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.