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The Truth About Burnout

Burnout has nothing to do with your time management.

Key points

  • Burnout is not just an individual problem but a wider cultural one.
  • Despite making radical technical progress, we remain stubbornly stuck at a 40-hour work week.
  • Fast capitalism prioritizes money over free time.
  • We must cultivate awareness about the cultural scripts that do not serve us.
Source: Fikry Anshor / Unsplash
The Cultural Causes of Burnout
Source: Fikry Anshor / Unsplash

I am a burnout coach. Many of my clients are chronically stressed, exhausted, and overworked. Most suffer from a sense of permanent time scarcity. What is more, many have also unlearned how to spend their free time in ways that are energizing, joyous, and meaningful. Sadly, this situation applies to ever more of us, which is evident in the widespread prevalence of burnout and work-related psychological suffering.

But why do we find it so very hard to find a good balance between life and work? The dramatic rise of work-related suffering is clearly not the problem of just a handful of people who are bad at time management. Over 50% of the workforce declares it is always or often exhausted or stressed. Others report feeling overwhelmed (43%), irritable (34%), lonely (33%), depressed (32%), and even angry (27%) (Deloitte Wellbeing at Work Survey, 2023). Something else is going on. Workforce well-being continues to decline across the world, and, as Deloitte put it, work “remains a significant obstacle to well-being.”

Most personal development practitioners view this problem through the lens of individual psychology: They encourage us to strengthen our resilience, cultivate Stoicism, subscribe to various productivity enhancement regimes or time-management hacks, tame our perfectionism, and disempower our inner critics. All of this can and does help, but only to a certain degree. Given that almost half of us struggle with work, this is not just a personal but also a systemic problem.

Here are two key cultural reasons why we are all so burnt out that not many people talk about:

1. Why We Are Stuck at 40 Hours

From a historical perspective, our current time troubles are paradoxical. Most of the technologies we now use promise to save us time—in the sense of liberating us from labor. The idea was that our tech inventions would increase our leisure time and that we would also spend that freed-up time wisely—on culture, self-improvement, and social engagement.

Why have our working hours not steadily decreased over the decades, as 19th-century reformers and economists like John Maynard Keynes predicted? Our income levels have risen, our economies have grown, and numerous game-changing labor- and time-saving technologies have been developed. Consequently, our working days should have become ever shorter. And yet, since 1938, they have remained fixed at 40 hours per week. Today, we work only four hours less than we did in 1910.

Keynes assumed that once the basic material needs of most people were met, we would all be working a maximum of 15 hours a week and spending the remaining time on bettering ourselves and our societies. His prediction rested on the assumption that workers would choose free time over more money once their core needs were sated. He was mistaken.

Partly, this can be explained by the fact that most of us never really feel sated financially, regardless of how much we earn. Another factor, as Morgan Housel argues in Same as Ever: Timeless Lessons on Risk, Opportunity and Living a Good Life (2023), is that when our quality of life improves, our expectations rise as well:

“A common storyline of history goes like this: Things get better, wealth increases, technology brings new efficiencies, and medicine saves lives. The quality of life goes up. But people’s expectations then rise by just as much, if not more, because those improvements also benefit other people around you, whose circumstances you anchor to.”

Housel explains our current predicament:

“Imagine a life where almost everything gets better, but you never appreciate it because your expectations rise as fast as your circumstances. It’s terrifying and almost as bad as a world where nothing gets better.”

Also, consider the actual impact of innovations such as cars, vacuum cleaners, and digital communication technologies. Rather than saving us time, they have introduced completely new demands on our time. Because cars cut down travel time, many of us now accept hour-long commutes to work. Whilst vacuum cleaners save us from beating carpets in backyards with flat wooden devices, our standards of cleanliness have risen exponentially as a result of the new technologies available to produce them. We still spend hours cleaning our houses.

Simply managing the flood of incoming emails takes a large chunk out of our allotted working time each day. Back-to-back hourly Zoom meetings, each day, every day, have become the norm in many organizations, forcing workers to do their actual work in what is supposed to be their free time.

Finally, there is simply no serious political will to change anything fundamental about our working patterns. Four-day-week experiments are still radical exceptions; talk about universal income or higher minimum wages is usually dismissed as utopian leftism, and even the working-from-home debate is driven by anxieties about unintended economic impacts because people working from home consume less.

2. Why We Privilege Money Over Time

In his new book, Free Time: History of an Elusive Ideal (2024), Gary S. Cross argues that the key culprit for our current time troubles is "fast capitalism." It is defined by acceleration, speedy production and turnover of goods, and the constant consumption of ephemeral and sensually intense consumer items, many of which have built-in obsolescence.

Cross suggests that fast capitalism, aided by a psychologically astute advertising industry that ruthlessly weaponizes our desires, has lured us into privileging money over time. It has also convinced us to prefer passive consumption over leisure activities that centre on ancient slow-culture ideals of self-cultivation, learning, skills acquisition, and social engagement. To be able to continue to afford the unrewarding yet addictive pleasures of fast capitalism, we have, quite simply, abandoned the 19th-century ideal of working less.

In addition, there is also our predilection to compare ourselves and keep up with the Joneses. Housel puts it this way:

“People gauge their well-being relative to those around them, and luxuries become necessities in a remarkably short period of time when the people around you become better off…Investor Charlie Munger once noted that the world isn’t driven by greed; it’s driven by envy.”

We don’t just experience an unexpected scarcity of free time, then, but also often feel disappointed about how we end up spending it. Think doom scrolling, online shopping, binge eating, binge-watching, or binge-drinking. We live in a work-spend culture.

Our smartphones, designed to be sensually stimulating and addictive, channel the endless machinations of the attention industry straight into our pockets. As Cross points out, on average, we spend 4.8 hours each day on our phones, which amounts to a third of our waking time. We spend ever less time with friends and ever more in front of screens. In 2000, Americans still spent 6.5 hours per week with friends. In 2021, that time has shrunk to 2.7 hours.

And thus, we continue to languish, time-scarce and overworked, forever hunting dissatisfying distractions.

We can and must break this cycle. This task starts with awareness—self-awareness as well as a sharper awareness of the culture in which we are embedded and the cultural practices and beliefs that may no longer serve us.

When we feel particularly disheartened, we can also take solace in the fact that we are not alone and that we are operating on an uneven playing field that is not designed to allow us to thrive.

Facebook image: U__Photo/Shutterstock


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