A photo of matches in various states of being burned.

Mental health

Is Burnout Culture Our New Normal?

A nation of overextended, stressed-out workers has created an economic and mental health crisis with seemingly no end in sight.

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A couple of years ago, at a big journalism conference in Washington D.C., I shuffled into a crowded hotel ballroom for a breakout session. Every table was labeled for a different discussion topic, and when I saw Table 17, my stomach sank: Burnout. Just reading the topic made me feel outed. For the better part of that year and the one to follow, I was mentally and emotionally frayed. I was apathetic in my current job, but unmotivated to network my way into a new one. My personal life had blown up when my dad died suddenly earlier that summer. Add in life’s everyday stressors, and I was hanging on by a thread. I headed toward Table 17 to find it already overflowing with other weary faces.

Volunteers passed around exhaustion stories of layoffs and shrinking budgets, the draining 24/7 news cycle, and media’s notoriously bad work-life balance. Few had solutions, and those that did offer suggestions to better ourselves and our companies appeared to not believe their own advice. As we neared the end of the session, a radio producer several years my senior expressed her disappointment in seeing so many young faces in the group. “You’re too young to feel this way,” she said, looking directly at me. “You’re the future! You have to stay positive to carry on and make the changes this industry needs. Just put in the work to get to the next, better job.” Afterward, she came up to me to ask if I had tried meditation.

Burnout has been called “civilization’s disease.” It’s an affliction that spans industries and income brackets. Its pervasiveness in our culture makes it a relatively normal, even expected experience of our modern economy. But the scale to which it is affecting people today is staggering. According to a 2020 Gallup report, a total of 76 percent of workers reported feeling burned out at least sometimes, with 28 percent reporting they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work. If three-quarters of employees at a company are experiencing varying levels of burnout, then the crowd of overextended journalists at Table 17 makes sense; it’s not only one company or industry. Meanwhile, Black people and other people of color are suffering from multiple chronic stresses outside of work, most stemming from systemic racism, and social and economic disparities, which lead them to die at 2.4 times the rate of white Americans. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately affects Black and brown communities. Burnout has become a collective economic and mental health crisis and one whose effects permeate every part of our lives.

Burnout was first introduced into the psychology lexicon in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, who defined it as “a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life,” after he observed previously idealistic mental health volunteers at a free clinic in New York City appear to become depleted, cynical, and unmotivated on the job. But it was Christina Maslach, Ph.D., professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the foremost researchers on burnout, who explored the concept in great detail through the 1970s and beyond. She, along with Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers University, created the most influential framework for assessing burnout, called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The scale evaluates burnout based on three stress responses: an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and a sense of professional ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Just last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized burnout as a syndrome stemming from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” WHO’s characterization of burnout is consistent with Malasch’s research.

The origins of burnout, Maslach explains, can be traced back to Silicon Valley startups in the 1960s and early 1970s, which used what she calls the “burnout shop” business model. The model was defined by 24/7 work and self-sacrifice in everything outside the job in an effort to get quick growth and results. “It was something that was only supposed to be used for a short time,” she says. “But what we’re seeing more and more is that model of self-sacrifice is becoming the model for the marathon, for the long-term jobs.”

What results is an unsustainable economic culture in which personal losses mount while a few remain comfortable. Then when something like the coronavirus pandemic swings in, the emphasis on the importance of self-sacrifice only deepens. Employees have been expected to flawlessly transition from the office to working from home while taking layoffs and pay cuts as par for the course. That’s all on top of homeschooling kids, providing summer childcare, caregiving for at-risk parents and relatives, and attempting to not get sick themselves. Any level of privilege—fast home wi-fi, a big backyard, a stable company—can make the new normal more manageable. But the responsibility of upholding the status quo still remains on the already overburdened: women, people of color, and the poor.

The health consequences of sustained exhaustion, detachment, and lack of motivation quickly add up. Research shows that sustained burnout contributes to cycles of neurological dysfunction and may even change the very structure of our brains, as well as cause potential disruptions to creativity, problem-solving, and our memory—all of which have been deemed professionally essential for success. Worsening cases of burnout can look more like depression, and lead to further disruptive behaviors such as sleep deprivation, substance abuse, neglect of one’s self and relationships,  withdrawal and depersonalization, and suicide. If the question is: How can someone go on past these warning signs? Then the answer is burnout. It’s reaching the end of your rope and pushing on, doing even more with ever less.

But we’re also dealing with a collective burnout, one that reporter Anne Helen Petersen sees as generational. She writes that millennials, who are now in their mid-20s to about 40 years old, have been reared to optimize everything about ourselves. And instead of the economic instability of two recessions, crushing student loan debt, a fractured social safety net, and job insecurity forcing them to quit, they doubled-down in an attempt to “win the system” through more hustle. Our parents sold us their success narrative of earning a college degree and getting a good job through hard work will pay off. We bought in, internalizing that our circumstances are a fault of our own. If we aren’t living the dream, we are “lazy” and “entitled” narcissists. It’s the fruits of that unending hustle that are fed back to us through an effortless, filtered life on social media. And if you’re not achieving that life? You need to work harder on yourself; pick up new hobbies, exercise more, maybe even, as it was suggested to me, meditate. “We put up with companies treating us so poorly because we don’t see another option,” she writes. “We don’t quit. We internalize that we’re not striving enough. And we get a second gig.”

Pinpointing burnout’s existence for an individual is only half the battle of solving it or treating it. “What we’re dealing with is a problem of unhealthy workplaces,” says Malasch, and arguably, we’re also dealing with unhealthy economic and social systems that encourage burnout to emerge. To combat burnout at its source, Malasch and her collaborators have outlined six components that can lead to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Burnout happens when one of the areas is chronically mismatched between a person and their job, and frequent evaluation of those categories by companies and leaders can create healthier environments. Focusing on what Malasch describes as “pebbles”—the hundreds of tiny disappointments that accumulate over time—can help break down the impending wall of frustration they build and create optimism that more problems can be solved. And centering problem-solving around the motivation-hygiene theory, which explains that there are certain factors in the workplace that cause satisfaction while a separate set of factors cause dissatisfaction, all of which act independently of each other, can help prevent burnout, too. Motivators include challenging or meaningful work, responsibility, and recognition, whereas hygiene factors include things like a fair salary, health care, and job security. People need balance in both, and leaders can make sure to differentiate the two to help suss out what is making their employees burn out.

These options aren’t particularly comforting to someone living with burnout. It’d be easiest to take a quick vacation or meditate it away. But individual actions to heal will only be a band-aid approach as long as burnout remains the symptom of our culture to prioritize the economic success of workers over the people themselves. “Because overworking for less money isn’t always visible—because job hunting means trawling LinkedIn, because ‘overtime’ now means replying to emails in bed—the extent of our labor is often ignored, or degraded,” writes Petersen. “The thing about American labor, after all, is that we’re trained to erase it.” If the second shift of parenting, the emotional labor women often shoulder at work, the racial traumas and injustices, the side hustle, the caregiving of relatives can stay hidden, there will always be more time for work.

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