This past week, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It is characterized by: 1.) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2.) increased mental distance from one's job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3.) reduced professional efficacy.
Let's break this down. For starters, inherent in the definition is the suggestion that the one responsible for "successfully managing" workplace stress is the one experiencing workplace stress. Why aren't we asking why chronic workplace stress is even a thing? Why are people allowed to work in chronically stressful conditions? Why does the conversation revolve around managing chronic stress instead of trying to figure out how the workplace might be a space wherein potential is realized and purpose is forged and dreams are fulfilled?
Recent years have seen an uptick in the wellness and mental health community calling for self-care as the antidote to burnout. I'm calling bullshit. The capitalist, colonist commodification of self-care by (mostly white) "wellness gurus" is a Problem with a capital P. Self-care is important and necessary and helpful. But consider this: How are activities, products, and programs that require one to spend money they don't have considered taking care of oneself?
This is why constructs like “retail therapy” works. They work because the at the very core of why we're all burnt out is injustice. When we work 60-hour weeks and still can't afford to purchase a home, can't afford to go on vacation, can't afford to have a child, can't afford to even have a nice evening out once a week, and still have to carry the burden of taking care of ourselves after our employers/agencies/communities squeeze every last productive hour out of our lives and leave us empty, spent, depleted of energy and motivation. It is in this utterly vulnerable place that we grasp at whatever promises momentary relief from the sheer madness of it all. Even when we know full well that the promise is a placebo.
Buying stuff makes us think we're doing something for ourselves. The insidious nature of the circular delusion is that we drag ourselves through the daily grind until our souls are crushed and our hearts ripped out of our chests and our wits reduced to mindless scrolling on social media as we succumb to algorithms and clever marketing by self-proclaimed influencers who are essentially corporate puppets selling you stupid shit by convincing you that their product is life-changing.
I think that one of the biggest lies that we’re told is that our individual actions taken over time are what determine whether we are successful in life. There is some truth to this. I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement. However, I also think that this is a lie perpetrated by corporations, the 1%, and the ignorant to keep you enslaved. Take for example literally every major issue facing us as humankind today.
When it comes to climate change, we are told that going vegan or monitoring our energy use and reducing our carbon footprint are the answer rather than asking why corporations are allowed to spew massive amounts of waste out into the air and water in the name of fashion, convenience, and profit.
When it comes to the pollution in our oceans, we’re told that not using plastic straws and paying for plastic bags at grocery stores is going to turn the tide.
When it comes to global economic crises, we are told that if we buy a pair of shoes, that this supposedly conscientious company with a feel-good background story will then donate a pair of shoes to “someone in need” rather than asking why these drastic economic disparities exist at all.
When it come to racism, we’re told that the key to being treated right is to be well-behaved or that being nice will help white people be nice to us rather than asking why white people feel the need to dismiss, devalue, and mistreat people of colour in the first place.
When it comes to ableism, we told “inspirational” stories of how specific individuals overcame their barriers rather than asking how we, as a society, can remove said barriers.
And when it comes to chronic workplace stress, we’re offered yoga classes, meditation programs, and gym memberships because no one stopped to think about 1.) figuring out why chronic workplace stress exists; 2.) considering whether those who are burnt out will actually have the time and energy to commit to yet another thing; and 3.) offering solutions to the problem rather than techniques and strategies for managing the problem.
I believe burnout is more than simply work-related stress. Burnout is the feeling when you have more on your plate than you can comfortable and healthily handle. Burnout is chronic overwhelm. Burnout is feeling like, no matter what you do, you’re never going to pay off that debt, finish that degree, get a job you love, have enough time to make memories with loved ones, and catch up on life.
So I’m asking us, collectively, to pull our heads out of the proverbial sand and think about self-care differently. To start questioning our inspirations. Corporations, the media, and social media influencers do not, I repeat, do not, have your best interests at heart. They have their own interests at heart and you simply are a means (a.k.a. “target market”) to their goals. This requires us to think about our lives differently, our selves differently, our priorities differently, everything differently. Because we can’t afford not to.
Grace and peace,