How Workplace Journalists and Consultants Empower Toxic Workplaces

Burnout is not a worker problem.
Ed Zitron 10 min read

Did you know that working from home “could be bad for you?” It is if you choose to read a WHO study with an agenda in mind and write for Quartz:

Acknowledging that work-from-home burnout and other issues have become a global phenomenon, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning in a new report this month. If companies, lawmakers, and employees don’t collectively manage the way remote work is organized, say experts at the WHO and the International Labour Organization, a work-from-home model can create hazardous conditions, putting employees’ health at risk.

People might be harming their health by spending more hours on spreadsheets and conference calls, for example, instead of exercising or socializing. Employees can feel tremendous pressure to be in constant contact with their managers and teams. Meanwhile, toiling away in physical isolation can trigger issues like “loneliness, irritability, worry, and guilt,” the report states, citing research. Employees may also experience more harassment when there are fewer witnesses to deter workplace bullies or predators, and they may be exposed to more violence or conflict at home.

The problem here - other than burying the lede that remote work has significant benefits - is that every single one of these problems is a problem that you’d have in an office. Every single one of these is something I have experienced, or a reader has experienced, in a physical office space. Tremendous pressure to be in constant contact with managers and teams is something you get in an office, the difference being that instead of a Slack message or text, you’ll have someone physically interrupt your day for an update. Physical isolation? Okay, I’ll give you that one as “something that could happen if you have no social life outside of your work,” but I’d like to counter it with another statement: being around other people is not automatically “good,” and physical presence allows people to judge and intimidate you in a way that doesn’t happen remotely.

There are a lot of “cans” in this paragraph that enrage me because like every other blinkered charlatan writing on this subject, the writer has taken the default assumption that there are no problems with the office and that these problems are unique to working remotely.

Forgive me for treading on the same ground again and again, but history will keep repeating itself until someone listens. If you are writing about “the problems of remote work” and name a bunch of things that are problems with the office, too, you are not simply wrong, you are actively harming those who want to work remotely.

It also shows a stunning lack of awareness of the world around you. Anyone who has worked in a job for more than a few years knows that these problems are mostly problems that you’ll find in the office. If you don’t, you either have been incredibly fortunate, ignoring the world around you, or you’re one of the abusive managers or executives that I’m writing about.

This is also one of the problems with the Wall Street Journal’s guide to “Fix Burnout - Without Blowing Up Your Life.” It’s a well-meaning piece advising workers that feel burned out, but still lives in a world of victim-blaming:

Venting might feel good when talking to a friend but could distract your manager from your ultimate goal: help. Instead, she suggests composing an email that states you want to talk about the job’s target goals and expectations and how to best meet them.

Ensure the conversation stays positive. Remember it is reasonable to ask your boss to help you prioritize projects, delegate and take vacation time.

“You’ll get further in the conversation if you focus less on blaming them and more on asking for help,” she says.

Frame any tricky conversation by demonstrating why alleviating burnout is good for the company, as well as its workers, says Dr. Maslach, who created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a widely used measurement tool used to diagnose burnout symptoms. She recommends discussing what is going well and then asking, “What could we do better?” The “we” and focus on ways to be even better make clear the goal is to help the boss, and the company, continue to perform as well as possible.

Why is it that every single piece about burnout treats managers and executives like grown toddlers that must inevitably be catered to? There are so many pieces like this about “dealing with burnout” that mostly center around doing the mental health legwork for someone else, crushing your problem into some saccharine edible that your worthless boss can chew on and hopefully give you something.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Workers who are told the only way to deal with problems is to say them with a nice voice without fear of upsetting an executive will find that their manager doesn’t really care. While I’m not advocating for going into your boss’ office and saying “listen, fuckmunch, I need less work,” I am also suggesting that passive-aggressive ghouls are common in management, and they thrive on people not being willing to demand what they need.

Let’s make this even clearer: if you are working for someone else, burnout is your problem, but not your fault. You may need to ask for help and list your problems, but the actual solutions are not meditation, or “taking a breather,” or any other nebulous quasi-psychology - they are likely to either adjust processes so that you have less pressure, or relieve you of work so you have less pressure, or give you time off and have someone else do your work when you’re off.

If you are someone running an organization and do not understand why your workers are burned out, here is why: they have too much work, not enough time to do it, and may be experiencing some form of workplace harassment. This harassment can come from a middle manager bugging them or stealing their work, it may be because the demands of those who ask them to do stuff are unreasonable, it may be because of microaggressions from superiors or colleagues. Absolutely none of these are solved by meditation, vague DE&I initiatives, “free counseling,” or any other of your vague gestures that subtly blame the worker for something happening to them.

Furthermore, these problems are not solved by giving people a day off, unless their work is handled for the day they’re off. Burnout is something that is generated by a scarcity of support and an abundance of pressure and is only solved through a pragmatic reduction in pressure. Pressure, in this case, is exacted upon the worker by the organization. If you are telling a worker to do something to reduce burnout, you are a lazy manager.

You may ask “well, what about the worker who’s asking for more stuff to do?” This does happen, and the natural question is “why are they asking for more work?” If they are doing so because they have time and are getting burned out as a result, it is management’s job to make sure they are nicely told “hey, don’t worry about it.” And if they are asking because they feel a constant need to prove themselves to management because of your toxic workplace, the problem is, again, not on them.

Boundary Issues

The Wall Street Journal piece ends with a particularly interesting point:

Workers need to reset boundaries that blurred during the pandemic, says Emily Ballesteros, a burnout management coach who went viral earlier this year with a TikTok criticizing the eight-hour workday.

“A lot of people have gotten into the bad habit of the knee-jerk response of yes” any time managers make requests, Ms. Ballesteros says. When faced with another task, she suggests this response: “Can I check my calendar and get back to you?”

This part is somewhat true - people have a habit of saying yes to their managers. And it’s an advice piece, so it would be weird to have advice for managers. Right? Unless, of course, you actually want to write about fixing the problem versus convincing workers that it’s their fault for doing their jobs.

Here’s what managers should actually do: understand how much work their people have on their plates and not assign more than a certain amount. Coach Murdoch! Put me in the game, I’m ready! I can write this crap!

In all seriousness, every piece on burnout is engaged in empowering the abusive relationship we have with our managers and bosses. If you’re writing in the Wall Street Journal, the call shouldn’t be that we should be dancing around our workers - it should be that managers should be aware that they are part of the burnout. Executives should be admonished for allowing burnout to grow and should not be given any excuse, let alone be given the air cover that “working from home can harm your health.”

I think a lot of this comes from the long, weird relationship we’ve had with work. We have been taught to admire and placate our managers and executives as part of the trade of “doing our time” so that we might be one ourselves. When managers use us - by which I mean make us do work that they get credit for - we are taught to accept it (or even consider it a talent!). While hierarchies and chains of command exist, we have been taught to always “go above and beyond” because “we’ll get noticed.”

I understand why the media would follow these paths in advice columns, but at the same time, there is so rarely any analysis of actual workplaces in workplace journalism. It is either a top-down “here’s what we should consider as an organization” or piecemeal “you should do this as a worker to deal with things in the workplace.” Too rarely do these pieces get prescriptive with workplaces or executives. Where are the splashy Wall Street Journal or New York Times pieces that discuss how organizations should deal with burnout?

Here’s a Times one! And, of course it’s entirely about taking time off. They got close with this one, except it (again) is obsessed with vacation:

Gloria Chen, the chief human resources officer for the technology company Adobe, said that the company’s leadership team realized that people were not using their vacation days during the pandemic because they could not travel and there were fewer activities available. In focus groups, employees, said that what would really make a difference was having regular global days off. In response, last year Adobe decided to give the entire company a day off every third Friday. This year, Adobe has a global day off one Friday per month.

Nearly there! Except, again, there is no question about how the workload is divided within that time. Forget everything - the pandemic is the reason we’re burned out.

Well, let’s check in with the Wall Street Journal. Burned Out? Maybe You Should Care Less About Your Job. Thanks so fucking much, I never thought of that.

Can we learn to care less? (Ideally, without having a brush with death?) What happens if we let go, just a little?

Not much, assures Sarah Knight, who ran her own experiment a few years ago. After suffering a panic attack in her Manhattan office, she decided to pull back from the perfectionist tendencies that had propelled her to senior editor in the publishing industry. She stopped taking business lunches. She left the office by 6 p.m. She traded her blazers and high heels for Gap corduroys and tennis shoes.

No one seemed to care.

“I was like, I could have been doing this the whole time,” she says.

She left the corporate world, moved to the Dominican Republic and wrote a book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck,” about opting out of the draining or useless things in your life.

“You have to be able to ask yourself: Is this real? Is this really a thing that is part of my job? Do I really have to do it?” she says.

Writers, I am god damn begging you: stop victim-blaming. Why was the question not “what did your company do to help reduce your workload?” or “did you talk to your company about this, and what did they say?”

Because the narrative always, always, always has to be about the worker’s failure being the reason they are burned out. People like Sarah Knight - whose entire theory is mostly “put yourself first” - have made a tremendous career out of telling workers that they are the problem, that they simply need to “not give a fuck” and that the problems happening to them are, on some level, their own. Burnout and “future of work” consultants can’t make a living without telling corporations what they want to here, which may be by proxy telling workers what their bosses would like to hear.

Workplace journalism rarely ventures into the world of boss interrogation because it’s bad for business - the executives reading would throw down their papers in disgust if they were told they had to do something. Thus everything you’ll find in the work/life section of your average newspaper comes down to fixing worker issues by blaming the worker. Ask a Manager is one of the few cases where someone appears to understand how workplaces function - and that workplace problems result from the workplace and its stewards, not the worker.

We need a vast readjustment of how we write about the workplace in general, one that chooses to interrogate (rather than negotiate with) power. If your default assumption is that executives and managers know what they’re doing, your perspective is flawed from the start. For example, if you see workers complaining about burnout, your first question should be “what is causing the burnout?” rather than “how can they be less burned out?” If you’re writing about organizations that want people back in the office, you should treat their executives with suspicion and their wishy-washy explanations as insufficient.

The same should go for any consultant someone is interviewing for a piece. If you’re writing something about burnout, a burnout consultant is rarely going to say something that would actually end burnout. Similarly, a professor rarely gives a simple explanation to the problem, and said professor may also not have been in an actual office or working environment outside of a school for decades.

The problem is that it’s much easier to just ask a CEO, a professor, and a consultant what they think than do any real work. It makes sense if you don’t think about it too much, but failing to assess the agendas of those involved is a common failing of far too many pieces of workplace journalism.

Put simply, the assumption is that a CEO or Professor knows what they’re doing based on their resumé - which is the same kind of biased thinking that destroys diversity and inclusion in workplaces.

We must, as people writing about the workplace, constantly be aware of those in power and what they seek to get out of any situation. We must remember how we do not train people to be managers, let alone executives, and that many, many companies are built on breaking the backs of others.

Otherwise, workplace reporting will continue to empower the powerful, and silence those that we need to hear.

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