The Burnout Conversation Is A Corporate Tool To Turn Your Suffering Into Marketing

Ed Zitron 8 min read

A smart comment by Brian Souders on yesterday’s article made a really good point around the four-hour workweek - that the idea of addressing burnout, mental health and wellness/mental health issues with a 32-hour workweek is pointless if you’re not actually addressing issues:

I had a similar thought last week about the articles where “employees are stressed and burnt out and companies are giving them resources and extra days off”.

These “extra days off” and “mental health resources” do not solve the problem. If you’re slammed with work, you can’t take the days off because you need to get the work done. No amount of talking to a tele-therapist will finish those iMeet logs, Excel files and PowerPoint decks all on the same damn projects that you’re stressed out of your mind trying to get done by deadline.

I do applaud the folks in the articles saying as much “you can’t take the days because you’ll look weak” and “if we take the days, I just have to work harder to get deliverables complete.”

If you want to really make your employees want to stay and do great work, hire more workers so people can really work just 32 hours a week. Massive numbers of employees said they’d take significant pay cuts to work remote! They might do the same for 32 hours work!

A large part of what I’ve written about corporate culture comes down to the ways in which companies “generously” spend their money in a way that seems helpful but doesn’t actually address the root cause of the problem. When I talked about corporate wellness last it was mostly focused on Amazon’s weird meditation/therapy stuff, but I didn’t really hammer the key point home: Amazon and many other companies that bang on about mental health, wellness, and burnout do not actually give a shit about it, because if they did, they’d work to reduce the causes of the problems.

The Burnout Bullshit Factory

If you are a company that cannot work out why people are burned out, let me simplify it for you: burnout is caused by working with seemingly no end. It is a form of exhaustion. It is not, at its core, a mental health issue - it is an issue with being overloaded and having no respite from said overload, and trying to solve it by offering “mental health” and “wellness” and “meditation” stuff is disingenuous.

A FastCompany piece on burnout is a great example of the mediated anti-worker approach, with a conversation with a “burnout expert.” While the expert likely means well, she tells companies to “ask better questions,” with the idea that you should ask about how many hours they’re working a week and how often they called in sick the past year, which is a great way to get someone extremely paranoid about their job and, in turn, burn them out further. “Concrete policy changes” and “educating the entire workforce” are the classic industrial smokescreens in these cases - the idea that you can simply “make changes to policy” and “stay in constant communication” and that will deal with burnout.

This, to me, was the funniest part:

If you provide an app to help your employees with stress, go beyond a one-time email announcement that is sure to get buried along with others—instead, follow up with best practices on how to use the app. Remind the workforce of the flexibilities available to them by making sure managers bring them up quarterly at team meetings. Keep the conversation going and make sure your employees are aware of the perks of working at your company. Invite any feedback they may have on the incentive, including if they are using it.

Screw you. Sorry, I’m sure you’re a nice person, but come the fuck on. If someone is burned out, an app is not going to help them. The cause of burnout is usually too much work, and the solution to too much work is to make sure they have more time to do their work or add more people so that they have less work to do. It’s a symptom of someone being overwhelmed by the tasks they’re receiving or the way they’re receiving the tasks, and is - that’s right folks! - regularly caused by bad management and organizational mechanisms.

The “burnout expert” takes several paragraphs about “the underlying issues that masquerade as burnout,” then describes…the actual things that cause burnout:

However, for many in the workforce (particularly those with marginalized identities), it’s not only the volume for work that is causing distress but rather workplace culture. Organizations that create environments of tokenism, onlyness, and discrimination are often culprits that tax workers far beyond traditional burnout. A simple work-from-home (WFH) policy will not erase the microaggressions and harassing behavior that may be occurring daily in the company.

She is correct here in that addressing problems in the workplace with remote work is a half-baked idea, but how are these not things that cause burnout? Why is a burnout expert defining burnout as simply being exhausted by the work and not from work itself?

Well, the simple answer is that to be an expert in a thing like burnout means that you have to - like all vaguely evil corporate consulting jobs - come up with extremely convoluted explanations to straightforward and specific problems.

The Washington Post also spent a great many words trying to define burnout, carefully landing the story with quotes from experts, in which the experts offer solutions like letting staff set their own schedules, “checking in with them to monitor their well being” and “letting them set their own hours.” There are some smart points around companies not normalizing or praising around-the-clock work, but somehow this extremely long piece barely touches upon the fact that the solution to burnout is dealing with the things that cause burnout in the first place rather than checking if someone’s burned out.

The problem with these articles is that while they seem pro-worker and pro-pragmatic in their solutions, they often step back to put the onus of fixing burnout on the employee, even if they say otherwise. Spending a chunk of your article talking about how people should exercise or “seek support from friends and family” is all well and good, but does exactly nothing to fix things - when the problem is that work sucks, and you’re mentally exhausted, these are things that are not going to really help long-term. They also - as all of these articles eventually do - fail to be damning on the realities of what causes burnout.

The Burnout Factory

Every time I’ve felt burnout, it’s come from a place of overload, with the worst of it coming from a place of despair. It’s not simply that there is too much work, but that there is no end in sight, and that you are being torn down from all directions and there’s nothing you can do. The helplessness of burnout is why I find these instructional “how to deal with burnout” articles so sickening - because burnout may be the worker’s problem, but it is 99% of the time not a problem that the worker caused. Another multiplier is when the compensation they’re given isn’t significant enough to make the juice feel worth the squeeze - a thing you rarely see discussed.

It should not be the worker’s job to volunteer that they’re burned out (if they even recognize they are), and it is equal parts disingenuous and insulting to suggest an internal solution to an external problem.

When there is too much work and/or you work with assholes and/or your workplace sucks, these are not things that can be solved by giving someone a meditation app or a therapist. These things may help deal with the symptoms of these problems, but they don’t fix the source, and I do not see articles that actively attack and deconstruct the ways in which businesses get away with not fixing actual problems.

Bumble recently gave employees a week of paid vacation to “deal with burnout,” which is one of the few cases where people have actually received something that will help with burnout - not doing work. They specifically said it was “fully offline,” too, which is once again the only way in which something like this works. The question that isn’t answered, of course, is how exactly you reconcile the entire company being off with the work that isn’t done that week - does the work disappear? A recent Glassdoor review of Bumble said that “most of the employees are stressed out or even in the verge of burnout,” as standards are “extremely high,” which to me is corporate coding for “management are nitpickers.” My natural question - as the entire idea was to “prevent burnout” - is what exactly changed at Bumble to make sure that burnout was actually prevented?

The reason that nobody asks that question is that everybody knows they’ll get a handwavy response about how they’re “operating differently,” when the truth is likely that everybody returned to the office to an entire week’s worth of extra work that didn’t magically disappear. Want to guarantee burnout? Plan to create more work, and give people less time to do it, and then ask them to thank you for the week of not working.

I get asked at points like this “what would you do differently?” to which the answer is “stagger the week off.” Don’t send everybody at home off, and actually have people plan out the work structure so that work is still completed, so that when people take their time off they don’t feel the rubberband effect of returning to work.

This is a consistent issue with a lot of corporate decision-making - they do things that seem nice, but really just create more problems for the majority of workers. The reason they make them is they want something that will have the optics of dealing with the problem, and will make people feel as if they care, without doing the thing that they should actually do to deal with burnout - pay people more, hire more people so that work is spread across more people, and actively, aggressively police how much work is being put on people’s shoulders.

If a company actually wants to deal with burnout, you should find out what causes burnout and then deal with that. Oftentimes it isn’t just the volume of work, but the conditions in which said work is done, which is often caused by middle managers that exist only to delegate and never to assist or empower. I believe that middle management culture and cop culture in the workplace multiplies the rate at which burnout fosters, centralizing stress and problems and then compounding them with the all-too-common managerial technique of seeing management as handing people work you don’t want to do, and badgering them about it.

A managerial culture that “has conversations around burnout” is utterly offensive to me, because there are no conversations to have about burnout. If you are having a conversation about burnout, it’s because you have failed as an organization, on a small or large scale. The solution isn’t to look at workers and say “okay, you’ve got burnout, time to relax,” but to look at the root causes and work out how to avoid that in the future, be it through not piling on so much work at once or giving them direct assistance to do the work.

Burnout is not a mental health issue, it is an organizational issue that causes mental and physical health issues. It is not something that should be dealt with by giving people apps, or having all-hands about the effects of burnouts, or write corporate handbooks about “dealing with burnout.” It is something where you need to look at your organization and find exactly what is burning people out. If it’s people, they need to be told to cut it out or fired. If it’s an overwhelming slate of work, you should be reducing that work (not “investigating ways to do so”) by either hiring people or taking on less work.

These thoughts are similar to the ones I have (and Brian Souders had) around the 32-hour workweek - that it’s a tepid offer if you’re not actually changing the work itself. Without adjusting the flow of work that a worker is facing, you are simply creating future stress and misery. But who cares, as long as you get the warm, fuzzy feeling that you’re “helping deal with burnout”?

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