Burnout, a personal malady that indexes a broken labor system

From The Baffler

The legendary sociologist C. Wright Mills proposed that the “sociological imagination”—an understanding of how our own experiences reflect broader social and historical forces—could help us link our seemingly private troubles to public issues. Burnout, a personal malady that indexes a broken labor system, is a prime candidate for such reimagining. The emergence of burnout as a psychological concept roughly parallels the development of a distinct phase in American economic history. In the 1970s, the postwar glow faded and inequality began to skyrocket. The rise of the temp industry two decades earlier was a harbinger of things to come. Corporations, advised by consultants, started shedding their direct employees. “[T]he temp,” Malesic notes, “became the ideal worker.” Workers came to be regarded as liabilities, not sources of productive power. Aided by deregulation and the decline of union power, businesses pulled off a massive risk shift from capital to labor. Meanwhile, the growing domination of the service sector put new emotional demands on workers. In service jobs, our personalities and emotions are “the chief means of production”—they are what employers rent and exert control over.

In this context, a new moral code for work took hold: what the sociologist Allison Pugh calls a “one-way honor system” between employers and employees. Employees must devote themselves wholeheartedly to their work if they expect to get (or keep) a job—all while knowing that their employers feel no obligation to reciprocate. These are prime background conditions for an epidemic of burnout. One fact bears repeating: since 1974, labor productivity has kept increasing, but real wages have stayed flat. We are working harder and getting nothing for it.

Meanwhile, as if to compensate for an increasingly precarious economy, our fantasies about work have grown, if anything, more intense. Hard work is likely the most universally cherished American value. One recent Pew survey found that 80 percent of Americans describe themselves as “hardworking”—outstripping all other traits. Work has gotten worse, yet our work ideals remain elevated. If burnout stems, as Malesic says, from the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, then burnout is punishment for idealists.

William Morris, in his famous essay “Useful Work Versus Useless Toil,” dreamed of a political transformation in which all work would be made pleasurable. Malesic thinks, instead, that work should not be the center of our lives at all. Since Max Weber’s study of the Protestant ethic, Christian thought has often been blamed for instilling poisonous work ideals. Malesic suggests, however, that the poison might yield the antidote. Religious worship, the Jewish Sabbath: these are leisure practices that affirm higher goods than work. He recruits religious thought and practice to show us communities in which work is marginal, or contained within strictly observed limits—a Benedictine monastery in the New Mexico desert; a Dallas nonprofit that seems like either a dream workplace or a charismatic cult. Such examples demonstrate how communities that subordinate work to higher ends can survive economically while promoting their members’ flourishing.

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