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Your work is not your god: welcome to the age of the burnout epidemic
‘According to the modern work ethos, dignity and purpose are available to workers if only they engage with their jobs.’ Photograph: Malte Mueller/Getty Images/fStop
The reason why so many of us are at the end of our rope? We allowed work to be what gave our lives meaning
Thu 6 Jan 2022 09.00 GMT
The rich are irrational when it comes to work. Out of everyone in our society, they have the least need to earn more money, but they work the most.
Billionaire tech-industry titans brag about their hundred-hour work weeks, even though their labor isn’t what boosts their companies’ stock prices and enriches them further. Americans with advanced degrees have the highest average earning power, but typically work more and spend less time on leisure than people with less formal education. The children of rich parents are twice as likely to have summer jobs as poor kids are. And many older American professionals with plenty saved for retirement keep showing up at the office.
I am irrational too. I earned a middle-class salary as a tenured college professor but became increasingly exhausted by and frustrated with the work. Eventually, I quit. Even though teaching played a leading role in my burnout, I felt so aimless without it that, less than two years later, I became a part-time adjunct instructor making just a few thousand dollars a course, a fraction of what I had made before. I needed structure in my days. I needed to exercise my hard-won pedagogical skills. Above all, I needed someone to count on me to show up and do a decent job.
All of this is evidence that we don’t only work for the money. Many people – volunteers, parents and starving artists among them – don’t get paid at all for their labor. Even workers who aren’t rich, who really do need every cent of their paycheck, often say there’s more than money at stake. They’re doing their jobs for love, or service or to contribute to a collective effort.
Worsening labor conditions, including more emotional intensity and less security than mid-20th-century work, only tell half the story of why burnout is so prevalent in our society. Burnout is characteristic of our age because the gap between our shared ideals about work and the reality of our jobs is greater now than it was in the past.
Textile mill workers in Manchester, England, or Lowell, Massachusetts, two centuries ago worked for longer hours than the typical British or American worker today, and they did so in dangerous conditions. They were exhausted, but they did not have the 21st-century psychological condition we call burnout, because they did not believe their work was the path to self-actualization. The ideal that motivates us to work to the point of burnout is the promise that if you work hard, you will live a good life: not just a life of material comfort, but a life of social dignity, moral character and spiritual purpose.
A young worker at Eckersley’s cotton mill in Wigan, Greater Manchester, UK, 1939. Photograph: Kurt Hutton/Getty Images
I wanted to be a professor because my own college professors seemed to be living the good life. They were respected, they seemed to be people of good judgment, and their work had the clear and noble purpose of gaining knowledge and passing it on to others. I knew virtually nothing of their lives outside the classroom, or the private demons they battled. Two of my mentors were eventually denied tenure and had to find new jobs. A third died of a heart attack a few years after taking on a major administrative role.
I made no connection between their misfortune and my own career prospects. How could I? I was blinded by my trust in the American promise: if I got the right kind of job, then success and happiness would surely follow.
This promise, however, is mostly false. It’s what the philosopher Plato called a “noble lie”, a myth that justifies the fundamental arrangement of society. Plato taught that if people didn’t believe the lie, then society would fall into chaos. And one particular noble lie gets us to believe in the value of hard work. We labor for our bosses’ profit, but convince ourselves we’re attaining the highest good. We hope the job will deliver on its promise, and hope gets us to put in the extra hours, take on the extra project and live with the lack of a raise or the recognition we need.
Hard work is arguably what American society values most. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2014 that asked people about their personalities, 80% of respondents described themselves as “hardworking”. No other trait drew such a strong positive response, not even “sympathetic” or “accepting of others”. Only 3% said they were lazy, and a statistically insignificant number identified strongly as lazy.
We all know that more than a few of us are genuinely lazy. Think about your co-workers. How many of them are slackers? And how many of them would say they’re anything but? By and large, we aren’t all laboring diligently all day, straining over our reports and sweating through meetings with clients. Rather, we say we’re hardworking because we know we’re supposed to think of ourselves that way.
According to the modern work ethos, dignity, character and purpose are all available to workers if only they engage with their jobs. Employee engagement is also supposedly good for the bottom line. Gallup, which surveys workers on engagement, describes engaged workers in heroic, even saintly terms:
Engaged employees are the best colleagues. They cooperate to build an organization, institution, or agency, and they are behind everything good that happens there. These employees are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. They know the scope of their jobs and look for new and better ways to achieve outcomes. They are 100% psychologically committed to their work. And, they are the only people in an organization who create new customers.
“One hundred per cent psychologically committed to their work.”Who is like that?
About a third of US workers are, according to Gallup. To managers who accept the survey’s findings, the two-thirds of workers who are not engaged are a serious problem. One business writer claims that disengaged employees cost employers an additional 34% of their salary through absenteeism and lost productivity. Another describes them as “silent killers”. Gallup warns that unproductive, complacent workers might even be lurking, unnoticed, in upper management. The actively disengaged will even destroy others’ time and accomplishments. “Whatever the engaged do,” Gallup asserts, “the actively disengaged try to undo.” In short, they are villains, bent on undermining our heroes’ mission.
Such rhetoric is not just laughably absurd; it’s also inhumane. The fact is, American workers are more engaged than those in every other rich country, by Gallup’s own measure. Their level of engagement may indeed approach the human limit. (In Norway, the engagement rate is half the level it is in the US, and yet Norwegians are among the richest and happiest populations on earth.)
But here’s another way to look at the issue: a worker who is unengaged with work is not necessarily suffering from burnout. She might simply have found a way to keep her ideals for work in line with the reality of her job, possibly by keeping her expectations for work relatively low. If she is only 80% psychologically committed to the job but is nevertheless reasonably competent, then one has to ask: what’s the problem?
What about those of us who genuinely feel fulfilled by their work? Some of my friends who are doctors, editors and even professors work hard, love their jobs, and flourish. Some professions, such as surgery, seem to promote flourishing more than others. Although all physicians are prone to burnout, surgeons receive not only some of the highest salaries of any workers but also high job satisfaction and high levels of meaning. When they step back and think about what they do, surgeons ought to feel good about their work.
Engagement is not about stepping back, though. It’s about immersion. When performing a procedure, surgeons do work that lends itself to the experience of “flow”. As the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described them, people in flow states shut out the world and their own bodily needs, forgoing food and sleep as they do something that seems good for its own sake. It’s a state of engagement that video game designers try to foster, because it makes the game hard to quit.
Csikszentmihalyi, though, thought flow occurred most readily at work. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi pointed to a welder named Joe Kramer as an example of the “autotelic” personality – that is, someone who readily gets into a flow state at work, which then becomes an end in itself. Though Joe only had a fourth-grade education, he could fix anything in the railroad-car plant where he worked. Joe personally identified with broken equipment in order to repair it. Because Joe made the tasks of his job into an autotelic experience, his life was “more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to life within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they cannot alter.”
Joe’s co-workers all agreed he was irreplaceable. His boss claimed the plant would top the industry if he just had a few more guys like Joe. Despite his rare talent, Joe refused promotions.
The system that gives esteem to engaged employees also creates anxiety only quelled through working more intensively
The promise of greater productivity without greater cost: that’s why engagement and flow are such appealing concepts to management in the postindustrial age. Employees are a liability, according to current business doctrine. Hiring another one is risky. So why not see if you can get a little more effort out of the ones you already have? And why not convince them, through surveys and workshops and airport-bookstore bestsellers, that if they commit themselves totally to their jobs, they will be happy? More than that, they will, like Joe Kramer, be numbered among the blessed, the communion of work saints.
In 2022, it is hard for any worker to know if they have the value Joe had to his employer. Good workers can be let go with little warning, if management’s favor turns against them. The system that gives esteem to engaged employees also creates anxiety only quelled through working more intensively. The cure is also the poison. To calm our anxiety, we work too much without adequate reward, without autonomy, without fairness, without human connections, and in conflict with our values. We become exhausted, cynical, and ineffective.
Work anxiety is built into capitalism. That’s a key premise in Max Weber’s 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which still perfectly captures the mindset that sustains our work ethic today. Weber shows how European Protestants created a mode of thinking about money, work and dignity that we, to this day, cannot escape. It is our “iron cage”.
The Protestant ethic, Weber argues, derives from the theology of John Calvin, the sixteenth century Christian reformer noted for his doctrine of predestination, which means God chooses, or “elects”, some people for salvation, with the rest destined for eternal death. Only God knows who has been chosen and who hasn’t, but humans understandably want to find out.
Good works, in Calvinist theology, cannot earn you salvation, but they can be signs of election. That is, God’s elect will perform good works as an outgrowth of their blessed status. So if you are curious about your election, examine your actions. Are they saintly? Or sinful?
To gain assurance of your election, then, you need to know you are being productive, enriching yourself and your community through labor.
Weber saw capitalism as “a monstrous cosmos”. In his view, capitalism was an all-encompassing economic and moral system, one of humanity’s most marvelous constructions. We who live in the system can rarely see it. We take its norms for granted, like the air we breathe. Everything you do, from going to the “right” preschool to laboring in a productive career to receiving medical care on your deathbed, you do because somewhere, someone thinks they can make money from it. The capitalist cosmos imposes a choice on you: adopt its ethic, or accept poverty and scorn.
As an academic, Weber was not involved in industrial commerce. But he was nevertheless as caught in the iron cage as any businessman. Prior to writing The Protestant Ethic, he spent five years dealing with “nervous exhaustion”. He went through several cycles of intense teaching and research, followed by physical and mental collapse, treatments, and leaves of absence to restore him. Then he would go back to work, and inevitably his condition would deteriorate.
His wife, Marianne, later wrote that during this time he was “a chained titan whom evil, envious gods were plaguing”. He was irritable and depressed and felt useless; any work, even reading a student’s paper, became an unbearable burden. He ultimately took a two-year leave of absence from his university, after which he resigned and became an adjunct professor, loosely attached to academia, at age 39.
I’m no Weber, but I take personal encouragement from his story. His professional collapse was not the last word. After he quit his job, he undertook his most influential work.
Secular, 21st-century residents of wealthy countries don’t worry much about whether we’re God’s elect. But we’re still trapped in the Calvinist cage. We are anxious to demonstrate to potential employers, and to ourselves, that we are work saints. Like divine election, this type of status is an abstract condition that we cannot assign to ourselves, but one we hope others will recognize.
When our status anxiety wells up, we reach back into our culture’s religious heritage for a balm: hard, disciplined work. For example, Tristen Lee, a millennial-generation British public-relations worker, tells a too-familiar story of how long hours, lack of sleep, no real time off, and excessive rent keep her in the grind. “I throw my absolute heart and soul into” work, she writes. “I am so obsessed with reaching some notable level of success and hitting my financial targets, that I’ve forgotten how to actually enjoy life.” Lee says she feels as if she has “something to prove – but to who?” To herself, Weber would say.
Lee’s experience is the 21st-century echo of 16th-century Calvinist theology. She has internalized the all-seeing judgment of a society that values her only insofar as she works, so she feels a need to assure herself of her worth. But there can never be enough assurance; in the present-day work ideology, your accomplishments matter less than your constant effort toward the next accomplishment.
“What is the end result?” Lee asks. “When does the constant agonizing stop? At what point do we reach satisfaction in life and think ‘fuck yeah, I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved and how far I’ve come’?”
Well, never. That’s what it means to be in an iron cage.
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