I’ve written a couple of times about burnout at work — see here, here, and here — and while I think it sucks and way more people experience it than should experience it, I do not buy the whole thing about how it’s a “crisis,” which was a 2019 theme “from moms to medical doctors.”
Here’s some of my thinking →
For something to be a “crisis,” the top people — the “decision-makers” — of an ecosystem need to care about it. For example, climate change has only very recently truly become a crisis, because now some world leaders are like “Oh, this is not looking good.” That’s really only happened in the last 10–15 years, if not less than that.
The problem with burnout and work is that the top people absolutely tend to love work. Building wealth and influence is “the closest thing they have to fun.”
In fact, one of the most popular articles on The New York Times this year was entitled “Why don’t rich people just stop working?” I want you to pay particular attention to this pull quote:
“Once they have no financial need to work — are ‘post-economic,’ as some say in San Francisco — they have trouble shifting into lower gears,” Mr. Ferriss wrote. “They’re like drag racers who now have to learn to navigate the turns and intersections of neighborhoods at 30 miles per hour.”
Yep, that would be from Tim Ferriss. And how douchebag-y a thing to say is “post-economic?”
Anyway, the point is: Burnout is normative for people who come to run companies. They see no other path. Burn the candle at both ends, crush rivals, make money. If you do the same — i.e. create your own burnout — maybe you can get to the perks level. If you choose to leave, usually the narrative is “He/she couldn’t hack it.” That’s how it’s been everywhere I have ever worked, without exception. So, if you want more money and freedom and authority, you essentially need to burn yourself out.
Executives do not care about “burnout” as an issue. They don’t see that as a “crisis.” They see it as the only path up the mountain.
As much as we do not openly discuss this, work is largely about two things:
We gussy this up in lots of other bullshit, notably:
That’s all a bit tedious. For most people, if they’ve worked at an innovative, mission-driven place but they lacked all semblance of control and relevance, they’d hate it. It’s the same kind of thing where people have their first kid and say “Oh, I live for this being now” but spend 15 hours/day at work. You need the money to make the kid’s life good. You need the control and relevance to make the work good. The kid matters a lot, sure. The innovation also matters a lot. But without the first bricks in those walls, you’re less happy.
Many people burn themselves out precisely for this reason — it gets you to a greater position of relevance and control because you’re seen as someone who can “always be counted on” and “drops everything for the team” and “runs through walls.” In reality this is a horrible way to spend your 20s, 30s, and 40s, and I know many people who have lost relationships over it. But, it’s common because we want relevance and control, and often to get at those things, we need to burn ourselves out.
The other issue is layoffs. That’s normative in middle-sized to big companies. They happen annually, if not more. The surest-fire way to protect yourself from getting #piped is to be seen as essential, and — see above — the only thing executives view as essential is, basically, people who burn themselves out on work tasks. So, if you want to keep your salaried income, you often need to burn yourself out to avoid layoff cycles.
Unscientific experiment that I would virtually guarantee is true: Find an employee who is insanely productive (not in sales) but isn’t at his/her desk at 6:15pm some nights, OK? Now find an employee who sits on The Gram all day but is sometimes seen at work at 7:30pm. When the layoffs come, the second person will be protected. The first person will be fired. People equate “being physically present” with “dominating work,” which is the dumbest thing this side of “If you make a lot of money, you must be smart.”
(I excluded sales because sales is much more actually number-driven, and #piping layoffs in sales have more objectivity, IMHO.)
We burn ourselves out, then, because it’s often the only path through. Hence, if it’s self-inflicted in many ways, is it a “crisis?”
But Ted, what of bad managers?
Oh yes, they exist. I have been writing about them for over six years now pretty consistently. 8 in 10 managers are typically not good at their jobs. We’ve known this for a hot minute. Despite our best intentions, bad management does not evolve out.
And yes, bad managers cause burnout — so in that way, it’s not entirely “self-inflicted.” In fact, you have enough bad managers in your life and you might die prematurely. Comforting thought, eh?
Bad managers are a part of the equation. And yes, the hiring market sucks unless you know people or have insanely-specialized skills (fuck this “rise of the generalist” nonsense; hiring managers and recruiters do not think that way. Academics do.) But there are limits. If you have an ass clown of a boss, you can (a) leave, (b) have a conversation with them, etc. It doesn’t have to be work work work Netflix Netflix Netflix work work work meeting meeting meeting, you know? There are, at least in theory, options.
So can we “solve” burnout?
Writ large, absolutely not.
Individually, yes. We just need to adjust our specific priorities.
The mentality of people who “run” companies and organizations in this world is actually driven both by and towards burnout as an ideology. It’s almost akin to a religion in some ways. So no, we’re never going to solve it.
Just do your best to focus on what really should matter to you, while keeping the inputs semi-humming. That should avoid you feeling that you’re in a burnout “crisis.”