It's hard to talk about burnout because, in many ways, it's the conversation that will never die. I remember a viral article that was published in 2019 by then-Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen about Millennial burnout, titled How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation. At least in my small circle, it became the talk of the town. "Have you read this article," the refrain went. And to this day, many of my friends still reference it.

This conversation on burnout has been part of the backdrop for my entire adult life. "4 Steps to Beating Burnout," goes the title of an article in the Harvard Business Review that ultimately suggests prioritizing self-care, shifting your perspective, and so forth. "Burnout isn't just exhaustion. Here's how to deal with it," runs the title of an article that tells you to be mindful of the signs of burnout and for your managers to do better.

We are all tired, and the supposed remedies for it are everywhere. Therapy has started to move from the realm of stigma to acceptance — though its actual usage remains in the domain of a wealthier, more privileged minority. Meditation has moved past being a fad to a lifestyle for many people, with even some businesses recommending it to keep their employees sane. If the advice I see around me is to be believed, I can "solve" the problem of burnout for myself.

Yet the framing of burnout as a problem has always bothered me because I see it as a distraction from the more prominent concern at hand: a society that keeps us exhausted.

The definition of burnout

Something I want to stress is that burnout is not a mental diagnosis — something that may confuse people since it is often referenced side by side with other mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. The World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon, meaning it's specifically related to circumstances surrounding your work (note — the DSM-V does not have an official diagnosis for it at all).

According to the ICD-11, burnout has three stated dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

This framing is important because, definitionally, it is not about the individual but their environment within the workplace. It is all about "chronic workplace stresses" that are not being "managed." The definition is explicitly not geared toward "experiences in other areas of life." Anne Helen Petersen talked about not being able to do basic tasks such as filling out personal forms, which many people do when they refer to burnout, but that would not fall within this definition at all.

And so, we meet several hurdles when we start picking apart what burnout is. Even when we focus on this narrow definition, it's not an individual problem. A worker may meditate or go to therapy, but that will only change how they perceive and process a bad situation at work. If a worker is "burnt out" because their workload is too much, their boss is abusive, or some other terrible combination, then they aren't really in a position to change it, short of just leaving (and even then, financial realities do not always make that option practical).

I remember my first "real" job. I was an executive assistant at a major conglomerate. It was not a good job. It mainly involved explaining how to troubleshoot to old men who didn't seem to know what they were doing. My direct boss would call me late into the evening to complain about her divorce (something she would not stop doing even when I asked her to), and the company itself was actively trying to squash a union — a practice I considered unethical.

Yet I "stuck it out" because the logic of perseverance had been drilled into me since birth. You do not quit your first job — you stay there for a year and let it become the foundation for the rest of your career. The job worsened as I obtained even more responsibilities, and my health deteriorated. I remember having to work during New Year's Eve to help with a big audit and texting a friend to complain, and he told me I was burning out and that I should meditate and breathe. I would continue doing that throughout my time at this job. I also went to therapy, gratitude journaled, and a host of other "solutions" that did not work because the job itself was bad. What I needed the most was to reduce my workload and get a new boss (and maybe collective representation), but of course, those solutions were never brought up to the people I confided in.

In the end, I didn't have the reserves to "willpower" through an environment that was actively harmful to my mental health, so I quit, but that's not an option everyone can just do — sometimes, there isn't an individual solution. You have a terrible job, and the abuse doesn't go away no matter how you frame it within your mind.

This reality is what makes treating burnout as an individual issue so damaging to the working class because it completely ignores the solutions that would help — i.e., reducing workload, increasing pay (without increasing said workload), changing management, collectively organizing, etc. — and only focuses on the end result — i.e., the worker being unproductive. It's essentially reclassifying abusive situations as some unique problem to the individual when what needs to change fundamentally is the working relationship. Many "burnt-out" workers don't need therapy (though some still might); they need a union.

The things that allegedly aren't burnout

And with this conversation, there is everything outside the occupational definition—people overwhelmed by everyday tasks like filling out forms and folding their laundry. We can call this exhaustion "burnout" if we want. Language, after all, is fluid and doesn't get to be decided by an official body, but I think that ignores the central problem, which is that our society is toxic. When we only focus on the byproduct of something as the problem —i.e., that our emotional reserves are constantly being depleted — I think it sidesteps discussion on the things doing the depleting.

Recently, I "burnt out" of the volunteer nonprofit the DSA (see Being A Part of Metro DC DSA Broke Me), and the number one thing that frustrated me about this whole process was how people treated it as an issue of mental health. The way people talked about my dissatisfaction was that I had assumed too much work and should take a break. However, my biggest problem was with the leadership of my Chapter, some of whom I considered pretty mean. Dealing with these leaders was the biggest source of my frustration and exhaustion. And yet, the conversation of burnout was routinely used, albeit well-intentioned, to reframe an issue of imbalanced power dynamics into an individual problem.

And I see this happening a lot where issues of abuse get exclusively narrowed to the realm of mental health. For example, one of the contributing factors to why small tasks are so exhausting is not just perception but that, societally speaking, we don't have as much time to do things, so even simple tasks can feel Herculean. I mean this quite literally. Americans spend more time working, less time eating, don't take as many breaks, and take less vacation time than a lot of their European counterparts. There are just fewer hours in the day to do what needs to be done and not feel exhausted.

Part of this is again a labor issue predicated by America's lack of unions and other protections, which has led to ultra-precarity. The number of total union members has plummeted to just 10% of the workforce in 2023, and we don't have any indication that that is reversing. It's no coincidence that trends such as wage stagnation correlate with this decline.

Yet this exhaustion is also just a component of neoliberal capitalism itself, which locks people into more difficult systems to navigate so that firms can extract further profit. Cory Doctorow has referred to this problem on digital platforms as "enshittification," saying:

"Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle."

Yet, while he used this term to talk about how online platforms manipulate incentives to lock a critical mass of users into them, this process is far more wide-reaching than that. We are constantly being locked into systems that harm us for others' benefit. Everything from our tax system to the nature of the law itself has been made more difficult, so we must fork over money to predatory institutions to deal with the problems they helped create. Seriously, when you have a chance, look into the history of the tax system. The tax industry has lobbied the government to purposefully make the tax system more confusing, so Americans must pay for services such as H&R Block and TurboTax to navigate it (see Do NOT Use TurboTax to File Your Taxes).

And since the only solution many of us are taught is to deal with our problems by "hustling through them," to sacrifice our emotional and psychological well-being for a chance at success, we don't have any good options to deal with systemic abuse. We are constantly trying to optimize ourselves to overcome our own precarity, even when the reality is that many of the circumstances contributing to said precarity are simply outside of our individual control. So, all we are doing is setting ourselves up to settle for a bad situation longer in the pursuit of future success that may never come. As Anne Helen Petersen writes of Millenials, but I believe can be extrapolated more broadly:

"To describe millennial burnout accurately is to acknowledge the multiplicity of our lived reality — that we're not just high school graduates, or parents, or knowledge workers, but all of the above — while recognizing our status quo. We're deeply in debt, working more hours and more jobs for less pay and less security, struggling to achieve the same standards of living as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness, all while being told that if we just work harder, meritocracy will prevail, and we'll begin thriving. The carrot dangling in front of us is the dream that the to-do list will end, or at least become far more manageable."

Navigating inadequate systems on low time with a "hustler's mindset" is exhausting. I understand why people are "burnt out." How could managing toxic systems with little time, all while trying to get ahead of your own precarity, not drain you?

But if that is the case, it's not burnout that is the problem — that's a natural response to circumstances that are draining. The problem is the structural issues that have eaten away at our time. This distinction is important because the solutions for dealing with, say, emotional depletion are entirely different from the ones needed to deal with abusive institutions and systems. One requires a meditation app, and the other a match.

Burning burnout down

I think it's perfectly fine to express exhaustion with a bad situation. We should be allowed to communicate our emotions, and I don't want people to walk away with the message that we need to bury our feelings in the name of "fighting the good fight." But for the stressors that are outside of our individual control, and that's a lot of them, it's essential to call out the reasons for that exhaustion. If you only focus on managing the byproducts of a terrible situation — i.e., your exhaustion, increased cynicism, and reduced productivity — and never the causes for said byproducts (i.e., the people and institutions f@cking you over), then that's a dynamic that calls for your permanent marginalization.

Even in our own minds, we must be clear about where the blame lies because burnout is not the problem. Burnout is a natural outgrowth of dysfunction. The problem is that a lot of people's institutional relationships are actively abusive. People have no bargaining power, shit pay, and very little time to do anything outside of work and familial obligations. That's what needs to be worked on — f@ck your therapy apps.

While the frequently suggested solutions to burnout are therapy, meditation, and, most importantly, toughing it out and working on yourself, the solutions to imbalanced power dynamics require the opposite: for you to cause problems. If a workplace or other institutional relationship is abusive, leave it. If you can't, start trading salary information and ask about unionization. Start asking questions about people who have left and where they have gone. Start asking questions, even if only at a whisper, when your boss or leader has left the room.

Because when an organization or system robs you of your time and leaves you so exhausted that life starts to lose its color, don't fret about burnout — leave, organize, or f@ck shit up.