Burnout is not an individual problem: it’s cultural

The way we think and talk about burnout needs to change. 

As individuals we feel it.  And we often think the solutions need to be individual too (more resilience training, anyone?).  But it will take a cultural shift to really address burnout, and create sustainable workplaces that are integrated and even connected parts within our lives.

I have been reading ‘The End of Burnout’ by Jonathan Malesic.  Part of what I am appreciating is how Malesic defines burnout as a disconnect between expectations of work (your own, or broader expectations of what you ‘should’ be getting out of working as your life’s purpose), and what the work is actually like.  He says this disconnect can lead to feelings of cynicism, disengagement, and general uselessness and disconnection.  He is a former academic, and left his job because of burnout. 

But a big part of what Malesic emphasizes is how the solution for burnout is usually discussed as taking place within individuals. 

Things like: how you need to reconnect with your passion for work, or the values of your work, or how you need to develop tools for resilience, or how you can practice self-care.  And, please don’t get me wrong here: when done for your personhood, not because you will be more “productive,” self-care can be a political act.  But what Malesic is saying is that this focus on individuals is mis-placed.  The solution needs to be collective.

Burnout is a cultural problem. 

Here’s an example. 

One of my besties sent me a text.  It reads: “I was commenting to a coworker this week “ok, so I’ve identified how I feel as burnout… now what? All the stuff I read is not helpful.  I can’t just “cut back on work” and “carve out more quiet time”… I feel like I need to just not do anything for like a year!” 

And then another: “I feel like I need something that’s “just a job” so I don’t care about it… but then how do I find the motivation to DO it for the majority of my waking life… ugh.

My friend has identified 2 things. 

  • Most burnout rhetoric is telling them they need to change themselves to avoid and navigate burnout.  Stuff like saying no to certain things at work, or carving out more personal “me” time.  But this isn’t helpful nor what they need.  What my friend suggests is that they need a complete break in order to recalibrate.  The current ways of doing things are just too much – they need a really, really long time away to even begin to feel balanced.
  • A possible solution could be getting “just a job” that they don’t care about.  Something they can go to and be paid for, but don’t have much investment in.  But this leaves them wondering how this will be sustainable in the long run, given work is where they spend the majority of their waking life.  With the “just a job” scenario, it’s possible there would be no connection.

But here’s the crux of the issue: we are assuming the solution needs to be individual. 

The problems are 1) the structures of work are not sustainable (granted my friend didn’t go into the details of what those structures are in their text), and all the suggested individual adaptations like carving out more “me time” or working to be resilient are not helpful, and 2) they seek some kind of meaning where they spend the greatest part of their day, even, or especially, if it’s not a grand life purpose.

An individual shouldn’t be changing their expectations around aspiring to have some kind of meaning or connection in their work, and to work in a sustainable way.  It should not be a radical thought to aspire for dignity. 

The problem is cultural, and so the solution needs to be collective. 

We need to re-think the place and meaning of work in our lives, and then we need to build different structures to reflect those values.

Arts & Culture must be central in Canada’s COVID reality

COVID-19 has brought incredible social unrest and change, as well as personal disillusionment, and feelings of overwhelm. Many of us feel like we’re lurching from one task to the next, drowning in overwhelming inequities exposed by COVID and the realities of juggling multiple-roles and tasks simultaneously.  This is why, my friends, arts and culture must be central to a COVID-world and as part of Canada’s recovery. 

The arts not only provide us all with space to consider complex social issues, but they are also important to do just for the heck of it.  Now, more than ever, we all need to be reminded of why we are alive, and that we are not just vehicles of productivity that eat, sleep and work.

Others have made this argument before me.  Earlier in the pandemic, Amanda Parris brilliantly advocated that it is artists who are getting us through COVID and the arts need to be a national priority. Not only do I agree, but I think arts and culture need to lead us and will help us build a better world.

In Canada we like to measure value through economic impact. StatsCan reports that the GDP of culture industries ($59 billion) is larger than the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industries combined ($39 billion), as well as accommodation and food services ($46 billion), and utilities ($46 billion). However, this emphasis on economics entirely misses the point.  I would even say it’s part of what’s gotten us in this pickle in the first place (to put it lightly).

Connecting with culture and engaging with art are important beyond the obvious economic impacts.  This pandemic has brought tremendous social change and restructuring – things like new work-home environments, different reliance on technology across sectors, as well as policies and procedures in a range of environments (like long term care, education and healthcare).  This collapsing and re-structuring has revealed troublesome inequities deeply embedded within our systems (related to race, class, age, gender, etc.).  It’s no surprise that individuals report burnout and mental health stresses at alarming rates.   

The arts can provide spaces to grapple with social change and ethical issues. For example: what DO we think and feel about seniors living in long-term care and current policies in place? Or how can stories of Queer people and BIPOC continue to expose inequities and provide creative imaginings for the future? (there are countless examples, but you can find a small handful herehere and here).  But, frankly, it’s important for individuals to ‘just do’ art for the sake of it.  We need to remind ourselves that we can imagine and play, that we can be in the world without “producing” (money); that we are human beings.

Research supports this too.  As an example from my research about therapeutic clowns (yes, clowns!), my team and I found that disabled kids play with clowns in hospitals not to become “more productive adults” in the future; They play to feel and be in the world, to have agency, to imagine and be silly, and that this is important for their mental health.

Similarly, the research-based documentary ‘Music is Life’ which was filmed at The Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy (led by Drs Christine Jonas-Simpson, Pia Kontos and Sherry Dupuis), shares that the reasons that people with dementia make music are not what you might think.  Making music isn’t about “curing dementia” or “improving memory”; the point is to do it just for fun (who knew!), and to share with each other and contribute to the world in creative ways.

We all deserve to be in the world in these ways, and as a society we need to build strong policies and systems that support this.  This centering on the arts and culture must happen alongside and integrated with the re-structuring of labour, workplace, economic, education, and health care policy in a post-COVID Canada.  Research from Canada Council for the Arts tells us that virtually all Canadians participate in the arts and deeply value those experiences. Our policies, such as the ways artists and arts workers are supported and how all of us must continue to access the arts in a range of ways, must reflect this. This valuing of the arts and culture must be prioritized and lead us into the future.

If COVID is showing us how the emphasis on the constant need for productivity has failed us, we need to dedicate time and energy (and also craft our policies) to just being-in-the-world, imagining alternatives, daydreaming, playing, and relishing in something just for the heck of it. 

Start knitting, sing in the shower, press leaves, dance to the radio, lazily read a book, experiment with that family recipe, watch a play on-line – do it badly, do it brilliantly, whatever. We are more than the sum of our parts; we are sensing, emotional, feeling, creative and imaginative human beings. THIS is how we guide our kids; THIS is how we support our seniors; THIS is how we build a better world.

**An earlier version of this post was published on my first blog, The Curiouser PhD in October 2020