Byung-Chul Han argues that burnout is a pathology of a society that focuses on achievement and activity.
Further, burnout follows from this sort of society that has moved away from a disciplinary society in which the primary motivator was external punishment or prohibition to an achievement based society in which we feel as though we have limitless possibility.
We can do. That is the attitude many in the West share. And because we can do, we motivate ourselves by this sense of freedom to continue and repeatedly make and create.
We have no end point. We reinvent ourselves. We work harder under the imperative or compulsion to do more. This sense of freedom means that we are not forced into such activity, but we feel enabled or freed up to act as we wish.
However, society also has to reckon with its massive mental health pandemic.
As Han notes, “Neurological illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and burnout syndrome mark the landscape of pathology at the beginning of the twenty-first century” (1).
The statistics here tell a distressing story. Most people in life will experience the marks of mental illness.
Han explains that our society has built in structures that we have adopted and internalized in order to make us efficient and productive people. But these adaptations result in us exploiting ourselves.
One only has to think of the social media influencer to see an illustration. But Han’s argument runs deeper than that. The pathologies of modern society, the neurological illnesses that mark it, seem deeper than just social media can explain.
Another way to explain what is happening is our drive to act, to hyperactivity. Everything moves. No one listens. Data comes at us constantly.
Life involves accumulating more information, more data, more notifications, more emails, more more more.
This excess of positive stimuli rather than negative stimuli that tells you to stay in your chair in the factory and check to see if the bolts are of good quality for eight hours changes how we experience life in society.
We are data-driven. We use data to achieve. We hyperactively take in positive stimuli. Han says our bodies are unable to resist this positive stimuli because it’s received as a “good.”
Negative stimuli, the “no” of a boss or the frown of a person in the train jolts us. We are put into gear. The body knows how to resist, at least over time, and thus build character.
But when our stimuli is all positive (“you go girl,” “you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,” “the grind set,” etc.), then we find it incredibly hard to resist. It’s enabling, good.
So instead of an infection, Han calls this stimuli an infarction, a blockage in our mind. We are so blocked up with positive messaging and the feelings of freedom that we are fragmented, never at ease, never at true rest.
We don’t contemplate; we activate: “Reacting immediately, yielding to every impulse, already amounts to illness and represents a symptom of exhaustion” (21).
Such reactions already tells us we are sick; we are already exhausted. We might not know it. But the life we live is a life that signals burnout.
Some of us handle it better, of course. But many us simply live as tired, overstimulated, exhausted people. We fall asleep on trains. We doze. We wake up. We restart.
Every job we have analyzes our performance based on productivity markers. To succeed, we work through fatigue. We make ourselves better.
There is no stopping point. It’s the grind set. And it grinds the soul to dust.
Depression often follows from burnout. Depression, for Han, does not mean being sad about loss. That’s mourning or perhaps melancholy.
Depression as Han has it means a total narcissism, an inward looking emptiness, a lack of form; a lack of motivation. Loss of others or of some loved thing leads to mourning, melancholy, and the like. Depression falls within itself by excessive self-referentiality.
We burned ourselves our by exploiting our selves to “get better,” to grind out productivity. But to do so, we turned within, to use ourselves up. And by turning in for motivation and by the hyperactive inflow of data and positivity, we have come up empty.
We have lost the ability to sit in a room alone for hours. We have lost boredom. We have lost inactivity. We have gained ADHD and depression. That at least summarizes what Han is getting at in his Burnout Society.