This essay was written for the publication “Band of Burnouts” by Jess Henderson and the School of Commons of the ZHdK
Most people associate burnout with being overworked and this overwork leading to stress, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, mental breakdown or complete exhaustion. It is also defined in relation to being unable to continue to work.
There’s something funny about defining the symptoms of burnout in relation to work, and at the same time defining the result of burnout in relation to work. It’s strange to relate severe mental stress to its negative impact on productivity or perhaps speaks of ill done to the economy. As if humans were tools that get worn out and people were only wealth-producing units. There is also the unspoken implication that burnout is somehow your own fault. And that humans must be self-exploiting and that work is a method of self-destruction
In German-speaking Switzerland the English word is borrowed to describe the phenomenon. I first heard the term in Zurich. I remember someone speaking Swiss German and then saying the English word burnout in relation to a man in his 40s who worked in finance. I was told the man chose to work too many hours, could never turn off, was always on the go, always putting out fires at work and that the stress piled on and the man let go of the ledge and found himself tumbling into a mental hole. That the man was now in a clinic and that his family was very worried. The implication was that it was his fault or the fault of his employer.
Later I heard the word in relation to doctors who worked long hours and then in relation to artists and designers and even students at the ZHdK, the art school I attended. Burnout is the ill of Zurich. Zurich society is strongly grounded in the ideals of the Reformation, where work was considered morally right. In Zurich to work is to be good and to relax is to feel guilty, to harm society, to be an embarassment. These same ideals bleed together with capitalist ideals, ideals which see production and consumption as the only human goals and where value is only defined in money terms.
I heard myself warned about burnout when I complained about the stress of my Bachelor degree. I did not experience this pressure during my studies in Dublin but after one year in the Swiss system I found myself visiting the university therapist complaining about being unable to sleep or turn off and about the pressure to do well, how each project was expected to be perfectly finished, how the other students competed and that the teachers expected us to be up during the night. The hardest workers got all the credit, the good grades, the praise and the fame, the goal was not self-expression or growth, the goal was to win at any cost. I heard people tell me well I shouldn’t complain, didn’t I know the architects had it even worse? I wondered too why the art school was open all night, why we even had a 27/7 campus. In Dublin the art school I attended closed at 9pm, implying that to work beyond that was unecessary or harmful.
Burnout can lead to karoshi. Karoshi is a Japanese word which means death by overwork — fatal burnout. In Japan long hours are common and some workers die from strokes, heart attacks and suicide and people often work 60 or more hours a week. The Japanese government set a work hour limit at 80 hours a week while also warning that working that much is very likely to kill you. The irony is present again, the implication is that you should work to the very limit and that the limit is death.
When I was 18 I worked in a bank after finishing school. The Irish work week is 40 hours but overtime is allowed and the rules have a tendency to bend or break. All rules have that tendency when money is involved. The rules at the bank were no different. I worked with a guy called Ronan and our job was to input 20 financial reports into the bank’s computer system every day. Twenty was a reasonable goal. Most people did about 21 just to be on the safe side, overachieving just enough that they were sure of no complaints from management. It was boring work and overtime was strongly encouraged. Overtime was there to go through the backlog. If I tried really hard then I could probably have managed about 25 or so reports. I usually did 21 like the others. But Ronan did about 35 reports every day. To do so many would require incredible speed and pure panic mode. Ronan craned over his terminal and his fingers flew over the keyboard, his energy amazed me, he was always sweating.
I went to the toilet one day and found him over the sink, breathing heavily. I thought he was going to be sick. But when he could finally speak, he told me he was having a panic attack. No comforting helped and when it was over he continued working. He only input 30 reports that day and told me he felt ashamed and was letting himself down. Ronan went on sick leave then about a month later and did not return for some time. When he returned I asked after his health and he told me was doing ok, he had lost a lot of weight. He worked so hard because he was saving up for his wedding, which would cost over €10,000. He stayed a while, worked rather less hungrily than before but still overachieved. I quit later to start my studies and hadn’t heard of him since. I still think of him sometimes and wonder why he was driven to work himself sick, because of the overtime and the work pressure, or perhaps the wedding and the money, to be lavish or to be seen to be doing well. Perhaps he felt a fire of competition inside or was absorbed by a system which rewards insane production with insane consumption.
After graduating I joined a company which made apps and websites for banks and insurance companies. I joined it as an interaction designer working full-time. The company had a friendly and go-getter type of culture but of course the work was rather boring, unrewarding, repetitive and extremely demanding. I had come from a rather different background and felt like I was drowning in unachievable tasks every day.
I was earning really good money which I neither had the time nor the imagination to spend. After only two months on the job I was feeling at the end of my tether and decided to quit to live off my savings, with no prospects or idea about what to do next. I felt that if I continued working there I would have a burnout within a month.
What’s strange is that I felt bored and overworked at the same time. Boreout is a phenomenon similar to burnout but defined as its exact opposite. It’s when you’re so underchallenged at your work that you become depressed. The two go hand in hand, it’s mental stress because of unhealthy work patterns.
Elon Musk recommends people who want to get somewhere in life to work 100 hours a week and claims he works that. Sometimes certain celebrities like Mark Wahlberg publish their daily schedules showing impossible work hours and impossibly low amounts of sleep. The implication is that if you want to get rich and famous and achieve all your goals then you must strive, or perhaps submit, to a massive workload and immense pressure. In the modern era this even means pressure you create for yourself, not just pressure from your employer.
But working above a certain number of hours per week and a certain number hours per day is really bad for you. If your goals are neither fame nor fortune but contentment, happiness and spending your time doing things you enjoy doing then working too much makes no sense. I believe we need structure and rules on a societal level which prevent overwork.
I don’t personally believe in either fame or fortune as either achievable or desirable goals, perhaps we could do work based on enjoyment and motivated by desire, rather than motivated by achievement or by existential threat. Perhaps humans are not meant to work that much. The word lazy has strong negative associations because it implies that to relax is fail morally. In the modern world technology removes the need for much work and it is advertising, desire creation and industry itself which demands we work long hours. It makes sense that we as a society, in other words our democratic government, must create rules to avoid overwork and also create a resource and money distribution system where you do not have to work if you don’t want to.
I am not Swiss and cannot vote but if I could I would certainly have voted the basic income initiative in a few years ago when it was proposed and declined. I would also vote and support initiatives to reduce the standard work week to 30 hours or less, to make 80% or even 60% standard for all Swiss workers to make 40 hours the aboslute maximum which anyone may work.
I want to see a basic income for all residents. If your primary reason for working is not desire but financial need and existential fear then work itself is morally wrong. It is little more than forced labour. If nobody had to work in order to meet their basic needs, needs like healthcare, housing, food and transport, then I believe quite a lot of people would quit jobs they can’t stand. I believe we would see a massive societal restructure where people would chose to work less and to only do things they enjoy or are interested in. I would prefer to live in a Zurich where everyone I meet doesn’t complain about their job while working massive hours at it, in danger of burnout, all while maintaining its existential necessity and citing a moral duty to work.
And for those of us who who overwork ourselves because they feel the need to keep up, we must remember that fame and fortune are significantly the products the luck and privilege than hard work. The very idea that happiness can only be achieved by the rich and famous is inhuman since to be either rich or famous is only possible in a relative sense. You can only be rich if the majority is poor and you can only be famous when the majority is ignored. Not only are they not goals that make people happy but to strive for those goals is anti-human, it’s misanthropic, since to achieve them or chase them is to uphold a system where the majority must fail. And believing that you must win while others lose is to hate other people and to hope for their downfall.