Burnout is everywhere in the modern workplace, especially in information industries. What causes it?
Burnout is a modern epidemic. You may well have experienced it yourself. It is a sense of hopelessness; like bailing water out of a boat but never fast enough to keep it all from sinking. Common symptoms include:
- Mental and physical exhaustion
- A feeling that your best is never enough
With all of this comes a gnawing lack of accomplishment. How can you feel accomplished, when you can’t even stay ahead of the to-do list?
Burnout is especially common in information industries. Tech is a prime example – places where technology workers congregate are rife with complaints about burnout. The 60+ hour weeks don’t help, but even 40-hour workers in all types of occupations are prone to this.
The root cause of burnout is meaninglessness. Not hours, not sleep, but lack of meaning.
Let’s say you were offered a job drowning kittens. It pays well. Would you feel accomplished? Would you feel a part of something greater than yourself? Can such a job, no matter how much it pays, lead to anything but cynicism and alienation?
Drowning kittens is a little extreme. But what about kicking them? Would you take that job? Keep lessening the level of pain inflicted. Maybe you’d occasionally prick a kitten with a sharp object. Or offer them food, but always snatch it away as soon as the kitten reached out.
No matter what, the job involves making kittens feel bad. Is it possible, at all, to find meaning in this?
You might say, “but the pay’s good!” And many do, about their own jobs. But by taking this ridiculous kitten hypothetical, you can take a different perspective. Is any amount of money enough to make this job meaningful? Of course not.
If the only meaning in your work is the money you’re getting from it, it means that the work itself has no meaning. Only what you’re trading your time for.
Burnout Of Meaning
Burnout is up because meaningless employment is up. Developed economies, including the US, have seen a major shift in employment from resource- and manufacturing-based primary/secondary sector jobs, to information-based tertiary/quarternary sector ones. While GDP rises, so does the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs“.
What’s a bullshit job? Let’s look at advertising, a sector I’ve worked in. This includes some of the most prestigious positions in the world for a young graduate. Google and Facebook, no matter what they tell you, are advertising companies. No matter what you do in advertising, ultimately you’re finding better ways to sell people shit they don’t need. At least most of the time.
Even our best and brightest are going in to bullshit jobs. The most lucrative positions, outside of moonshot startups, lie in ad-funded technology, finance, and consulting. What meaning is there in these roles? Some efficiency gains, here and there, on an algorithm to make people click on ads for underwear or tampons. Some productivity improvements on a factory that you’ll never visit, helping to put working men and women out of a job. Some better way to package a collection of bonds to fleece a pension funds for billionares’ benefit.
A life of purpose necessarily avoids meaninglessness. But all the incentives in our current economy push people into bullshit jobs that lack meaning. Burnout is the result, and it will be around with us until these jobs aren’t.