Burnout Is Real, and the Solution Is Radically Changing How We Work

"It should not be necessary for all of us to work our asses off."
May 30, 2019, 4:00pm
Copy machines are bad, and burnout is bad, too.
Ron Livingston, David Herman And Ajay Naidu in "Office Space." (Photo By Getty Images)

Most people are doomed to a life of work at a job they do not love. But increasingly, authorities around the world are acknowledging that work should, at the very least, not be totally soul-sucking.

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) placed "burn-out" in its International Classification of Diseases version 11 (ICD-11) under the heading "occupational phenomenon," and even bestowed it with a set of diagnostic criteria. It was just the latest, but easily the most official, sign that it isn't necessarily okay for the measures we take to subsist to amount to a horrible, pointless slog that fills all of our days with dread and misery as we toil joylessly to make some other person rich. In this case, the medical community finally seemed to be catching up to where some writers, labor activists, and public health researchers have been for some time.


What remains to be seen is whether this trend will ever move beyond token gestures from far-away bureaucracies like the WHO—an agency under the aegis of the UN—and help make better lives for workers.

"There seems to be a limit to what humans can possibly do in society, and the way work is organized," said Torsten H. Voigt, sociologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, and co-author of a series of influential papers on burnout. "With the push in technological production and automation and everything, in fact it should not be necessary for all of us to work our asses off."

Burnout became a semi-official phenomenon back in 1974, when Herbert Freudenberger, a German-American psychologist, used it to describe what he called "physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress." Despite its use in literature alongside other terms, it's taken 45 years for burnout to gain official status as a "syndrome."

But in that time, burnout has, sadly, turned into a way of life. Today, burnout isn't so much a feeling of being overwhelmed at work, but a generational affliction. In 2016, Josh Cohen, a burnout-centric psychoanalyst, profiled the phenomenon beautifully in The Economist's 1843 Magazine. Here's a small but harrowing snippet:

Burnout increases as work insinuates itself more and more into every corner of life—if a spare hour can be snatched to read a novel, walk the dog or eat with one's family, it quickly becomes contaminated by stray thoughts of looming deadlines. Even during sleep, flickering images of spreadsheets and snatches of management speak invade the mind, while slumbering fingers hover over the duvet, tapping away at a phantom keyboard.

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed's Anne Helen Petersen wrote an article fittingly titled, "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation." The essay went so massively viral that Petersen ended up talking about it on The Today Show. That segment, in which Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb attempted to process the very idea of millennials "feeling these kinds of emotions," remains a trip to watch.

The trend spans continents. This WHO announcement followed the debut of a new labor law in Japan last month cracking down on the seemingly infinite workday in that country, allowing no more than 720 possible overtime hours per worker per year at some large companies. This came in response to a rise in "karoshi," or deaths due to overwork, of which there were 190 official cases in the 2017 fiscal year.


This isn't the first time the ICD has acknowledged the existence of burnout, but this new classification is a sort of upgrade. Burnout was already included in the ICD-10—the first time burnout was explicitly mentioned at all, according to Voigt—but at the time, it was only to be used as an "additional diagnosis."

This meant that if, say, a clinical psychologist who used the ICD-10 to diagnose wanted to treat someone for burnout, they would have to diagnose something more official like minor depression, treat that, and in doing so, theoretically address the burnout situation.

In the new ICD, which is still being compiled, and won't formally go into effect until 2022, burnout will be a diagnosis, Voigt explained. The new version, according to the WHO website, will include three actual criteria: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.

Of course, the dangers here come in addition to the many, many other negative outcomes created by excess work, which has already been found to be at least as potentially troublesome for your overall health as persistent exposure to secondhand smoke, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford. So while it's nice that the WHO is acknowledging that the strain of working for a living is its own kind of disease vector, it's reasonable to wonder if one should treat the affliction, or, um, prevent it.


To Eric Blanc, sociologist, labor organizer, and author of the book Red State Revolt: The Teachers' Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, the whole idea of treating work stress as a diagnosable problem "ignores the reality that the workload that has increased for decades now due to the decimation of the labor movement is the source of what is experienced as individual burnout."

His proposals for fixing burnout include shorter work days and stronger unions.

Proposing unions instead of psychiatry isn't meant to be glib, and Blanc recognized the pain of feeling burned out. But "the stress of feeling like you might get fired at any moment, or that you have to accept any directive from managers above, can be mitigated by some sort of collective representation," he said.

After all, when Voigt started studying burnout in the mid 2000s, the world was a different place. The global economic cratering of 2008 hadn’t occurred, Wall Street hadn't yet been Occupied, and French economist Thomas Piketty hadn't yet reinvigorated the ideas of Karl Marx. So back then, the concept of burnout had a "positive connotation in a way, at least in the German context," as Voigt put it.

"This was related to work ethics in the US—that you work hard, but you can basically also achieve pretty much anything if you work hard enough, at least as an ideology, if you will," he explained. "It was almost hip to talk about burnout, and also to admit that you have burnout. It was this whole idea of, 'You can only be burned out if you have been on fire before.'"

The fixation of modern workers on ever more glorious productivity was, for Blanc, part of what made the WHO's announcement less than ideal—particularly that third diagnostic criterion: reduced professional efficacy. To him, it suggested burnout might be worth addressing only to extract more profit from workers.

Petersen veered in a similarly radicalized direction in her essay. "We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it's not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix," she wrote, noting that, "Change might come from legislation, or collective action, or continued feminist advocacy, but it's folly to imagine it will come from companies themselves."

Indeed, unless a diagnosis of burnout can eventually translate into a bona fide worker's compensation claim, it's tough to imagine the WHO's move will be beneficial for people with no or limited access to mental health coverage—like millions of American retail workers, for instance.

"The reality is," Blanc said, "I think it's pretty rational to be burnt out at a job like Target, and it's a pretty rational response to not want to work as hard as your bosses might want you to all day long."

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter and check out his forthcoming book, The Day It Finally Happens.