our other responsibilities may contribute to a feeling of burnout in some, despite how useful these activities may themselves be to others. Rather, it is important that we thoughtfully align our activities with the aims of the world we wish to inhabit. Graeber describes this as ‘prefigurative action’:

making one’s means as far as possible identical with one’s ends, creating social relations and decision making processes that at least approximate those that might exist in the kind of society we’d like to bring about … The defiant acting as if one is already free.

In recent years there appears to have been a rediscovery of militancy. Rent strikes during the pandemic and the community organising that emerged thereafter demonstrate the strength of actions that respond directly to material circumstances through co-operation. Despite decades of assault on organised labour—or because of it—workers have generated significant popular support for the ongoing protests across the economy in the United Kingdom. Last year nurses in Western Australia engaged in industrial action for the first time in 24 years. The building of such webs of mutuality, when constructed with patience and care, is the real prescription required to overcome burnout as a structural force in contemporary capitalism. Alliances across those traditional professional boundaries are also needed in order to create new ways of relating to one another outside of the care that is authorised by the corporate state. In recognising the causes of burnout, we can lean into its contradictions and emerge the other side with our humanity reclaimed.

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About the author

Matt Rogers

Matt is a social worker in so-called Melbourne who is interested in the construction of mental illness in society and seeks to embed radical perspectives into the practice of care.

More articles by Matt Rogers

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Matt, not only a timely take on an increasingly re-cycled topic, but a diversely sourced, original and lively read. Your situating of ‘work’, and how this locus is so problematic, was particularity telling. For sure, keep the real good work coming, regards, Mark

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