Unlearning Burnout Culture

Productivity as Obedience

A mentor of mine recently said that preschool children are able to be honest about their needs and feelings because they haven’t been socialized yet. (Why else would a toddler proudly announce a poop? This is a true story of a small family member, by the way.) Socialized into what? Socialized to be productive, to be well-behaved, and to follow the expectations to belong to the larger fabric of society. If I go out on a larger limb, the stakes to meet those expectations also hinge on the need to be loved and to be considered “worthwhile”.

While developmental psychologists would say that it’s important to affirm and develop our unique interests, talents, and the ability to meaningfully contribute “love and work” in the world (in whichever form that work takes), much of modern work culture has descended into productivity as obedience, or even worse, survival. For some, internalizing burnout culture is about financial survival; and for others in more financially stable jobs, it’s burnout for the sake of professional survival.

The Pandemic’s Tide

The pandemic has started to push the tide back toward workers and a renewed interest in labor rights and unions, long-depleted guard rails of times past. Still, much of the “burnout prevention” advice out there remains superficial: take a walk during your lunch break, listen to music, have a bubble bath, and mindfully eat a cupcake. (How does one mindfully eat a cupcake? If you live in New York City, you know how small those specialty cupcakes on Union Square which shall-not-be-named are.) It’s advice that seems geared to help the employer more than the employee.

A Beginning Antidote

While there are certainly many valuable immediate tools for slowing down, including emotionally rewiring ones like meditation, unlearning burnout will arguably require more long-term societal and individual interventions that need to be deeply embedded into our cultural narrative. On an individual level, it will involve regarding yourself as a whole person (e.g., “You work as a ___ but are not a ___,” as a supervisor once told me).

Regarding yourself as a whole person requires reacquainting yourself with the values, traits, and interests that make you you far beyond whatever you studied in school or do for work. To borrow child psychoanalyst’s Donald Winniccott’s term, it is a reconnecting to the “true self” – our unfiltered (unsocialized) needs for play, creativity, spontaneity, and belongingness that don’t hinge on external worth, expectations, monetary possessions, external milestones, skillsets, or job titles. The “false self”, in contrast, is the self that according to Winnicott, we create to bargain for love and approval.

On a systemic level, burnout prevention has to reach beyond a yoga workshop, pizza party, or gym membership offered by a job. (Tbh, I’ll still eat the pizza if offered though.) “Radical thinking” would argurably fight for a shorter work week, flexible scheduling that is task-based versus time-based, training managers who are strengths-based and emotionally intelligent, shared power in the hands of workers/unions, and a liveable wage for all labor. And yes, a liveable includes time for leisure, play and exploration for all and any kind of work. What better way to reacquaint yourself with yourself than the play of exploration?

Published by Raymond Batista, LCSW

Psychodynamic and humanistic clinical social worker and educator.