Mental Health

There’s a problem with the way we talk about burnout

The World Health Organization recognizes burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”

Burnout is an “occupational phenomenon” that causes extreme exhaustion and negative feelings toward one’s work. Image: Unsplash/Elisa Ventur

Sarah Todd
Senior Reporter, Quartz
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  • The WHO defines burnout as an 'occupational phenomenon' and is characterized by extreme exhaustion, detachment, negative feelings toward one’s work, and reduced efficacy.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they have symptoms ranging from emotional exhaustion to putting in minimal effort at work.
  • But burnout faces a privileged discourse, primarily being associated with white, middle- and upper-class workers.
  • Addressing burnout would require an overhaul in workplace culture and stronger safety nets.

Burnout is the defining mental-health issue of our era. Nurses and doctors are burning out; so are teachers and office workers and elite athletes and, honestly, probably you and me. One of the most influential essays of the past few years, by Anne Helen Petersen, argued that millennials, as an entire generation, are burned out thanks to the failed promise of the American dream. Google searches for burnout in the US are at an all-time high, and nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they have symptoms ranging from emotional exhaustion to putting in minimal effort at work.

There’s no doubt burnout is a real, and timely, problem. It’s also an “American problem, a yuppie problem, a badge of success,” as Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker last year. Admitting to burnout means acknowledging you’re in a bad place. But it also implies that you’ve only arrived at that state because you’re an ambitious, highly dedicated worker who cares so much about what you do that you’ve pushed yourself to the breaking point.

For this reason, openly discussing burnout with your boss (as the Harvard Business Review now encourages workers to do) or sharing your experiences with burnout on Twitter or LinkedIn carries a lot less risk and stigma than saying that you’re depressed or anxious or having an existential crisis or experiencing any number of other mental and emotional issues. Burnout is a problem at once induced and approved by capitalism: You’ve earned this mental-health collapse.

And so burnout has become a catch-all term to describe anything from being run-down at work to feeling lonely or hopeless or overwhelmed by parenting. There’s a good reason for that: Because burnout is only possible if we’ve previously been over-industrious, claiming it allows us to publicly justify taking time off or quitting our jobs or shifting to a role with fewer responsibilities in a way that, say, simply feeling unhappy might not. Saying you have burnout is the modern-day equivalent of crying “sanctuary!”

But if burnout has given us a culturally acceptable way to admit that we need help, it’s worth exploring who, and what, gets left out of the burnout discourse—and what it might mean to imagine a world where we didn’t need to justify the need to care of ourselves and one another in the first place.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a nebulous term, as Lepore points out. The World Health Organization recognizes it as an “occupational phenomenon” as opposed to a medical condition, and it’s not listed in the most recent edition of the DSM, the American compendium of psychiatric diagnoses. The symptoms of burnout—extreme exhaustion, detachment and/or negative feelings toward one’s work, reduced efficacy—sound a lot like depression. Indeed, research suggests that burnout often goes hand in hand with both depression and anxiety, and may even be conflated with those conditions. Feeling detached and cynical about your job also might not be burnout per se but rather a perfectly reasonable reaction to a toxic boss or dysfunctional workplace, in which case the cure comes down to resigning.

All this means that it can be hard to tease out the ways in which burnout is distinct from other issues. In a letter to The New Yorker, Duke University psychiatrist Allen Francis compared burnout to neurasthenia, a diagnosis that became popular in the late 19th century.

Like burnout, Francis explains, neurasthenia was characterized by mental and physical exhaustion and attributed at the time “to the struggle that workers had in adjusting to new technologies” and the strenuous demands of the modern age. Also like burnout, neurasthenia was understood as both a problem and a bit of a compliment to the people who suffered from it, indicating “the presence of an active mind, a competitive character, a lover of liberty—in short, the quintessential American,” according to the book Neurasthenic Nation, per Julie Beck in The Atlantic.


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Is burnout only for the middle class?

Another parallel between burnout and neurasthenia: Both are conditions to which privileged people have tended to lay claim. In the case of neurasthenia, racism and elitism were intentionally built into the diagnosis. George Beard, the neurologist who defined the condition, thought that non-white and lower-class people weren’t vulnerable to it because they simply weren’t high-achieving enough.

Many burnout experts today do try to call attention to the ways that people from marginalized identities can be particularly susceptible to the condition as they deal with racism, transphobia, ableism, and other prejudices on top of other workplace stressors. And Petersen’s viral 2019 BuzzFeed essay on millennial burnout was widely criticized for viewing burnout primarily through the lens of well-educated, white, middle-class people. Petersen sought to remedy that in her subsequent reporting, as well as her book Can’t Even, though some critics thought the book’s analysis of race and class as factors in driving burnout fell short.

But overall, in popular media, burnout remains a term largely associated with the middle- and upper-class. We’re far less likely to hear about warehouse workers or home health aides dealing with burnout than, say, a CEO, though someone who’s trying to figure out how to feed a family on $15 an hour would certainly seem to be a strong candidate for feeling overworked and overwhelmed. As writer Tiana Clark wrote of the millennial burnout discourse back in 2019, “I wonder if this zeitgeisty phenomenon—this attempt to define ourselves as the spent, frazzled generation—has become popular because white, upper-middle-class millennials aren’t accustomed to being tired all the time? Aren’t used to feeling bedraggled, as blacks and other marginalized groups have for a long time?” By the same token, perhaps our culture overlooks burnout as a problem for working-class people because it’s expected that life will be brutal for those who don’t have much money or cultural capital; what’s shocking in mainstream discourse is the American dream’s failure to deliver on its promise that being middle class means being comfortable.

Another issue with the privileged discourse around burnout is that the usual solutions—more time off, more flexible schedules, more reasonable workloads, better work-life boundaries—depend in large part on the cooperation of a willing employer. Employers, however, are typically a lot more invested in sustaining the happiness and well-being of knowledge workers than supporting the people doing supposedly “unskilled” work, who are unfairly categorized as disposable.

Addressing burnout for people across class stratifications would require not just an overhaul of workplace culture but policy interventions and a stronger social safety net, guaranteeing that all people have access to things like paid time off and affordable child care. As Jaime-Alexis Fowler, founder of the nonprofit Empower Work, wrote recently on LinkedIn: “If we want to build a future of work that actually works for everyone, we cannot focus on burnout solutions that require social and economic privilege to attain.” But burnout has become so culturally ingrained as a privileged phenomenon that it may not even be a useful or sufficient framework to discuss the unnecessary suffering of the working class. The lens of economic justice—which assumes as a foundational principle that institutions and policies need to be designed to give all people access to housing, healthcare, education, and a livable wage—is far more inclusive.

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After burnout, what comes next?

None of this is meant to deny the impact of burnout on people’s mental and physical health. Living and working through a global pandemic turns out to be stressful, on top of navigating a society that has long encouraged Americans to measure their self-worth by their productivity.

But burnout’s reign may be temporary as the all-encompassing explanation for the problems with the way we live and work.

Right now, American culture is at a crossroads. The pandemic has prompted a lot of people to reconsider the wisdom of a rise-and-grind hustle culture that asks us to sacrifice our health and happiness for professional success (not to mention the benefit of our employers). But it’s also hard to shake the centuries-old influence of the Protestant work ethic, which tells us that we need to couch even our vulnerabilities and struggles in the language of productivity. That’s why conversations about burnout often revolve around the assumption that it’s important to heal from it for the sake of our careers as well as our health, so that we can go back to being high performers, albeit with better work-life balance.

But who’s to say that we need to overwork ourselves in order to learn to stop working so much, or that the goal of burnout recovery ought to be to reach some optimal level of productivity? An emerging genre of conversations about work, from Reddit’s anti-work forum to China’s “lying flat” and “touching fish” trends, urge people against buying into the cultural values that lead to burnout in the first place. On TikTok, Gen Z users declare proudly that they “don’t dream of labor”; in the book Laziness Does Not Exist, author Devon Price urges readers to stop measuring their self-worth by their accomplishments. “Achievements are fleeting things,” Price writes. “They can never bring us true satisfaction. As soon as you’ve crossed the finish line and collected the trophy, the joy of running the race is over.”

This more radical line of thinking isn’t about managing burnout, nor do its solutions rely upon employers improving working conditions out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s about being fed up with the premise that our jobs determine so much of our identity and perceived value, not to mention whether we have access to healthcare and retirement plans, in the first place. After the age of burnout may come the age of the slacker-revolutionary, driven by people who are ready to not only reject work as we know it but to fundamentally change our cultural assumptions about what happiness and success can look like. They’re ready to build something new.

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