Burnout after capitalism
If capitalism ended tomorrow, would burnout end, too?
The End of Burnout was recently named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2022. Amazon categorizes it in Business and Leadership — it’s right there in the top 20 alongside several airport bestsellers. And the Next Big Idea Club ranked it the #3 productivity book of 2022. I appreciate the irony of a book that’s so critical of our work culture making such a list. Though in fact, I’m not opposed to productivity per se. Read on, and I’ll explain.
My former colleagues at King’s College recently published the first issue of Zeal, a journal of the liberal arts. It looks really good! Congrats to the editors and board. In addition to articles by some longtime friends, the first issue includes an essay on contemplation by Kevin Hart and a symposium on The End of Burnout. Three scholars offered their reviews of the book, and I responded. I was grateful for two of the three reviews. If you want to see what I have to say to someone who aggressively misread the book, find my response here.
There’s also an excellent article about burnout in the current UK edition of Men’s Health by Richard Godwin in which I am extensively quoted.
And if you’d like to learn from me how to write spiritual nonfiction — true, well-told stories about your own or others’ religious lives — please consider signing up for my upcoming asynchronous online class via Writing Workshops. It starts January 9. No need to be religious yourself to take the class. You just have to be interested in religion and spirituality. And writing. If you have questions, reply to this email and ask.
One thing you hear if you follow the burnout conversation very closely is that it’s all just a consequence of capitalism. The only end of burnout is in the end of capitalism. But is that true?
There’s no question that work within capitalism is often terrible. Left-wing critics of capitalism (rightly) note that the whole system is defined by workers getting less in wages than they produce for their employer. A cashier creates more value for Walmart than she earns in salary; Walmart pockets the difference as profit. Thus workers are always being squeezed by their bosses in an effort to increase that margin, to get a little more productivity out of them without additional cost.
But I’m not convinced that if capitalism suddenly ended, we would get rid of burnout. Burnout is not simply the experience of being squeezed. It’s the experience of being stretched between cultural ideals for work and the reality of your job. The cultural ideals for work in the rich world today are so closely intertwined with capitalism, I don’t think it’s possible to isolate the “capitalist” element anymore.
For instance, think about time discipline: punctuality, efficiency, and such. It was a useful tool of industrial capitalism, to make sure workers got to their stations on time and the machinery never had to go idle. But it has taken on a life of its own in post-industrial society. Do we want to get rid of it, because of its ties to industrial capitalism? Maybe, because time pressure and deadlines can certainly increase stress on workers. But at the same time, time discipline might very well be useful in post-capitalist society. And besides, the Rule of St. Benedict imposed time discipline on Catholic religious in the sixth century, long before there was such a thing as capitalism.
Likewise, I don’t think human worth depends on productivity, but a society needs productivity in order to meet the vast needs of its population. In a post-capitalist society, a worker-owner who imagines their work as serving the social collective might nevertheless feel pressure to produce more and more. The Stakhanovite movement in the early Soviet Union would be an example of extremely high ideals for worker productivity even in the absence of capitalism. Productivity, like time discipline, may be profitable within capitalism, but it’s useful not only there. And even without capitalism, the risk remains that it will become an oppressive norm.
It isn’t hard to imagine someone working for not-exactly capitalist enterprises falling into the gap between ideal and reality at work. People who work for nonprofits report high prevalence of burnout. I don’t have good data on oil-rig workers’ burnout, but is working for Exxon Mobil all that different from working for Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex or Norway’s oil-supported sovereign wealth fund? Maybe working conditions are better in the state-owned companies, but they aren’t necessarily. Even in a company that’s owned by the public at large, there are going to be gaps between some workers’ ideals and their reality. You’re not working to enrich the Waltons anymore, but you might well be working for an ungrateful populace that always wants more.
Maybe public-school teachers are burning out and quitting because capitalist norms have suffused the education sector. Parents, perhaps, expect a strong return on investment when they send their kids to public school: low taxes (and thus few resources) but strong outcomes. But is it the capitalism or the culture that makes parents this way? Do parents in relatively-more-socialized societies not place unreasonable demands on teachers? (I genuinely don’t know.)
This is why I don’t spend a lot of time in The End of Burnout focusing on capitalism as a system. Burnout originates in culture, in the ideals we bring to work. Yes, those ideals are shaped by the broader economic system, but they also have lives of their own. Any meaningful cultural change that resulted in the end of burnout would surely affect our economic system, too. Will it “end capitalism”? I dont’t know. And so long people are living better lives without being crushed by their jobs, I don’t care.