In defense of burnout culture

August 14, 2023 08:41
Photo: Reuters

The 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) included - for the first time in history - burnout as an occupational phenomenon. ICD-11 defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, prior to outlining three dimensions to it - feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from the job, and reduced professional efficacy.

Contemporary society is no stranger to burnout. Indeed, we see it everywhere - from the ‘guolaosi’ phenomenon in the Sinosphere that has since given rise to terms such as ‘bailan’ and ‘tangping’, in description of the only responses that the crowd could resort to; to the 9-to-5, six-day-a-week routine satirised in ‘Industry’ on HBO or, if you’re old-fashioned, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A world of burnout is one where everyday lives feel miserable, chores and work alike feel unbearable, and even loved ones’ whispers and small talk become little more than anodyne formalities to pass over. A burnt out individual is lethargic, drained, and fundamentally hollow. In other words, ubiquitous by contemporary standards.

It's worth noting that burnout does not appear exclusively to workplaces. Social media platforms are themselves both sources of and platforms for airing of grievances pertaining to burnout. The constant need to impress, to dazzle, to please, in turn results in highly cynical and curated individuals deprived of authenticity and originality, left instead with the vacuous mandate of attracting the largest number of eyeballs from the greatest crowd, measured in numbers as opposed to quality. Even in private lives, we compete over our leisurely activities, the ‘highness’ or ‘lowness’ of our tastes and the ensuing implications this has for our signalling of our cultural capital, and all sorts of mundane trivialities that had once belong squarely and fairly to the bedroom or the living room. Burnout thus results from this - we become too skeptical, too aloof, too confused by others to understand them fully, and to engage them qua equals with whom we can substantively bond.

Burnout is real. And it’s a problem. It could trigger physiological conditions and debilitating mental health conditions. It could also lead us to question the very purpose of the work that we have done - including the good portions of it, which ought to be celebrated and cherished, savoured over and built upon, and yet which are now relegated to the dustbins of our disillusionment. Finally, burnt-out parents - especially women who have had to deal with the ‘second shift’, the extra workload dumped onto her by a harsh and unforgiving set of patriarchal norms permeating society - are unlikely to be effective communicators and facilitators for their children. Indeed, we could even observe the transmission and inheritance of burnout through families, especially the ones governed by high expectations and even higher standards.

Burnout has always been there. Yet the past decades have seen - with intensifying competition amongst the well-paid, professional white-collar class, as well as growing awakening to the importance of and the challenges to our mental health - an increasing ‘culturalisation’ of burn-out. Top corporations work their employees to the limits of their capacities, with the intention of compelling them to ‘burn out’, recalibrate, and adjust their routines accordingly. Artists and creatives drive themselves to ‘burn out’, for that is allegedly where they are at their most vulnerable and spontaneous. And those working 9-to-5 office desk jobs don’t mind burning out, allegedly, because it brings them significant financial revenue and job prospects. The job market is designed to reward those who would put company first over themselves, and their work over their families and other elements of a ‘good life’. All this remains the case, despite talk of ‘ESG’ and ‘work-life balance’. After all, there is no need to balance anything if work IS indeed life, and life IS in fact work.

Does this not sound dystopian? Perhaps to some.

Yet I would make a slightly contrarian claim today.

Whilst burnout is real, is clearly to the detriment of both society and individuals, the culture that has come to embed it - Burnout Culture - is a force of (relative) good. Here’s why.

If we take Burnout Culture to denote the communicative spaces, norms, language, study, and reflections - both affirmative and critical towards burnout, then it is not hard to understand that it serves as a necessary, useful antidote to a deeply pernicious social phenomenon. Indeed, the culture where employees are ‘encouraged’ to burn themselves out, is also the very culture that embeds within the critique and critcism of such practices. Precisely because burnout is now so salient, so common, and so often spoke-of, people have grown more comfortable with airing and discussing their struggles with burnout in the open. At the very least, there is a destigmatisation of the phenomenon that shifts the responsibility away from the individual, by highlighting the structurality and universality of the problem.

Does this not lead to resignation? Does the nakedness of the pain of burnout not cause us to flinch, and then forget about its very existence? I would posit not. In a world where burnout was less discussed as a comprehensive concept, individuals would still suffer and strain under intense, strenuous workloads - consider for instance the workers whose backs the Industrial Revolution was built, or those involved in the second and third Industrial Revolutions, who found their jobs replaceable and eventually replaced by the machines. They had to hustle and work extra hard to prove their worth, too.

And indeed, those who were overwhelmed by such structurally abusive forces were castigated as “weak”, “incapable”, even “infirm”. They didn’t have the recourse to invoke ‘burnout’ as an explanation for their subjective experiences, let alone communicate to the public what’s so fundamentally, awfully wrong about the way they are treated. Burnout Culture popularises metrics of physical and mental health, and in so doing, has enabled the public to move beyond the stagnant discussions in the 20th century and early 21st century on what the ‘ideal worker’ ought to look like. The ideal worker should not be burnt out perennially - and the responsibility for that falls on the shoulders of not only the workers, but also their employers at large.

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Assistant Professor, HKU