Society has made a profound transformation in the 21st century. Along with globalization and the digital revolution, also work has changed. In the past, we had a society that ran on discipline. People in factories were openly exploited and kept down with oppressive techniques. Now, people have a lot of individual freedom. That seems good, as we can use this freedom for self-fulfillment and working towards the life that we want for ourselves. Yet the reality looks pretty bleak:  Over 60% of people feel stressed (in Germany) and burnout rate increased by the factor 10 during the last ten years (from 4.6 sick days to 55.6 sick days per 1000 workers because of burnout).

Why are people so stressed, despite all the freedom and possibilities we have compared to past generations?

The ugly truth we have to realize is, that great individual freedom leads to self-exploitation and depression. With a lot of freedom, we feel that we are responsible for our own fate. On first sight that is good, because we have the freedom to live our lives to the highest fulfillment. On the downside, our ideal self, that we imagine, is in most cases an unobtainable goal that puts a lot of pressure on us, which often leads to self-exploitation.

Today, we feel like we have all the opportunities, so we alone are responsible for our success – or our failure. We feel a great pressure to perform, which leads to perfectionism. This perfectionism isn’t confined to the realm of work, but seeps into all aspects of our lives. We want to be healthy, fit, well-performing, have a good career and a fulfilled private live. The modern consumer-capitalist society is based on an endless perfectionism paradigm, which, on the surface, tries to make us better and happier, but, on a deeper level, is very dangerous for the human mind. The apparent freedom we have today leads to compulsion. We only have the illusion of freedom, but in reality, we are slaves running in a self-optimization treadmill.

a woman overwhelmed by the responsibilites in her life she has to manage

At work, this means not only our labor force is exploited. Today it is expected that the whole human being is obstructed into the job. Your emotions are a resource that you should use to optimize communication at work. Managers use ’emotional management methods’ to motivate and ‘inspire’ others to do their jobs more effectively. Empathy is degraded to being a tool that serves maximizing efficiency.

The digital transformation has increased information overload. Our ways of communication became a lot faster and diverse. Emails, smartphones and social media has been adopted by billions of people in the blink of a decade. Employees have to adapt to the new demand to be ‘always on’, and be able to be contacted at any times.

We have to work on all levels to counteract the processes that lead to self-exploitation, in order to use our freedom to become healthy and happy; and not end up as self-optimization junkies.

So, what can we do?


Individual Measures against Burnout

Individual measures against burnout are mainly based on common sense. Useful self-management includes defining clear career and private goals, and sorting out how to achieve them, without overloading. Especially, to get rid of perfectionism is of tremendous importance, as well as to know your own strengths and weaknesses.

The phenomenon of burnout and work stress has been discovered as a new, promising market. There are many apps, by now, which are designed to help you take care of yourself, and build up resilience against stress at work.

You could argue that this is just another way the system tries to exploit the common man, who should buy products to self-optimize. On the other hand, many apps are designed to specifically fight self-exploitation and teach you to fight perfectionism.

Consumer trends show a shift from ‘optimizing fitness & diet’ towards a more holistic ‘balancing of the mind-body connection’. Also, in public perception, there seems to be a shift from ‘stress as a status symbol’ towards seeing ‘stress as toxic’. This is a good trend.

However, studies have shown that individual-focused measures against burnout show little sustained positive effects, if they are not combined with measures at the work place.


Organizational Methods against Burnout

Organizational methods have only been implemented systematically a couple of years ago, which is why long-term studies that assess effectiveness of such measures are quite rare. Here is what we know so far.

A study examining burnout intervention in hospitals found out, that measures that aim reducing role conflicts are most effective. A role conflict in a hospital is often present, when the job demands are ‘helping patients’ as well as ‘reducing costs’.

Especially something called ‘High Quality Leader Member Exchange’ has been proven successful. Here, mentors are introduced, who are superiors to employees, but have copious exchanges with them, to surface perspectives and functionalities of the various specific jobs in the company. This intensive mentoring resulted in workers who were able to develop their competences and get comprehensive feedback. This way, they were able to solve role conflicts and effectively prevent burnout.

A meta-analysis published by the German ‘Bundesgesundheitsblatt’ shows that relaxation training alone often provides only short term relief, while cognitive behavioral training exhibits good results in all three burnout dimensions – exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

The authors highlight a method as especially effective, that focuses on communication. Over the course of four months, a team compiled various suggestions for changes within the company. The biggest problems this “task-force” detected where high psychological demands of workers, low leeway in decision making, few social support and little acknowledgement of effort. By implementing measures that aimed to solve exactly these problems, even three years after introducing the method, a reduction in burnout was visible.

Another important domain that becomes more and more important is media competency: It is not only important to know how to use a smartphone, but also when it makes sense to turn it off. Studies have shown that after a 3-minute interruption, workers need around 20 minutes to refocus completely to a task. Multitasking is – from a neurological perspective – a misconception. Users who are trained to operate a lot of digital media at once are better trained to absorb a lot of information, but they are worse at separating important from unimportant information.

Here is a summary of the best organizational measures against burnout:

  • Trust your employees and don’t control them too tightly.
  • Provide many options for employees to develop and sharpen their skills.
  • Define clear goals of a job so that a successful practice can be determined.
  • Teach media competency
  • Ensure intensive communication between workers and management, to effectively surface how you can provide the resources employees need to do their jobs effectively.

Can we trust our corporations to help us or do we have to change the system first in which they operate?


Societal Measures against Burnout

Since too much freedom seems to get us into this mess, how do we fight that? Do we have to get rid of freedom? Or do we have to redefine it?

Karl Marx defined freedom as ‘succeeding relationships with each other’. He was very well aware that individual freedom is a deceit of the capital. Capital uses its freedom to proliferate, while the individuals in a society have nothing left but the freedom to compete with each other. In a neoliberal society, freedom is perverted to be the genital of the capital which uses it to procreate itself.

This is the great seductive power of the neoliberal ideology. It makes us exploiting ourselves. The apparent freedom we have makes it impossible to protest against this ideology, as we are culprit and victim at the same time. Most people aren’t even aware of their oppression.

hectic people on a stairway

A friendly power is stronger than an oppressive one. Instead of protesting against an outside enemy and criticizing the society we live in, we tend to be self-critical. Violence is turned towards the self, which goes as far as committing suicide. Within this reality. in which the oppressors are invisible, a revolution becomes near impossible. There is no clear enemy to fight against in the neoliberal system. The force that keeps the system in place is the individual freedom, which is unassailable, because it is seen as an absolute good. The bad outcomes result only because of the way our human mind works.

We have to acknowledge that a system, that gives us a lot of individual freedom, but at the same time pushes us to use this freedom to exploit ourselves, is not our friend.


Further readings:

  • Han, B. C. (2015). The burnout society. Stanford University Press.
  • Walter, U., Krugmann, C.S.,Plumann, M. (2012): Burn-out wirksam präventieren? Ein systematischer Review zur Effektivität individuumbezogener und kombinierter Ansätze. Bundesgesundheitsbl. 2012; 55:171-182
  • Thomas, C. H., & Lankau ,M. J. (2009). Preventing burnout: The effects of LMX and mentoring on socialization, role stress, and burnout.Human Resource Management, 48(3), 417-432.
  • Wohlers, M. Hombrecher (2016). Entspann dich, Deutschland. TK-Stressstudie 2016, Techniker Krankenkasse, Hamburg