I am a man who knows burnout. Last summer, I found myself in the deepest work-related hole I’ve experienced. I spent some time (with help) looking at what parts of my burnout were on me and what parts were outside of my control—the elements of my fatigue that were, you know, out there.
I made a list of these outside components, intending to have it come together into a short essay, but I was never able to have the ideas coalesce. So, rather than have the ideas rot in my Notes app, I thought I’d do a copy/paste job and share them here in their original form.
Reasons for Burnout
- Achievement culture: believing that identity and safety are only available through high achievement
- Metastasized independence: America’s supernatural skill to transform systemic problems and inefficiencies into personal problems and responsibilities, e.g. health care, privatization of public services, imperative to “work harder” to overcome gender- and race-based pay gaps, etc.
- Feelings of futility: a feeling that previous successes will vanish or that progress doesn’t stick, so effort never accumulates or pays dividends, e.g. hamster wheel of demands of time or money growing faster than the capacity to earn income or save time, the investment to learn and reorient to new methods that will be outmodded in close to the amount of time they take to learn, etc.
- Visibility leading to hyperactive comparison: passivity and visibility locking together to invite comparison and create a debilitating scarcity mindset. Comparisons leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or fear of failure. Constant self-reproach and self-aggression.
- Authenticity imperative: pressure to be oneself, but to adapt (distort?) that self to ensure achievement, status, or safety.
- Angst ⭤ isolation: the more of a mess the world becomes, the more it seems you can only trust yourself. World weariness triggers self-dependency, creating a feedback loop that can only end in burnout.
- Bullshit tasks and meta-work: admin and management overshadows productive labor. Instead of being tired with one another (like a basketball team) we become tired of one another (like a marketing team). Tasks with tangible outcomes are naturally de-prioritized and people focus on meta-work that is incentivized. (See #3.) [Partially accurate but too jaded, rephrase later?]
- Lack of ethics: the only ethic is work ethic. Questions no longer ask if something should be done, but if it can be done. Whatever works is permitted, meaning nothing can be ruled out, discounted, or ignored.
- Self-improvement industrial complex: the mistake of seeing life as a project, despite it being something you can’t solve or get out of. Trying to “jump over your own shadow.” Framing development as “fixing yourself” instead of growth.
- Abundance problem: too much of everything—over-production, over-achievement, over-communication—leads to the problems of abundance: exhaustion, fatigue, and suffocation—when too much exists.
- Positivity bias: cultural blindspot of missing problems that are the repercussion of too much of a cherished value, like freedom, communication, and personal responsibility. “The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.” –Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society. A disease of abundance requires abstinence, not antidotes.
If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on “total work” and how work isn’t working, this interview with Creative Boom does a nice job of explaining things in a more cohesive way. Maybe some day I’ll be able to get down things with more clarity.